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The Compleat Database: Non-traditional Relationships

Before you enter a name into this universal tree of all humankind, ask yourself some questions. What is the real purpose for creating this family tree? Are you interested in who lived under the same roof, or are you going to fully explore who was biologically related? How precise do you want to be about lineage?


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The compleat database should certainly focus on genetics. But defining relationships generates all kinds of gray areas.

Database design relies on the assumption that every family looks alike and each person fits neatly into the existing fields. There are some special considerations in genealogical software, and sometimes you need to create custom fields. Don't just ignore relationships that don't fit. Explore who each person is. It doesn't matter that Aunt Cathy wasn't related by blood or marriage. Aunt Cathy's family tree should account for who she considered family, as well as who the database designers define as family. Unless you take the time to explore those relationships, you don't have a clear picture of who a person was and where they fit in the tree. This is the where the true skill of a genealogist comes into play.

Other Relationships

A common relationship found on census enumerations is "Something other than a direct relationship." Others include boarder, servant, and roomer.

Genealogical software acknowledges adopted children. But, your database probably does not have an option that identifies a child as being in foster care. You'll likely have to create a custom field in order to identify these other relationships.

So why bother?

Because family does not necessarily fit into the little boxes on your computer screen. Family does not fit into that beautiful hand-drawn lineage chart. And family counts, regardless of what it looks like. These "others" appear in photographs, their names appear in journals and diaries and the family Bible. Their names appear on wills and deeds. The more you know about a family, the more you understand where these ambivalent relationships fit on the tree. Look at the surname of an "other."

Minnie Garis's name appears in the Cochran household in Shelby County, Illinois, and lists her as "something other than a direct relationship." After all the misspellings and challenges in defining occupations, it turns out that Minnie was a niece living with her Aunt Josephene Cochrane, who changed the spelling of the family name, adding an "e" at the end.

It is apparently true that Minnie didn't have a job other than caring for her aunt's very large home and physically handicapped husband. But saying she was a servant implies many things that are untrue. For one thing, it has spawned the myth that Aunt Josephene was a wealthy socialite. She wasn't. Her husband was a circuit clerk and they lived in a tiny town of a couple thousand people.

If you have ever seen the movie, "Fried Green Tomatoes," try to imagine what a socialite in that tiny town would have been like. Now think of a young single woman moving in with her aunt when she has no place else to go, little education, and no job. A very different image emerges.

The "other" makes it all too tempting to overlook Minnie Garis. We should be asking who she is. The most logical place to start is to consider that she might be related to someone in the household through marriage. In this case, of course, she is.

We can use this information two ways. If we didn't know Josephene Cochrane's maiden name, a logical place to start would be the Garis family. The other research technique would be to identify who Minnie Garis's parents were. Even if she wasn't related to Josephene, everyone has a mother and a father. We may not know the parents names. It could be possible that Minnie wouldn't know both of her parents' names. But they exist.

Residential Genealogy

The real reason we look at households is that most often the majority of the people residing under the same roof are related through DNA or marriage. If one person in the household moves, the rest of the household usually moves.

But our purpose is to identify relatives and relatives don't always live together. And, even those who do live together, don't always use the terms we think they should.

A number of years ago, I was involved with transcribing interviews with recovering drug addicts in the inner city. The researchers discovered that the female drug addicts often gave birth to drug-addicted babies who they were in no condition to care for. An older female relative often raised these children. Their relationship to the baby was informal. They did not have legal custody. They simply assumed the role of caregiver.

The researchers encountered a phenomenon. The women who were raising the babies were known as Auntie - not Aunt, but always Auntie. An "auntie" (pronounced awn-tee) is really the baby's grandmother. A census enumerator who asks that household about that relationship would almost surely come away believing that those babies are living with an aunt. Those who live in that part of the country and are familiar with the term Auntie, understand immediately what the relationship is. The genealogy database is not easily designed to handle that. After all, where does Auntie fit on the tree when mom is out of the picture?

At the very least, include notes explaining these relationships. Otherwise, Mom can easily disappear from this family tree even though she might still be living in the same household. Regardless of lifestyle, a mother should be recognized in the family tree. We don't get to define family. Family defines family. Our job is to document the relationships as accurately as possible.

Foster Children

Finding foster children can be a real challenge. In fact, they are more difficult to trace than adopted children.

Many foster children spend time in more than one foster home. For many foster children, it is important to them that a record be preserved documenting who they considered parental figures. They may not have known their birth parents or, if they did, they might prefer not to if there was abuse or neglect involved. It also creates a situation where, by the foster child's definition, they had more than one set of parents. Again, we are faced with an instance where a family should perhaps be granted the right to define family.

My parents were foster parents to twins. By the time this boy and girl came to live with us at age four, they had spent time in their birth parents home located 110 miles and four counties away. Then they spent time in four other foster homes. At age 12, they returned to their birth parents for a time before entering institutional foster care, in yet another county. For a short time, they lived with our family again. Then the boy enrolled in military school 200 miles away while the girl was transferred to another city equally as far away. Without a lot of background information, it would be very difficult to find these two individuals later in life, or generations later. They called at least two sets of caretakers "mom" and "pop."

Many people are in such situations. Even those who live with their parents often form close emotional bonds with other people they consider their parents. It is really helpful to identify who posed in the family photos, if you have a fuller picture of who the family considered relatives. It is still important to observe the traditional definition of family, but family doesn't always look the same in every house.


This is one we haven't really seen yet, but eventually surrogacy will need to be addressed. The issue is not "outing" a parent. This issue probably comes into play mainly with regard to health issues. If you know whose DNA is in a person's biological makeup, you have better insight into healthcare should a hereditary illness occur. There is no little box in any database where you can identify a surrogate mother if her egg was used to create an embryo. In the most literal sense, she is the biological mother. In the legal sense, she may not be.

Again, at the very least, consider whether it would be beneficial to document surrogacy or sperm donor information in your database. If we were going to truly create a family tree for the entire human race from the beginning of time that reflects DNA, we would have to create a space for surrogates and donors.

The Forgotten Children

There are two groups of forgotten children, and they both have sad stories to tell. But they are the stories of real people and deserve to be remembered.

The first group of children are stillborn or die as infants. In the past, these babies were often forgotten or overlooked. Sometimes they were not even given names. It has been said that one reason parents name their children at a christening when they are a couple of years old is that, for centuries, the rate of death among babies was so high. In fact, we do sometimes find more than one child in the same family being given the same name - after the first one failed to survive. Is it important to document the existence of these children? I contend that it is if for no other reason than to avoid confusing them with other children with the same name.

So how do you find these children? If there are no gravestones and no record of the birth or death, look for a census notation for a married woman that says she is "lying in." That is code for a woman who has given birth within the past few months. If there is no child reported, there probably has been an infant death.

The other forgotten children that truly are probably untraceable are those who were the result of rape, where the mother carried the child to term and gave it away. Although, she was not necessarily the person who literally handed over the child. She might not have known who became the parents. If the victim failed to report the rape, she may truly not know who the father was. He could have been a stranger.

In the past, these women would often go live with a relative who lived fairly far away - far enough away that the neighbors would never know she gave birth. It is difficult to trace these events through census returns and other documents since they don't document life on a very frequent basis. In many cases, the information is only known within the family. There are few if any records connecting the mother with the child.

While it would certainly be a painful part of a woman's family history, it is still fact. By omitting that information, we are denying the existence of a person for a second time. I would suggest at least considering that such information be documented, to whatever extent is possible. When one of my cousins was in high school, she dated her own brother without discovering it until years later.

Do we really have the option of deciding whether we want to preserve that information? I propose that we include it. After all, we are not to share family histories until after a person has passed away. Genealogy is not political. Genealogy is devoted to accurately documenting who a person is.

As I have said before, families define themselves. We don't.

Look for these upcoming titles in this series:
  1. DNA and Health
  2. Citizenship
  3. Cultural Affinities
  4. Education
  5. Life Events
  6. Death Data
  7. Property Ownership
  8. Legal Events
  9. Marital Status
  10. Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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