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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 2, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Relationship Too Close?

Q: I am currently dating someone and my mother has told me that we are 6th cousins. Previously she mentioned that we are 1st cousins, 5 times removed or something like that. I was wondering if it is legal for us to get married in Minnesota? -- Julie

A: First let me say that my daughter would probably sympathize with you in the fact that your mother even knows that the two of you are related at all. Genealogists do seem to have this type of obscure information squirreled away and to many others it would probably be deemed as "useless knowledge." You are to be commended for being concerned about the laws of relationship and how your relationship to this person may be affected by them.

First, in most states, I believe the law is that 1st cousins cannot marry. I will discuss your 1st cousin relationship below as it is not the same thing. The 1st cousin relationship mentioned in the laws is the child of your aunt or uncle, that is the child of your father's or mother's sibling. The concern is that such a marriage sometimes results in offspring that have all the bad genes of the family. This is because the genes of both parents are so similar since both parents share the same set of grandparents.

Beyond the 1st cousins, I do not believe there are any laws, though it wouldn't hurt to check the specifics for your state. Given the two relationships you described to me, however, you are perfectly fine as far as the laws go.

If the two of you are 6th cousins, this means that the common ancestor is seven generations back. From a medical and legal standpoint that is perfectly safe. You will find that you probably have many 6th cousins, most of whom you don't even know, and they certainly didn't come to any family gatherings. In my own research I have discovered that my maternal grandparents were 7th cousins. They had no way of knowing until I began to research the family tree.

I doubt that you and the other person are 1st cousins 5 times removed. The counting of "removeds" is the result of the other person's descent from the common ancestor running out of generations before yours does. While this is a common thing, it would mean that the other person was probably born in the mid to late 1800s in this case (allowing 25 years per generation) and I doubt that you are dating someone who is that old. So while you may have heard the 1st cousin and felt that you were breaking the law, even if you were 1st cousins 5 times removed the common ancestor would still be 7 generations back for one of you.

So while you are apparently related, your relationship is not in against the law. Should you decide to marry and have children, your common tie is so far back that there isn't any risk to children.

Who Goes on the Family Tree

Q: I was helping my 6 year old with a school project creating a family tree. I wanted to add my father's father and his wife (my grandfather and grandmother never married) but my parents both told me that it was incorrect to include her in the family tree even if I listed her as a spouse of my grandfather. My parents have indicated that I should not include "Step" members in the family tree, but I disagree because I think if they married then they should be included even if they are not a blood line relative. -- Renee

A: This actually is a two fold answer. There are certain times when such individuals should be included and other times when they shouldn't. Certainly you should be recording all marriages and births of everyone that is connected to the family tree if for no other reason than to preserve the information. But when displaying the information, there are times when you would not include these individuals.

In regard to your paternal grandfather and his wife. If the project was to show a family tree, in a pedigree style, then she wouldn't be listed. A pedigree chart is the biological road map of the ancestral generations that connect to the primary individual, in this case your 6-year-old. So while the paternal grandparents never married, these are the child's blood line and the ones that should be included.

Other charts and trees would certainly allow you to include the wife, including a family group sheet, which has a space for listing other spouses. A descendant style tree is another that includes all spouses of the individual, showing first your father connected to his parents and then any children that resulted from the grandfather's marriage under that union.

Stepchildren are a slightly different issue. I am assuming that you are referring to stepchildren who, until the marriage of the two individuals, were not related. They are still not blood relations, but you would want to mention them as offspring of the first marriage, or whatever, of Mary Smith who first married John Smith. She then married secondly John Johnson and they had these children. Again, only the direct lineage would be included on a pedigree chart, and only the children of the one specific union would be included in a family group sheet. To include all the children you would create multiple family group sheets; one for each marriage or union that resulted in offspring.

Tips on Interviewing

Q: I'm working on putting together a family member's biography. I was wondering if you can assist me in getting a list of questions to ask and other interviewing tips/techniques. -- Hannah

A: Interviewing a family member can sometimes take on the feel of an interrogation. I am sure that there are plenty of family members who have felt just as though they were in the austere room on the hard steel chair with the light shining in their eyes as questions are fired at them left and right.

Part of the problem with interviewing them is that we are just so eager to get the information. We also expect them to know it. We want them to know when their parents were born and where. We want them to tell us when certain people died. The problem with dates is the same problem that we experienced when we were in high school suffering through history class -- we can't remember the dates after we take the test. Dates are boring and easily forgotten.

When it comes to asking our family members to remember things, we need to give them something to associate the date with. Life events and major historical events that they were present for at least the announcement of are good anchors. Asking someone what they were doing on 22 November 1963 may result in a blank stare. Asking that same person what they were doing the day that John F. Kennedy was shot (and yes, that was 22 November 1963) will result in a response. By the same token, asking someone when Aunt March was born may result in a response that the person doesn't know. Asking that same person how old Aunt March was at the family reunion five years ago may give an age, and from that you could get the year of birth and you have something to work with.

When it comes to asking questions for a biography, you'll certainly want to ask important questions about vital events but you should also look at the person as a whole, getting his or her feelings on any number of subjects. Such information will make a biography not only interesting to read but also a well rounded piece of work. One book to check out for more information is To Our Children's Children, Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford.

Disappearing Marriage Record

Q: We were married in Franklin, Indiana on 10/2/1952 at 1300 hrs. Recently, we wrote to the county court (Johnson County) for a copy of the marriage license and sent an SASE. We received a letter that the event did not happen. I know it happened, though, I was there! Where do I go from here? Thank you in advance. -- Ron & Val

A: First, the event happened. As you said, you were there. I suspect what the letter said was that the requested marriage license could not be found in their files. This is slightly different.

First, you may need to either go in person of call the county courthouse to see what options you have available to you. Explain why you need the marriage license. Sometimes if they understand how important it is, they will spend a little extra time looking for it.

Your message didn't indicate if the surname could have had an alternate spelling. It is likely that the clerk was using an index to look for the certificate number. If the names in question were misindexed or there was a variant spelling, perhaps whoever was indexing the record misread the names on it, that could explain why the marriage record was not found.

In some states you would have the alternative of getting a copy through the state registrar's office. In Indiana, though, this does not appear to be an option. The information I was able to find in many different sources all indicates that for copies of marriage records that you must contact the county in which the marriage took place.

With that being the case, if the county courthouse still cannot find the marriage record, you will have to ask them what you can do to recreate this document. I have not heard of a delayed marriage record, like the delayed birth records that were filed for the most part prior to 1950 in many states.

One option, if you were married in a church, is to see if the church is still in operation. If they are, you could contact them and see what registers or other records they have of marriages that took place in 1952. You would want to be sure and explain the situation so that they don't just dismiss you to the county courthouse.


Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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