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Overheard in GenForum: Relationships
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 17, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am having a hard job understanding relationships (aren't we all) as far as, for instance, I have a relation who was born in the late 1700s who is a 1st Cousin, 5 times removed. What does this mean? I thought a 1st cousin (or just a cousin) was the offspring of a brother or sister of a person's mother or father. This particular relation is not, she goes back a few generations. As far as "5 times removed" this has me completely baffled. Can anyone explain this to me? -- Ken

A: Relationships, our degree of kinship, can be confusing. We use the term "cousin" to denote any relationship with another person that we share a common ancestor with.

There is a simple chart that I have used for years that makes it easy to determine the degree of kinship. It shows the common ancestor and then carries each direct line down. In between the two direct lines, you fill in the relationship.

Am I my own grandmother?

Plot that Relationship

When I first got involved in this hobby, like you, I had trouble understanding what a second cousin was or what the removeds stood for. More than that, I had no idea how such relationships could be figured out. Of course we now have genealogy software that we can use to tell us relationship, provided of course, we have typed in the individuals in question along with the ancestry back to the common ancestor. However, there were times when I just wanted a quick run down of the relationship between myself and the other person. This chart, which I learned from The Genesis of My Genealogy by Elizabeth Nichols, seemed to make it clearer for me.

  John Smith  
John Smith, Jr. Siblings Jane Smith
Peter Smith 1st Cousins John Olson
Janet Smith One Time
John Davis Two Times

Through this chart, I know that John Davis is the first cousin two times removed of John Olson.

Translating the Chart

At the top, in the center, I have entered the name of the common ancestor, in this case John Smith. In the next level, I have written in the names of the two children from whom the individuals in question descend. John Smith, Jr. and Jane Smith are brother and sister, or siblings. In the next line, on the left, I have entered the name of the child of John Smith, Jr. from whom John Davis descends. At the right, is the name of John Olson, the child of Jane Smith and also the person to whom we are trying to determine a relationship. John Olson and Peter Smith are first cousins.

The next level, we see the name of Peter's daughter Janet Smith. At this point, because the lineage of John Smith, Jr. continues, we begin to count in removeds. We give one removed for each generation farther away we get from John Olson on the right. The last level on the left shows Janet's son John Davis. He is two levels away from John Olson, so we put in twice removed.

As you fill in the chart, as long as you have a new person to put on both sides of the chart, you add a degree of cousinship. When only one side of the chart is adding a new person, then you start to record the number of removeds.

What is a Removed?

Removed is a way of telling how many generations separate the two individuals from each other. Cousins tell how many generations there are from the common ancestor. So, if John Davis and John Olson are first cousins twice removed, that tells me that their common generations on both lines stop two generations from the common ancestor. At that point, the twice removed tells me one line goes two additional generations.

In Conclusion

In the grand scheme of genealogy, it is more important to assure that you have the right lineage for the two individuals and then just call them cousins. However, charts like the one above can show you the exact relationship between two individuals.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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

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