Apr 5, 2019

Finding Distant Cousins

April 5, 2019

This week I found two, previously unknown, distant cousins. It’s always a thrill to connect to branches of the family tree that have been out of contact for generations. Unfortunately though, it’s not always simple to find those distant branches of our trees. Most often, no one in our immediate family knows anything about or even who second or third cousins might be. Using typical genealogical records such as censuses, birth, marriage and death records as well as probate and land records can help to fill in trees for deceased relatives, but privacy concerns often mean that records for living folks are difficult to come by.

In spite of this, I found new third cousins this week by using readily available resources such as family trees on various websites as well as the cemetery website Find-a-Grave. Find-a-Grave is a surprisingly useful tool to find living relatives. Most genealogists are familiar with this website and use it to find birth and death dates and burial sites of ancestors. Sometimes spouses, parents and children are also listed as well as photos and obituaries. The more information posted on a memorial the better chance that it will lead to a cousin. Typically, an organization or person who adds memorials to the website for strangers will not link families or have photos (with the possible exception of a headstone photo taken as part of a larger project). I found this week’s cousins by reviewing some family memorials that I hadn’t looked at for a few years. My sister and I posted memorials for our second great grandparents and their children as we researched them. We, of course, knew the most about our great grandmother, so her memorial included a couple of photos and links to her parents, siblings, spouse and children. We didn’t know much about her siblings other than basic birth, marriage and death info so that’s all we included in their memorials. Once the memorials were posted, we basically forgot about them.

Fast forward nearly ten years, and I had a sudden whim to see what some of my family memorials looked like. It turns out that descendants of some of those great grand aunts and uncles had found the memorials and had added photos to the memorials. Find-a-Grave posts the user name of the person who adds info to memorials, and it was a simple matter to email the two people who’d added photos to the family memorials. Just seeing the photos of the relatives was exciting, but I definitely was doing the genealogy happy dance when I received return emails from both cousins. One sent me a 32-page document about his branch of the family, and the other included more photos that I’d never seen before.

Of course, it’s not always this easy to find cousins, but another great place to reconnect with cousins is the online trees at and’s Family Tree. These trees have a bad reputation among serious genealogists for their inaccuracies, but they are still a great source of clues and are definitely worth looking at. If you find a well-researched, well-sourced tree, it’s quite likely that the person who posted it is a relative of the family the tree deals with and definitely someone worth trying to contact. It is true that sometimes no one responds to a query, but when someone does, it often makes up for all of the non-answers.

In the past, by writing to tree owners, I’ve found multiple distant cousins who shared photos, obituaries and family stories that helped break down some of my most difficult brick walls. With the growth of DNA testing to help complete family trees, genealogists are even more interested in contacting those distant cousins to invite them to participate in DNA projects. Find-a-Grave, Ancestry Public Member Trees and Familysearch’s Family Tree can sometimes be a simple way to locate some of those previously unknown cousins.

As for me, I’ll be checking on some more of the memorials on Find-a-Grave that I haven’t looked at for a while. I’ll also be reviewing more family trees to see whether anything new and potentially helpful may have been added. You just never know where a new cousin might be found!

Carol Stetser
Researcher/Director at Large