Nov 26, 2021

I Should Have Known Better – Family Stories

November 26, 2021

I should have known better. Family stories are the basis for a lot of my research. That’s particularly true for more recent relatives. In those cases, older members of the family actually knew the relatives. That was the case with my mother-in-law. She and my father-in-law grew up in the same small town in New Jersey, and she knew all of her husband’s family quite well.


When I asked about my husband’s grandparents, all of whom were from the same small area, she explained that none of them had had siblings. Because second cousins share the same great-grandparents, this meant no second cousins for my husband. I was a little disappointed since this meant fewer relatives to potentially contact and share records with.


My mother-in-law later amended her story to add that my husband’s paternal grandfather had had a younger brother, and he’d married and may have fathered a couple of sons. She was sure that neither of those sons had married, though, so that still meant no second cousins.


All of this happened years ago. I do remember that I looked at the census records that were available and found the great uncle in the 1900 and 1910 censuses with his birth family. He was definitely my husband’s grandfather’s brother. The 1920 census was just out, so I looked for the uncle. He was married but had no children. Since he and his wife were already thirty years old by then and had been married for years, I just assumed my mother-in-law had gotten confused, and there weren’t any children. I figured I’d confirmed my reasoning about no second cousins for my husband and moved on.


Fast forward to this year. Both of my parents-in-law are long gone. DNA testing is widely available, and my husband has tested at several vendors. His family tree tends to be sparse because there are so many only children in his lines. With the exception of a nephew, he has had no matches closer than third cousins. Until a month ago, that is.


During one of my periodic checks of my husband’s DNA matches, I saw that he now had a second cousin. His name was similar to our surname, but with a couple of letters changed. My husband’s great uncle had changed his name in the 1920s in exactly this manner. It had to be one of his descendants. My mother-in-law had been correct in thinking that this great uncle had fathered a couple of sons. She’d just gotten the part about them never having children of their own wrong.


I’ve since done some research on the match and his family, and he’s definitely my husband’s great uncle’s grandson. I’ve discovered that there are a couple more second cousins in this line, as well. My husband and I’ve written to the DNA match. Although he hasn’t responded to our email yet, I hope he will eventually.


It’s exciting to find new relatives, especially where you don’t expect them. My husband had never even heard of this branch of his family, even though he’d grown up within a few miles of them. For me, the big takeaway has been that you need to research as carefully and fully as possible. No matter how sure the person who told you the story is.  Memories are not as clear as we often expect them to be.


As a genealogist, I shouldn’t have taken my mother-in-law’s story at face value without doing a lot more research of my own. I should have known better.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large