December 6, 2019
Does every genealogist have pet ancestors? I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet that they do. For some reason certain ancestors catch our fancy, and we spend way more time researching and writing about them than we do about the others, even though the others may have been just as famous or infamous or bold or retiring or courageous or cowardly as the pets.
For me, I have a whole category of relatives who are my pets, and these folks aren’t even my direct ancestors. They’re all of those overlooked and under-researched collateral ancestors who never married or who did marry but had no children. These folks are often relegated to back of the file cabinet when it comes to researching their lives since genealogists tend to research forward as well as back in time, and these childless relatives clearly don’t have much to offer when it comes researching forward. We’re never going to find a DNA cousin who descends from one of them, for example. However, a case can be made for looking more closely at these dead end relatives, who are really only dead end when it comes to having direct descendants. It often turns out that these folks are much prolific in terms of leaving records of genealogical value than their more fertile siblings.
One good reason to look for records for unmarried and childless relatives relates to personal records. Maybe it’s because these people are not as busy raising children and grandchildren, but they are often the keepers of the family history, so their files sometimes contain family memoirs and pedigree charts. The biggest issue with these types of records is determining who, if anyone, kept the records after the relative died. Since there are no children to inherit them, it’s important to track down collateral relatives of the collateral relatives. Nieces and nephews are often a good starting point.
Besides personal records, official records are also worth finding for collateral, childless relatives. For example, my second great grandmother was long one of those ancestors who apparently spontaneously generated; after a long search, I still only had one record for her – a copy of her marriage record. It listed no parents but it did list as a witness a woman who I believed might have been her sister. The potential sister had married but had no children so I figured the trail had run out. However, I found that potential sister had remarried, at the age of 63, after the death of her first husband. Finding a record of that marriage broke open the whole case for me since by the time the sister made that later-in-life marriage, the province she lived in required everyone being married to list their parents’ names. That record revealed that the potential sister’s maiden name was the same as my second great grandmother, and the parents’ names allowed me to track down further records that confirmed that those parents were also my second great grandmother’s. If I had stopped tracking the sister when I discovered that she didn’t appear to have had any children, I never would have found that later marriage record that was the key to giving my second great grandmother a family.
Probate files are also very valuable when they’re found for childless/unmarried relatives. This can be particularly relevant when it comes to unmarried women since married women seldom owned anything in their own right in earlier days. Their husbands owned all of the couple’s property before and after the woman’s death. It’s always worth checking for a probate, but an unmarried woman is far likelier to have a file. The probate itself is frequently very helpful when it comes to unmarried or childless folks since any property these people owned needed to distributed to their closest heirs. With no children or spouses, this often includes siblings and/or nieces and nephews. Learning who a person’s nieces and nephews were leads to learning who his/her siblings and parents were and can help break down brick walls.
My final reason for loving to research unmarried/childless relatives is that they often are the most interesting characters on a family tree. With no families to raise, they often had the leisure and financial wherewithal to pursue interesting hobbies. For example, one unmarried cousin of mine raised purebred hunting dogs for over 30 years – in an apartment in Queens! Apparently, no one found this odd, but there were lots of newspaper articles about his prizewinning dogs which gave me a glimpse into a different lifestyle.
Childless women are a special subset of research for me. In my own family many of them did marry (often multiple times, but that’s a different subject); however, the lack of children often meant that these women pursued careers outside of the home. One cousin, for example, lived in Manhattan and wrote a cooking column for Cosmopolitan magazine. Another took “fast driving” lessons from Carroll Shelby as part of her goal to become an actress. These women and others like them in my own family tree have been fascinating to learn about, and their lives would be forgotten if it weren’t for genealogists like me who spend time researching their lives. Their lives also reveal what might be a proclivity towards independent women on this branch of my family tree, at least I hope that’s what it means!
Researcher/Director at Large