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Always Looking –

By John I. Blair

“Third Cousin Once Removed”?

Recently I had a pleasant visit with my third cousin once removed.

Many of you (if you’re typical) probably react to that announcement with What? What is a “third cousin once removed?” Unless you are an initiate of the arcane details of genealogy, or a fan of Debrett’s Peerage (look it up), the terminology is confusing at best. At worst it just sounds silly. And really, it’s not. Just shorthand for how you are related to someone in your family tree.

Each of us has literally thousands of cousins, some still living, but most deceased. When you subtract father, mother, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and all the many grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts, great uncles, grand nephews, grand nieces, etc. etc., everybody left is a cousin. I have/had 27 first cousins just on my father’s side of my family. (I was never able to get an accurate count of the first cousins on my mother’s side.)

First cousins are (relatively) easy. They’re everyone besides your siblings with whom you share one or more grandparents. That can be complicated (as it is in my mother’s family) when there is more than one wife, or husband, for a grandparent. My maternal grandfather was widowed after having four children. He remarried and had seven more. I’ve always thought of the second group as my “half-uncles” and “half-aunts”, but then what are their children? “Half-cousins?” That just gets silly, in my opinion, though the term is used. It’s not like there’s a great family inheritance to squabble over. I got Grandma Percy’s milk glass dresser set (from my Mom); that was about it.

The real complications with cousins arise when the generations multiply. But, thankfully, there’s a guideline. It’s based on the number of generations separating you, and the cousin you’re calculating, from your Common Ancestor, and the difference in generation number.

For example, my visitor and I share as Common Ancestors my great-great grandfather David T. McWilliams of Missouri and his wife Elizabeth Matthews McWilliams. If we were in the same generation (as are my visitor’s father and I), we would be third cousins. All cousins with the same great-great grandparents are third cousins, even as all cousins with the same great grandparents are second cousins and all with the same grandparents are first cousins.

But my visitor was a member of the next generation after mine and his father’s. That results in a “removed” being added. Hence my calling him my third cousin once removed. All “removed” means is that there is a generational difference.

Here’s another example, again from my family tree. My Dad and Mom share a pair of great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents: John Linville and Ann Hendricks. That couple’s son Thomas and daughter Aylee each started a line that led, ultimately, down to me. This sort of interrelationship is actually fairly common in America’s rather inbred frontier population. Because of these common ancestors, Mom and Dad were eighth cousins. Because they were in the same generation, there were no “removes” involved. Neither of them had any idea they were related at all – the families had lived in different states since the mid 1800s. And it wouldn’t have made any difference. Thomas and Aylee Linville were born circa 1720, nearly 200 years before either of my parents. Mom and Dad’s amount of shared DNA (if anybody 73 years ago, when they were married, had even known about DNA) was minuscule.

As further illustration: my visitor is my son’s fourth cousin, they being from the same generation and sharing common great-great-great grandparents. And he is my granddaughters’ fourth cousin once removed.

A good guide to all this can be downloaded off Rootsweb at

There is also an extensive article (though one with posted “problems”) in Wikipedia under the topic “Cousins” that gives mathematical formulae for calculating this same relationship. Some may find that easier to use; I didn’t.

I think myself that “real” relationship has at least as much to do with non-DNA factors. I have some technically close relatives I find nothing in common with except a name; I have friends with whom I feel like a brother, even though we have no genes shared. And to me that’s what’s truly important. Especially since, as mentioned, there’s no family fortune to be gotten at.

Funny story though (stop me if I’ve told this one before): once upon a time there was a family fortune in dispute. My great-great grandfather, his two brothers and sister, all were potentially heirs to a portion of their own grandfather’s estate back in Cornwall, England. The times being the 1830s, the matter had to be settled in person – there was no international legal and banking network to use. So Great-Great Grandpa Jacob, who was the youngest of the brothers and not yet married, was delegated to represent the Missouri heirs in Cornwall. He traveled there by sailing ship and coach, arriving, no doubt, dusty and disheveled from the long trip. Although he’d been born in Cornwall, no one there had seen any of the siblings since 1820 when they emigrated to America with their now-deceased parents; and all had been small children at the time, not adults. His problem was to prove he was truly an heir. Casting about for something to show as evidence, he finally was struck by an inspiration. He took off his shoes and stockings.

When the assembled family saw his feet, they knew at a glance he was truly a Veale of St. Columb’s. He had two very prominent bunion joints – so protruding he probably had to have custom-made boots to accommodate them. Almost all of the Veales had been born, for generations, with this minor, but obvious, deformity. My own mother had it. (I’m lucky enough not to.) Jacob’s reward (and collaterally that of his siblings) was to inherit a share of the fortune – enough in his case to help him, later, purchase a thousand acres of rich Missouri farmland as his patrimony to his own children. His brothers (the sister died young) used theirs, respectively, to buy land in Texas and California and start family lines in those then-new places.

My own take on relationship I expressed recently in a poem, with which I’ll close this column.


The genes we share
Took different paths
One hundred sixty years ago;
Yet though the tie is thin,
It’s there, self-evident
To those with eyes to see,
Ears to hear.

It’s not your tangled hair;
My locks, once auburn, wavy,
Are from another tree.
Nor your hawk-like nose;
I’m sure that mine, so similar,
Is Blair, not from your line
(Though stranger things can be).

No; what convinces me
Is how we both
Have found our way
On solitary paths,
Both been the “strange one”
In the mix; both strode
A road less traveled by.

©2011 John I. Blair

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