Why I’m Declaring 2015 “The Year of Collaterals”

If there is one thing that blogging in 2014 has taught me — and it has taught me many things! — it’s that I’m good with documenting identities and relationships, but there are definitely holes in knowing the person.  Nowhere is this more evident than in my collateral relatives.

First, Some Definitions

If you want to be technical about it, ancestors are those from whom you descend. Your great-great-grandfather is your ancestor. Your 4th-great-grandmother is your ancestor. Your 4th-great-grandmother’s brother is not. He is a relative, but he’s not your ancestor per se. He’s a collateral.

Why Look at the Collaterals

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve paid attention to those “other” people in my research. There are a few who I have really researched — but usually only so that I could identify my ancestor (like with Susan Tucker Kelley, my orphaned milkmaid). For many, I have recorded their vital stats as I have come across them. But there are few that I’ve really looked at, really explored, really gotten to know.

Think about your siblings and your cousins. Chances are they’ve had an impact on your life (for good or for bad). Whether it’s sibling rivalry or older ones standing up and supporting the younger ones in times of trouble, those people have helped shape who we are. It was the same for our ancestors.

Those “other” people in our family trees had an impact on our ancestors. We often think about our great-grandmothers and what it was like for them to lose a child, but what was it like to lose a sibling? When a great-great-great-uncle went off to war, what did the siblings think? When a sister moved far away with her new husband, how did the siblings who stayed behind react?

Looking at the collaterals beyond the simple recording of their name and birth date that we grabbed off the census also gives us a chance to learn more about the whole family. Learning their story can help us better understand the people from whom we descend.

2015: The Year of the Collaterals

This year, I’m going to focus my research on the collaterals, those “other” people in the family tree. I want to get to know them. I want to know more than just when and where they were born. I want to learn their stories.

Ok, there’s also a part of me that hopes that I discover more about my ancestors in the process 😉

Ideally, I should have been doing this all along. I’m thinking of this as my own version of Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over. (I’m just not willing/able to chuck everything that I have and start all over!)

Regarding 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, I’ve encouraged people all along to define “ancestors” however they want. Some have done strictly ancestors, other have included collaterals, some even included their inlaws (gasp!). In 2014, I included only my ancestors, but 2015 will feature a mix.

Our family trees are made of more than just those people from whom we descend. Their stories helped shape our ancestors’ stories. That’s why I want to know more about them.


26 thoughts on “Why I’m Declaring 2015 “The Year of Collaterals”

  1. Jeanne Ruczhak-Eckman

    Great post. I have quite a few who are not direct lineal but were so incredibly interesting that I could not ignore them … and by researching them I actually came across distant cousins who had info – and in one case a photo – of my direct!

  2. Gloria (@glos4dream)

    Great idea! Also i sometime find really remarkable stories, amazing anecdotes (often sad happenings) that always make me think of families as larger units, and of the impact on everyone… most of the time they were all living together, brothers with wives, children, old parents,cousins and in-laws sharing rooms and work. To understand our ancestors’ lives we must research the Family.

  3. Cathy Meder-Dempsey

    Throughout the year I wondered if I was the one who didn’t know the definition of ancestor. But I kept quiet because I figured if someone was writing about a distant cousin or 3rd great-grand-uncle they were still writing about someone’s ancestors and might be lucky enough to hear from a descendant.
    I was a collateral line person before I began writing about my ancestors. I would take the oldest known ancestor and work my way down through the generations spending up to six months on the descendants of that line before switching to the next ancestor. I’ve missed doing that kind of research this past year and still sneak in a few hours now and then.

  4. Wendy

    I have discovered ancestors only by looking at collaterals. That’s where the most fun is anyway because as we know, our ancestors were the saints. It’s those siblings and cousins that were trouble. LOL oh yeah, I kill me!

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Exactly! When I give an example of a “black sheep” in one of my talks, I’ll sometimes say that none of us have an ancestor like this, but if you’re helping your inlaws… 😉 (I actually had a woman come up to me after a talk and say that she thought the example I gave really was someone in her family! We had a good laugh about that!)

    2. Annick H.

      This made me smile! By looking for all my ancestors siblings and some of their offsprings, I found 3 brothers, first cousins of my Great Great Grand-mother, who ended up in forced labor camp in French Guyanna!

      1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

        Wow! I mean, that’s terrible that it happened, but how wonderful that you discovered that story.

  5. Sharon Simms

    Yes, I especially like finding and telling the stories of my ancestor’s siblings who died young or without children. No one will ever come looking for them as a direct ancestor and I find that sad…

  6. purslaneforever

    Wonderful innovation, particularly for those of us whose trees don’t (yet) go back too far. These sidelines have many intriguing stories to tell and, like Jeanne R-E., I’ve met a not-too-distant cousin who’s provided new information and insight on our common ancestors; collaterals, too.

    LIfe events had me sidetracked from this project since early spring, and I look forward to resuming the work this year, albeit on my own schedule. Kudos to you, Amy, for meeting your own challenge in ’14, and changing it up a little for 2015.

  7. Vicki Court

    In the 52 Ancestors challenge last year I wrote posts only about family members in my direct line. This proved to be a great exercise as it enabled me to write about family members who came to Australia, their descendants plus a few who remained in the UK. I now have a general overview of the stories of my family – not just the stories of individual people but also how their lives contributed to the development of the country.

    However the plan for this year was, and still is, to write some of the stories of the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews of my ancestors as these stories help complete the story of the family. Occasionally when I have investigated a member of the extended family I have also found information about an ancestor that I could not locate in more traditional sources.

    Looking at the themes for January in the 2015 52 Ancestors challenge I will have the opportunity to compile background information about some of the families, particularly in an historical context which is another of my aims.

    The information gathered when creating these blog posts can form the basis of future projects. When writing the posts I have often needed to do some additional research and also have tidied up and added information to my trees in Ancestry.com.au.

    Thank you, Amy, for setting these challenges.

  8. DanaDana

    I started blogging in March of 2014 & saw some ’52 Ancestors’ posts but never got involved. I’m excited to join in this year! I have already learned how the act of blogging helps me to uncover more of the story!

  9. Helen Connor

    Thanks Amy for a great post – I am also intending to include collaterals in my 52 Ancestors posts – I love the idea of getting to know relatives more – it makes the family alive – thanks again

  10. wendylittrell

    Amy, that’s what I’m trying to do as well. In fact my first 52 Ancestors post for 2015 is on a collateral! (I’m working on it now!)

  11. Vicki Smith

    I have always researched ‘collaterally’ – I found a grand daughter of my convicts Andrew Snowden and Sarah Darke (through their daughter Mary b 1820, sister of my ancestor Isabella b 1815) – Frances Snowden Lane – married Matthew Harris who was knighted in 1899 – he was Mayor of Sydney. I am pretty sure the Harris descendents do not know about the convict connection. I have a photo of Mary from family members.
    I will continue with this style of research.

  12. msgenealogyuk

    Sometimes they just have better stories. And the descendants of these collaterals will eventually lead back to an ancestor. I’ve found a distant cousin who had a photograph of my great great grandmother. I would never have seen this otherwise. This is one of the reasons I’m doing your challenge. I’m hoping a cousin will contact to say ‘Hi, I can fill in the blanks and I have pictures’!

  13. onlyarethusa

    I can’t thank you enough for starting the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge last year. While I didn’t finish, I am continuing to blog at a much more frequent rate and learning so much more in the process. I’ve been doing the collaterals right along, using them to help me find my own ancestors, but that’s what I was doing, using them. This year I’m telling their stories. I’ve already found a lot of great stories to tell and have told a few in my own blog. And writing about them gives them character and depth that I hadn’t seen before. It’s a win/win situation all around for me. I need a name tag: “Hi! I’m Denise and I’m addicted to dead people.” Okay, maybe that’s too creepy, but it’s true. :)

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      I know what you mean about using those collaterals. It’s like once I’ve researched them and found my ancestor in the process, I move on. I’m looking forward to getting to know some of them a little bit better!

      I see nothing at all wrong with your name tag idea! :)

  14. Beth Hardin

    Thanks for bringing up this idea, as I have stories that I know about some of my family collaterals that I have toyed with writing about. I have worked some of my collaterals up, including three or four generations in some. These are people that I do have an interest in and do research on at times. I find their lives interesting, as they are links to my ancestors and at times I may even find tidbits of info about my direct line. My first collateral story will be about my great-great aunt, who helped raise my grandfather, after his mother died when he was three. She was always special to my family and I wanted to relate some of the things that I remember about her, plus what I have discovered through my research. Such special people deserve to be remembered.


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