Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Why would we care about 4th cousins? Or even more distant relatives?

I read a lot about people, especially with their DNA tests, finding cousins that rank 4th or greater. That’s a long ways apart – somehow sharing at least 3rd great-grandparents or further back.

I know genealogists like to study families in the past. And most of us really got involved because we wanted to know more about our direct ancestors. Finding their siblings was interesting, and sometimes helped with discovering more information about those in our direct lines. But chasing children of children of children of those siblings of our ancestors seems a bit too much for me.

Now I have to plead guilty for having a lot of people in my database, even quite a large number that are not connected by blood to either my wife or me. They are generally the families of people who married into ours, through nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, etc. I mean, it’s interesting and all that, but they really don’t have anything do to with how I got here. Or how my wife got here (which means how my children or grandchildren got here).

It is bragging rights people are looking for – to see how many notable people – famous or royalty – we can add to our tree that fascinates people. You read many reports of someone being related to a President, a move star or royalty through some very distant cousin. Or just to see how many names we can assemble that have some distant, if not inconsequential connections.

Ancestors of my grandchildren who come from lines totally different than my own are important, only because they are blood relatives of my grandchildren. Someday perhaps these grandchildren, or their children – if my data survives that long – might be as interested in their pedigree as I have been, so I collect information about and for them.

But even those who are distantly related by blood – the 4th cousins and more, really don’t have a lot to do with me.

On 23andme, where both my wife and I had out autosomal DNA tested, I have been given the names (well, at least the notification of files) of:
·         one 1st cousin
·         two 1st to 2nd cousins
·         five 2nd cousins
·         four 2nd to 3rd cousins
·         14 3rd to 4th cousins
·         45 3rd to 5th cousins and
·         819 people more distant.
I don’t even know what that really means. By the time you get way out there, you are sharing 0.5% of your DNA or much less and not the same 0.5% among all of them. For me, those very distant cousins are people could have been born in the 1970s or much later and aren’t part of my family history.

Many of the 2nd and 3rd cousins on the 23andme list are people I can relate to – figuratively as well as literally. We happen to all be interested in family history which is why we got tested. Some I found through the DNA testing, so that made it worth doing the tests. I have corresponded with a few of them and we found out which grandparents we shared. It was kind of interesting how we traced back our common ancestors and each of us learned a bit about the family from the others’ work. Many others who apparently share 1% to 3% of their DNA don’t have names attached to the profiles shown and have not responded to any messages sent to them. Some people whose profile shows they share some minute quantities of DNA have asked to share information but we have not been able to see any connection at all between us and wonder really, how far back do we have to go to find a common ancestor, if there is one to be found, or whether it would even be important.

There are a few people on 23andme who are very proud of how many people they share some amount of DNA with. I wonder if they are the same kinds of people who love to just add names to their family trees without any idea of whether or how they are, indeed, related. One person who was tested has 47,000 people in her tree. She surely can’t possibly know much about most of them. Interestingly, even with that many names, she only had 39 confirmed matches.

On Genea-Musings the other day, Randy Seaver posted about doing Descendancy (Is that even a word?) research on each of his 3rd great-grandparents, so he might be able to match up common ancestors with anyone who shows up as a 4th cousin or less. Man, does that sound like a lot of work! It’s tough enough to try to get your 1st cousins to tell you about their families. And finding people living today is, in many respects, more difficult than finding those who lived over a century ago.

If you have to do that kind of analyses to trace your history I have to ask what have you really achieved? You probably already know who many of your 3rd great-grandparents are or you wouldn’t be able to do the Descendancy research. Randy admitted he had the names of his 32 3rd great-grandparents. From a strictly academic view it sounds interesting but will it really add anything to the historical knowledge of Randy’s ancestral families. I will be watching with interest for his posts down the road to see what all he learned.

I persuaded a first cousin to have his Y-DNA tested as he is the only man I know who could link back genetically to our 2nd great-grandfather who emigrated from Germany in the early 1800s. This grandfather is on my maternal side so my Y-DNA test won’t work. Autosomal DNA would be useless for the task. My cousin descends through all males. We have no other avenues right now to be able to trace that line as the man had a very common name, probably came over with a large group of other Germans and died quite young. He does not appear on many records; there are no documents that list any of his family members; and we also already know all of his descendants for a few generations. So far we have not had any matches that make sense which tells us that not enough people directly related to the man have been tested. We don’t really care how many cousins there are. We just want to learn about our German roots so if anyone out there is related to a sibling of our zweiten Urgro├čvater or to his parents, then we might find out something important about where they originated.

To get back to my point, what is the fascination for knowing you have thousands of cousins out there, of 4th rank or greater? (I cannot even get my head around what a 9th cousin is!) Maybe for some people, finding some 1st, 2nd or 3rd cousins helped them trace back some of their ancestors. That’s a good reason for DNA testing. But for 4th or greater levels, you would have to track an awful lot of lines backward to find that one common ancestor. I doubt many of us have time for that.


I am more interested in my family’s history, not on how many relatives might be living today that share a grandparent that lived 200 or more years ago. I am willing to contact cousins that might be able to help but beyond the 3rd level I suspect I am chasing shadows.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is the Editor of Relatively Speaking, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.