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Cousins: Two people who share a common ancestor

Jan. 12, 2010 at midnight
Updated Jan. 12, 2010 at 7:13 p.m.


The Beginning Genealogy 101 Continuing Education classes are well under way and we are having a grand time discovering truths in genealogical research.

One of the first questions a student raised was, "What does "once removed" mean? This is a great question, and here is the answer plus some additional meanings for the word, cousin.

Removed means a generation difference. Once removed means one generation difference, twice removed means two generations difference and so forth.

A child of your first cousin is your first cousin once removed. A person can be more than once removed. For example, you can have a person in your genealogy who is your third cousin, four times removed.

Many people confuse the term first cousin once removed with second cousin. The two are not the same.

The question then arises, What is a second cousin? Remember this simple explanation: Children of siblings are first cousins. Children of first cousins are second cousins. Children of second cousins are third cousins and so forth.

In short, the definition of cousins is two people who share a common ancestor. Here are a few definitions of cousin relationships:

First cousin: Your first cousins are the people in your family who have at least one of the same grandparents as you. In other words, they are the children of your aunts and uncles.

Second cousin: Your second cousins are the people in your family who share the same great-grandparent with you.

Third, fourth, and fifth cousins: Your third cousins share at least one great-great-grandparent; fourth cousins share a great-great-great-grandparent, and so on.

Keep in mind that you and a relative only need to share one grandparent to be first cousins, or share one great-grandparent to be second cousins, etc. If the ancestor in question had more than one spouse and the two of you are descended from different spouses, you are still full cousins.

There is no such thing as a "half cousin" although you will hear people use that term occasionally.

Other meanings of 'cousin'

In genealogical records, especially old wills, researchers often find statements such as, "I will to cousin, William, my horse."

Red flags should arise because the term "cousin" can mean a family relationship but it also has other meanings and here are some of them: 1) child of a sibling; 2) someone who is related by marriage but not by blood; 3) a close friend; 4) in early New England it was sometimes used to refer to a niece or nephew; 5) sometime used to refer to someone who is kin, but the exact relationship is unknown. At this point, the researcher must search for additional records to determine the exact relationship and meaning of the term, cousin.

I hope this explanation of once removed, meaning a generation difference and cousin having a number of possibilities has you curious about records your ancestors created and, if indeed, the word cousin really meant siblings' children.

Happy researching.

Send e-mail genealogy queries to Martha Jones at mjones@vicad.com, VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.

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