When is DNA not important to family history?

This post is by Wayne Shepheard

I have quite an old copy (dated 1984) of the Concise Oxford Dictionary on my bookshelf. I don’t think much has changed over the years since it was published so it remains a reliable reference for me. Certainly the definitions provided in current online editions are much the same as those published in decades past (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/family). In my edition family is defined as: “1. members of a household, parents, children, servants, etc.; set of parents and children, or of relations, living together or not . . .; person’s children. 2. all descendants of a common ancestor, house, lineage . . . “ The word, genealogy is defined as: “account of descent from ancestor by enumeration of intermediate persons, pedigree . . .”

So, are studies of family history or genealogy the same thing?

Real families do not always consist of people who are all related by blood. The dictionary’s primary definition seems to be silent in that regard in describing a family as consisting of members of a household. Too often we ‘genealogists’ or ‘family historians’ talk in terms of pedigrees defined in terms of bloodlines – that is, sharing DNA. Perhaps we should differentiate the two and consider that family historians are really looking at the relationships of people, whether or not connected by blood, while genealogists deal only with those people biologically linked.

In many generations of my own family, there were family members who shared only one parent with their siblings or, in some cases, were not even related by blood to their “parents”. One of my great-grandmothers had a daughter from her first marriage, before she married my great-grandfather. My father considered her his aunt in the same way he thought of her half-siblings, the natural daughters of both of his grandparents.

I have found similar circumstance in the many Devon families I have investigated as an Online Parish Clerk. Several reasons accounted for such mixed or blended families (def: a family that includes children of a previous marriage of one spouse or both). Most often, in centuries past, one or both parents may have died before children reached the age of majority. The surviving parent would generally have remarried, the man in order to have someone take care of his home and children, a woman in order to have someone earn income to support her and her children. If both parents died, another family member commonly stepped in as an adoptive parent. On rare occasions, an abandoned child was taken in by members of the community and raised as their own.

Until the 20th century adoption was not formally or legally recognized in many parts of the world. In the modern era, the first laws concerning adoption were passed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in the United States, in 1851, codifying what was considered to be in the “best interests of the child”. Other constituencies and countries followed over subsequent decades. England was one of the last major countries to enact laws concerning adoption with the passage of the Adoption of Children Act 1926 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldselect/ldadopt/127/12705.htm).

I have come across many examples in searching censuses and parish records of children becoming part of new families and even taking on the surnames of their step-fathers. Many kept their new names before there were laws regulating adoption. A few kept their birth names but then reverted to the surname of their step-father, or at least that is what they appeared to do. I wrote about one possible example in my blog, Discover Genealogy. http://discovergenealogy.blogspot.ca/2014/02/another-case-of-changed-name-samuel-and.html Such changes in names can confound and confuse those researching the history of their family.

Which brings me back to the ideas of what the difference is between a genealogist and a family historian, and whether DNA is the most important thing to ultimately use in identifying a family connection. As stated above, most dictionaries define genealogy as the study and tracing of lines of descent which implies looking for a direct line of ancestors related by blood. The term “family history” is generally used interchangeably with genealogy but I think families are much more than just a relationship of consanguinity. They may also include members related by affinity (marriage) or nurture kinship (co-residence or shared consumption). The family is, primarily, the principal structure for the socialization of children (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family) and any study of a family should also include research into any individuals who may have joined the family through other than direct, biological means.

Have you found individuals that are not related to you by blood but who you consider family members?

About the Author

Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in the Family History Skills & Strategies (intermediate) programme. He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program (http://genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/OPCproject.html), handling four parishes in Devon, England (http://www.cornwood-opc.com/). He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy (http://discovergenealogy.blogspot.ca/), in which he relates his experiences as a family historian. He also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated (http://familyhistoryfacilitated.ca/).

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One Response to When is DNA not important to family history?

  1. Gail Roger says:

    I have always referred to my hobby as “family history” over “genealogy” for precisely that reason: my family is chockablock with adoptions, half-siblings, and in-laws. Now that I’m dipping my toes into DNA (a long, slow learning process for me), I’m seeing more of the genealogy aspect, but I continue in the belief that “nurture” is every bit as important as “nature”. However, I don’t research blood ancestors of adoptive cousins and in-laws unless specifically requested, because I have to draw the line somewhere.

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