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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 11/1/2000

Cousin Removal!

Precisely determining and documenting "cousin" relationships can be difficult, especially between genealogists and non-genealogists. But even genealogists occasionally have difficulty explaining and understanding family relationships.

There are several reasons for the confusion. Frequently, the major cause is the convoluted nature of many family relationships, which can easily involve multiple spouses, one person with children by several different individuals, extended members of the family living in the household, relatives by marriage becoming confused with relatives by blood, and so on. It doesn't help when a widowed family member then marries another non-blood family relative.

In addition, there are different ways by which "cousin" relationships are determined. One method frequently used is what I'll call the "removed" system of determining relationships. I had never heard of this system until I started doing genealogy; in my own background, determining the degree of cousinship was a simple matter of counting down the generations—the "counting" system.

Both systems agree on what a first cousin is: two individuals who share a grandparent. I'm not going to make a distinction between those "first cousins" whose parents were siblings and those whose parents were half-siblings. To introduce half-first cousins into our discussion would only muddy already murky waters.

Let's visit the non-removed system first with an example.

    Anne is the mother of Bruce.
    Bruce is the father of Caroline.

    Oscar is the father of Theodore.
    Theodore is the father of Thomas.

    Anne's father, George, and Oscar's father, Henry, were brothers, sons of John.

Below is a chart that will help further illustrate the examples that follow:

                      /        \
              George    Henry
                  /               \
            Anne              Oscar
                /                    \
         Bruce                 Theodore
              /                        \
     Caroline                    Thomas

Under virtually any system, Anne and Oscar are first cousins.

Using the Counting System
According to the counting system, used by many, the following degrees of cousinship would exist.

    Anne and Oscar: first cousins
    Anne and Theodore: second cousins
    Anne and Thomas: third cousins

    Bruce and Oscar: second cousins
    Bruce and Theodore: third cousins
    Bruce and Thomas: fourth cousins

    Caroline and Oscar: third cousins
    Caroline and Theodore: fourth cousins
    Caroline and Thomas: fifth cousins

And so it goes. Caroline's children and Thomas would be sixth cousins. This system basically counts a degree of cousinship for each individual in the chain, counting back from the common ancestor. This system is easy to count. One significant drawback is that one cannot determine exactly how far back the common ancestor is solely from the degree of cousinship. For example, Anne and Thomas are third cousins; Bruce and Theodore are third cousins; and Caroline and Oscar are third cousins. This is one reason the system is confusing.

Using the Removed System

    Anne and Oscar: first cousins
    Anne and Theodore: first cousins, once removed
    Anne and Thomas: first cousins, twice removed

    Bruce and Oscar: first cousins, once removed
    Bruce and Theodore: second cousins
    Bruce and Thomas: second cousins, once removed

    Caroline and Oscar: first cousins, twice removed
    Caroline and Theodore: second cousins, once removed
    Caroline and Thomas: third cousins

To keep things straight in my mind, I think of cousins without any removed notations as "pure" cousins (this does nothing to indicate their moral qualities). "Pure" cousins are the same generation of descent from the common ancestor. In the example above:

    Bruce and Theodore are both great-grandchildren of the common ancestor. Their parents shared one set of grandparents.

    Caroline and Thomas are both great-great-grandchildren of the common ancestor. Their grandparents shared one set of great-grandparents.

In some cases, an easier way to chart the relationship is to do the following:

John (common ancestor)
George ----------- brother ------------ Henry
Anne ------------- 1st cousin ----------- Oscar
Bruce ------------ 2nd cousin ----------- Theodore
Caroline ---------- 3rd cousin ----------- Thomas
Caroline's child -- 4th cousin ----------- Thomas's child

It gets a little more confusing when the number of generations is uneven, but it can still be done.

John (common ancestor)
George ----------- brother -------------- Henry
Anne ------------- 1st cousin ----------- Oscar
Bruce ------------ 2nd cousin ----------- Theodore
Caroline ---------- 2nd cousin, once removed to Theodore
Caroline's child -- 2nd cousin, twice removed to Theodore
Caroline's grandchild - 2nd cousin, thrice removed to Theodore

There are online charts that one can print to assist in determining the exact degree of relationship:

How Important Is All of This?
Frankly, I'm not certain. I think that instead of saying someone is my third cousin, it would be better to say we share a great-great-grandparent—or perhaps that our great-grandparents were siblings. That's easier for most of us to understand. Besides, I may have MANY third cousins, all of whom are great-great-grandchildren of one of my great-great-grandparents (remember, most of us have 16 great-great-grandparents). Indicating our common ancestor makes our connection easier to understand.

Does Cousin Always Mean First Cousin?
Absolutely not. Many times the word cousin indicates that two individuals who are "cousins" share some common ancestor. In earlier times, the word cousin may indicate other relationships, occasionally even one that's not by "blood." Cousin can be a vague term, and one should not always assume that two individuals who are "cousins" shared one (or even two) grandparents.

What about Double Cousins?
This situation occurs most frequently when siblings from one family marry siblings from another family. The resulting children are double first cousins, because they share all four grandparents (assuming that each set of siblings shared both parents). When multiple relationships are involved, determining the exact relationship can be difficult, and it may be necessary to simply use multiple terms to describe the multiple relationships.

Can It Get Even Worse?
The following example uses the "removed" system and comes from my own research. In this example, no one married his (or her) own relative.

    My grandfather and a female relative were first cousins (his father and her mother were siblings).

    My grandfather and this female relative were also second cousins (his maternal grandfather and her paternal grandfather were siblings).

    My grandfather and this female relative were also third cousins (his maternal great-grandfather and her paternal great-grandfather were siblings).

I have numerous double cousins on my father's side because three of the children of my great-great-grandfather married three of the grandchildren of another great-great-great-grandfather. And I have more double cousins on my maternal side than I can even count. Sometimes figuring out the relationships is more difficult than problems I had in logic class!

If you can't spout off exactly where fifth cousins, twice removed connect, it's OK. Remember, it's better to be able to DOCUMENT the relationship than to be able to remember it off the top of your head.

Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his Web site.

© Copyright 2000,
Used by the author on his website with permission