Genealogy and Family History -
The Meaning of Relationships Or
What’s a ‘Once Removed’ Anyway?
by Katrina Haney
In everyday life, we rarely (if ever) refer to someone as “my second cousin once removed.” It suffices to simply refer to them as a “cousin.” But, when doing genealogy, we usually want to be more precise about relationships, although it can be confusing to understand what these relationships mean once we know them.
A “cousin” in general is someone who has the same ancestors as you do (or two other people who have common ancestors.) We are all familiar with terms like “second cousin,” “third cousin” etc. We have also heard cousins described as once, twice or three times removed. At that point we usually just scratch our heads and go on to the next topic.
But it really isn’t that hard to get a working understanding of the relationships surrounding cousins, if you learn just 2 simple concepts:
1. Cousins with no removal designations are in the same generation, or to put it another way, they are the same distance away from the common ancestor.
2. The term ‘removed’ is applied when the two people in question are in different generations, or in other words, they are of differing distances from the common ancestor.
So let’s examine what that means.
Cousins with no removal designations are in the same generation.
This means that in relation to a common ancestor, they would both be 3rd great grandchildren, or 5th great grandchildren etc.
Going the other way around, if you have two individuals who are both 4th great grandchildren, then you know that they will simply be cousins of some level with no removal designation.
To determine what level of cousins they are, simply add 1 to the generation. If they are 3rd great grandchildren, then they are 4th cousins. If they are 5th great grandchildren, then they are 6th cousins, etc. Great grandchildren are not usually called 1st great grandchildren, but the number is understood, and so cousins in this generation, by adding 1, would be 2nd cousins.
By the same token, if you know that they are 4th cousins, then you also know that they share 3rd great grandparents in common.
The term ‘removed’ is applied when the two people in question are in different generations.
For example, if you have a 3rd great grandchild, and a 5th great grandchild, you will have a removal designation. It’s not really difficult to determine what their actual relationship is, including the removal designation. All you need to know is the relationship of both individuals to the common ancestor.
To determine the actual relationship, you start with the one that is closest to the ancestor in question. Cousinship begins with grandchildren, as that is the first generation in which cousins are found. Anyone in this generation in relation to the common ancestor is a first cousin to all other descendants of that ancestor at the grandchild level and below. So if you are comparing a grandchild and a 5th great grandchild, they would still be first cousins. This is where the removal designation comes in.
Because grandchildren are the starting place for determining cousinship, they have the designator of 0. So a 5th Great Grandchild compared with a Grandchild would be five times removed. It does not matter which of the two is in the grandchild generation.
But what happens if you have descendants of generations lower than the first one? For example, lets take a 5th great grandchild and an 8th great grandchild of the same ancestor. In this case you would start with the closest one, the 5th great grandchild. If you assume for the moment that both of the individuals in question were in the same generation, we know that they would be sixth cousins, because we would add 1 to the generation. So we start with ‘sixth cousins.’ Then we need to determine what the removal designation is.
Put simply, the removal designation represents the difference between the two generations. So in our example of a 5th great grandchild and an 8th great grandchild, they would be 3 times removed from each other. A 6th Great Grandchild and a 2nd Great Grandchild would be 4 times removed, etc.
Putting these two concepts together then, we can determine the cousinship between any two descendents of a common ancestor. Let’s take a hypothetical example.
Let’s say that you have discovered that one set of your direct ancestors were also the grandparents of George Washington. How are you and George Washington related? Well first, George is the closest to the ancestors in question, so you start with him. Being their grandson, and being in the first generation in which cousins are found, your relationship to George would be that of first cousin. To determine the level of removal you now need to look at your own lineage. You discover that you are the 7th great grandchild of these ancestors. The difference between your generation and George’s generation is 7. This would make you and George Washington first cousins 7 times removed.
You may be wondering how this is different from seventh cousins once removed. Seventh cousins would BOTH have to be AT LEAST 7 generations from the common ancestor. The once removed part would put one of the two into the 8th generation.
So here are the steps to take when determining the cousinship between any two descendants of a common ancestor:
1. Determine the generation of each individual in relation to the common ancestor.
2. If they are in the same generation, then just add one to the generation and that is your cousin level.
3. If they are in different generations, take the closest one to the ancestor, add one, and that is your cousin level.
4. Determine the difference between the two generations and that is your removal level.
As a side note, people today often refer to the children of their cousins as their second cousins. This is technically inaccurate. The children of your cousins are your first cousins once removed. Your children would be their second cousins.
Aunts and Uncles
Figuring out relationships to Aunts and Uncles is a bit easier. If one person is a child of a common ancestor, and another person is a grandchild or lower of that same ancestor through another child, then an aunt or uncle / nephew or niece relationship exists. The level is determined by subtracting 1 from the generation of the grandchild.
For example, if you are the 6th great grandchild of the ancestor in question, then the siblings of the child who is in your direct line would be your 5th great grand uncles and aunts, and you would be their 5th great grand nephew or niece.
As with grandparents, the first generation after uncle and aunt (or niece and nephew) is grand uncle/aunt, and then great grand uncle/aunt. After that you start with 2nd great grands.
Katrina Haney is a Family Historian and a Digital Scrapbook Artist who pursues both her passions at GenScraps, where you can find scraps of genealogical wisdom, and information on scrapping your family history, as well as digital products to be used to make your own Family History and Genealogical Scrapbooks. These digital designs can also be used in Ancestry’s book printing section.
Katrina Haney is a Family Historian, Freelance Writer and a Digital Scrapbook Artist who pursues all her passions at GenScraps, where you can find scraps of genealogical wisdom, and information on scrapping your family history, as well as digital products to be used to make your own Family History and Genealogical Scrapbooks. These digital designs can also be used in Ancestry’s book printing section.
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