Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Don’t Forget About Those Half-Brothers and Sisters

Probably every genealogist, at some point in their research, has found a mixed or blended family in their tree (definition: a family that includes children of a previous marriage of one spouse or both). Such events may have come about with the death of one spouse, through divorce and remarriage of one or both spouses, bigamy or illegitimate births.

Many of the second unions of spouses, while perfectly legal, may not have been recognized by church authorities – such as the remarriage of a man to his deceased wife’s sister, or a woman to her dead husband’s brother – so the records of such unions and additional offspring may be confused. I noted such a case in my post of September 15, 2013 in discussing the marriage of Thomas Mackenney to his deceased wife’s sister, Elizabeth Nicholls.

Formal adoption was not legally defined until the mid-19th century in the United States and well into the 20th century in England. 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.

Notwithstanding the absence of legislation, tragic circumstances often resulted in family members taking in, and raising children of deceased siblings, with the children even ending up using the names of their adoptive parents. 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 post of February 4, 2014. Such changes in names can confound and confuse those researching the history of their family but these are not true mixed or blended families.

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.

There are also cases where a member of a family may suffer from a disability and, even as an adult, he or she may require care from relatives. Many times those caregivers were not immediate family.
1901 England census showing disabled Richard Shepherd (my 2nd cousin, 4x removed) living with the family of his niece. Mary Northmore was Richard’s sister, also being cared for by her daughter’s family. Richard lived a long life but never worked. (image courtesy of The National Archives, copyright-holder)
The study of family history implies that we look at all members of a family, the primary definition of which, according to my Concise Oxford Dictionary, is “members of a household, parents, children, servants, etc.; set of parents and children, or of relations, living together or not . . .; person’s children.” There is no mention there that there necessarily has to be a consanguineous relationship.

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 a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.