Genealogical complexity: writing it up

Penny at podium_croppedYesterday, Scott wrote about genealogical complexity: addressing all the different ways we make modern families and write about them genealogically. As it turns out, many family historians ask questions about just such things:

  • How do I talk about a child born out of wedlock?
  • Do I list my sister’s stepchildren?

As Scott said, we think you should report it all – without judgment. Well, what does that look like? The first place a child appears in a Register­-style sketch is in a child list, and it’s the child-intro line where you give the salient information. Here are some examples:

Adopted children of John10 and Mary (Smith) Doe:

Child of Georgia Charles (Clark) Jones, adopted by John6 Jones:

Children of Mary (Smith) Doe, stepchild of John10 Doe:

Child of George and Ellen (Stein) Mather, adopted by Samuel and Ann7 (Stuart) Williams:

Child of Ann7 Stuart: [father unknown to you, the writer]

Children of John10 Doe and Mary Smith: [unmarried parents or parents not sharing surname]

Children of John10 Doe and Harry Smith:

Children of Mary10 and Jane Smith-Doe:

If a parent has another child outside a marriage, make two lists:

Children of John10 and Mary (Smith) Doe: <list children of marriage>

Child of John10 Doe: <list child of relationship, giving date of birth, which will speak for itself>

If your subject has children from several different relationships, whether married or not, simply make separate lists of children for each relationship. If you don’t know the father of any, just make one list. Back to Scott’s point: you’re reporting what you know, without judgment.

Now, what about long-term relationships? How do you talk about them in a genealogical sketch?

. . . He is in a relationship with Mary Smith [or his life partner is Mary Smith], who was born at Boston, Massachusetts, 23 May 1985, daughter of Harry and Jane (Doe) Smith.

If the partner has died:

. . . His long-term partner, Harry Smith, was born at Boston, Massachusetts, 23 May 1985, son of Henry and Jane (Doe) Smith. He died there 27 September 2013.

If your subject is transgender and has adopted a different name, handle it the same way you would handle any other name change. That is, give the birth name in the child list, and lead with the current name in the main sketch:

365         i.  Allan James12 Smith, b. Boston 23 May 1985; m. there, 16 Feb. 2013, Jane Elizabeth Doe.

365. Ellen Jane12 Smith was born as Allan James Smith at Boston, Massachusetts, 23 May 1985. She married at Boston, 16 February 2013, Jane Elizabeth Doe, daughter of John and Sarah (Roe) Doe.

Or, in another variation,

365         i.  Allan James12 Smith, b. Boston 18 April 1975; m. there, 16 Feb. 2003, Jane Elizabeth Doe; div.

365. Ellen Jane12 Smith was born as Allan James Smith at Boston, Massachusetts, 18 April 1975. As Allan, he married first at Boston, 16 February 2003, Jane Elizabeth Doe, daughter of John and Sarah (Roe) Doe; they divorced in 2010. As Ellen, he married second at Boston, 20 September 2012, Terry Davis . . .

If there were children from each marriage:

Children of Allan James12 and Jane Elizabeth (Doe) Smith:

Children of Ellen Jane12 Smith and Terry Davis:

Again, just report the facts: they speak for themselves.

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

9 thoughts on “Genealogical complexity: writing it up

  1. About 1970 when I first started genealogy the lady in the local LDS Family History Library took pity on a 35 year old male who was not LDS and taught me to do it correctly or not do it all. errors are worse than nothing and document all sources. Get all the info birth/marriage/death dates and places on all members of a household including the spouses of all siblings. If is unlikely then question your source. One family I found showed the lady of the household having children when she was over age 50. After getting all the census data from all the years I showed my results to the local LDS expert she told me that maybe the youngest child was the son of an older daughter or adopted or… Women did not give birth past age 45! I did not question it at the time because I am a descendant of a woman whose mother died at her birth and always thought her Aunt and Uncle were her birth parents and her mean old uncle was her father. What about giving birth past age 45? I asked the ob/gyn of my wife and was told that prior to 1950 age 45 was a reasonable maximum age. Any ideas?

    1. My mother gave birth to my younger brother at age 46. Wikipedia reports, “In the United States, between 1997 and 1999, 539 births were reported among mothers over age 50, with 194 being over 55,” citing Obstetrics & Gynecology, 102 (5), 1006-1014. Retrieved March 5, 2007.

    2. Dave, 45 is definitely possible, but the thing to watch for is whether the woman has been having children on a regular basis up to 45. If there is any significant gap between the previous child, then either it is a “menopause” baby as they used to say, or, in a big family, likely a child of an older child. I once had an obstetrical nurse tell me she had never seen a natural birth over 48, so that’s my ceiling.

  2. Thank you for the excellently drawn examples. You’re right: when written well, they explain themselves and are not judgmental. Well done and very helpful.

  3. Stating facts is not judgmental but it still upsets some people. Case in point is this family historian’s much older sister who often said that I should not be documenting our dead relatives’ “dirt”. Facts that sis considers “dirt” include the 1904 divorce of our great grandparents and a newspaper obituary that describes the circumstances of a great aunt’s 1906 suicide.

    Recently I’ve been subtly nudging sis to reframe her thinking about “dirt”. She’s starting to understand my perspective that the facts should not be hidden or taboo subjects. And that surely these long gone ancestors would want us to learn from and hopefully avoid their tragedies. These are sad and regrettable events but they can only be be instructional for subsequent generations if they are known and discussed openly.

  4. In your examples, you included the following: “Ellen Jane12 Smith was born as Allan James Smith at Boston, Massachusetts, 18 April 1975. As Allan, he married first at Boston, 16 February 2003, Jane Elizabeth Doe, daughter of John and Sarah (Roe) Doe; they divorced in 2010. As Ellen, he married second at Boston, 20 September 2012, Terry Davis . . .” If the person is transgender, shouldn’t the last sentence read, “As Ellen, *she* married second at Boston…” since the person was by then a woman?

    1. This is a great article, and it is something many of us struggle with I think! I appreciate your work. Sarah, I understand your poins for sure, as I have a cousin who feels the same! She gets very upset with me for “airing the family’s dirty laundry” , or making us look bad. I keep telling her I am simply trying to be honest about the facts. Rox, good catch, I missed it for sure!

  5. Scott and Penny, thank you for your pieces on including all our ancestors in a compassionate way. I have found that not only do I get to understand them better, it often illuminates facets of our current lives. I am grateful to feel a closeness for some of my ancestors, and to understand the dynamics behind others that clarify baffling situations. It is time to put shame away. One of my lines (done by previous generations) simply fell apart under scrutiny. It took some sleuthing to find the right connections (which actually did eventually tie back to the same originating family) and then it was easy to see why the “missing” connection had been ignored for so long. Uncomfortable, but the truth. The descendents are not responsible for the lives of their ancestors.

  6. Penny, I am reaching out to the “Wisdom of the Crowd” here, today, as I mull over how to accurately record with some sense of sensitivity – the birth of a child born out of a single mother’s violent rape with that baby being raised by this woman’s sister and her husband as their own – the child unaware of the circumstances surrounding conception or possibly private adoption. How do I “just” report and “register” the vitals as I am “won’t” to do accurately, yet with reasoned fairness? Indeed, what is it I am recording?

    My “damn the torpedoes” style of wanting to just report the facts is, well, biting me in my proverbial toucas. I’m a bit lost as to how to proceed…. it’s not like I’m omitting some 1st marriage, or recording a child born out of wedlock to consenting adults. Too make matters worse, there are living people, today, still affected by it all. Do I cease and desist? Wait 100 years to complete the register?

    Any reply appreciated from my Vita Brevis family!


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