Intermarriage in the Extended Family:
Tangled Branches in the Family Tree

Sooner or later in your family tree research, you will come across intermarriage situations which will result in a lot of head scratching to figure out just what the relationships are among the various people involved.

This is especially true of the large families of yesteryear, where the age gap between the oldest and youngest siblings can be something close to 30 years.

There can also be double relationships - i.e., people can be related on both sides of their families. This is especially true in "closed societies", such as the Quakers or the Ashkenazi Jews, who tend to intermarry (i.e., marry their cousins) a great deal.

It also occurred in colonial America and Canada, or in small villages in isolated parts of the United Kingdom, as within a generation or two, everyone in the general area was related to everyone else, if they weren't when they arrived. (Often, extended family members moved together to the New World). Those who elected to remain in the same geographic region had little choice but to marry a cousin.

My mother came from a family of 15 children, 12 of whom survived to adulthood. By the time the youngest arrived, the oldest two or three were married with children of their own.

The eldest, Jim, and his wife had three boys when his youngest sister was born. When she was about two years old, she visited them for a few weeks. Everyone was remarking that they didn't know that Jim and his wife had had a daughter, and congratulating him!

The youngest three sisters grew up to marry three men who were first cousins, all bearing the same surname.

While interesting, this particular intermarriage does not really cause any major problems as to how we are related; they are fairly straightforward. That is, we the offspring of those marriages are first cousins on our mothers' side, and second cousins on our fathers' side.

An Example or Two

However, those age gaps can provide some interesting intermarriages among extended family members, or tangles in the family tree branches. For example, in my husband's family, there is a double relationship resulting from intermarriage in one group of people, which is rather confusing, to say the least!

Let's start with the Fenn family. (As many of these people are still living today, or their sons and daughters are, I have changed all the names, other than Fenn, to protect their privacy).

Mr. and Mrs. Fenn had a family of 13, born over a 20-year period. The oldest married and had a daughter, who in due course married John Doe.

John Doe's mother died fairly young. John Doe's father later took a second wife, who was one of the 13 Fenn children - a younger sister of John Doe's mother-in-law (his wife's aunt).

So, as a result of this intermarriage, the aunt of John Doe's wife became his step-mother. And, the father-in-law of John Doe's wife became her step-uncle!

That inter-relationship was complicated enough. However, things became even more complex, when John Doe's father and his new wife had three children.

These children were John Doe's half-siblings through his father. They were also his wife's first cousins.

They also were half-first cousins to John Doe's children on John Doe's side, and second cousins to his children on his wife's side!

(I think I've got that right - if not, please post a comment below).

A second situation that I can recall hearing about involved identical twin sisters, who each married and had families of their own.

After their children were all grown and had left the nest, Twin One died. A year or two later, Twin Two's husband died.

Then what happened? You guessed it - Twin Two married Twin One's widowed husband!

That meant that, for the children of deceased Twin One, Aunt Twin Two became their step-mother. The children of Twin Two gained Uncle X as their step-father. And the first cousins all became step-siblings. And the grandchildren ... well, I'll leave you to figure that one out!

And Twin One's widowed husband ... I wonder how often he calls his second wife, Twin Two, by Twin One's name, since she is identical to his first wife in looks and in the sound of her voice!

Oh, the joys of intermarriage! Kind of makes you think of the following tongue-in-cheek song, and the confusing genealogy which can result:

In conclusion, intermarriage between extended family members can render family trees intriguing, confusing, and interesting, all at the same time!

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