Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Enormity of It All

In this era of “us four, no more,” it is hard to conceive of the multiplied numbers of large families begetting large families. Even during the era of immigrant families—those whose families started out large, but due to disease and hardship, saw their numbers dwindle in the end—genealogical records were no more complicated than the effort it took to keep track of all those premature deaths.

In the case of well-to-do colonial American families, however, in many cases, those numbers of hale and hearty descendants were often maintained over multiple generations. Such was the case with the tale of our Taliaferro line.

Even at the point at which I pick up the line in colonial America—not until several generations in, with Zachariah Taliaferro’s birth in Virginia in 1730—there were multiple cousins to be had. Tracing this all had to have been a challenge. Granted, there were several who were up to the challenge, for we have their legacy in the form of books like the Ivey and the Pilcher volumes I mentioned yesterday. But following those lines from that end point through their current-day descendants is a task still needing to be done.

Why do something like that? Because now that we have the technology—and the digitized, searchable resources—we also have the compulsion to do so, thanks to the popularization of DNA tests for genealogical use.

As I've mentioned before, there is no use taking that DNA test without the corresponding assistance of one’s own genealogical paper trail. When you get the results back from your DNA tests, you will meet up with cousins removed by upwards of five generations. How would you confirm the connection, if not armed with the documentation to reveal it?

Now that I have taken those DNA tests—both the full mitochondrial DNA test and the autosomal DNA test—I am grappling with the matchmaking phase of the adventure. As it turns out, quite a few of my matches line up along these long-established colonial family lines—one of them being the Taliaferro family. Yes, the line of large families begetting large families, through multiplied generations. Anyone have a scorecard?

You think I’m jesting? The other day, I grunted through the calculations to arrive at the conclusion that one DNA match and I were eighth cousins, twice removed. Think that’s extreme? Yesterday, I was going through some notes from a three year old email, and realized that a friend of mine had sent me an explanation for how she was a Taliaferro descendant, as well. While I’ve yet to sit down and map it all out, my thumbnail sketch indicates our mutual ancestor is twelve generations removed from us. Yay. We’re cousins. I can’t wait to tell her.

There is one caveat—and yes, that would be yet another reason this pursuit is fraught with difficulties. The caveat is that several of these Taliaferros had the propensity to have their children marry cousins. We saw it when my second great grandfather’s older brother William Broyles married Rebecca Taliaferro, his first cousin once removed. We may also have seen it when my second great grandfather married Mary Rainey, daughter of a Taliaferro—although that is still speculation on my part.

Do these multiple family intermarriages result in elevated centiMorgan counts, when it comes time to review autosomal DNA results? Just ask my eighth cousin, twice removed. He seems to think there is something hidden in the data that makes our relationship closer than what it appears on paper. He is likely right. I suspect the culprit is these multiple Taliaferro marriages.

But how would you know, if you didn’t have the paper trail to check? Sometimes, the numbers get so big, you can’t keep track in your head. That’s the kind of math you have to do on paper.

Given the discovery that a friend of mine, living in the same town as I, turns out to be my cousin—albeit very distant cousin—I wonder how many of us, walking around in our home towns, run into distant relatives every day, but never know it. If you’ve been around in this country long enough—and come from families large enough—those chances may be bigger than you thought.


  1. A what point does "extended family" end? 2nd-3rd cousins? After a while, I think they become simply "neighbors"... and should be treated like such (as good neighbors that is!)

    1. Perhaps...but coming from such a vantage point as I do (small family, not that many relatives), it might be more understandable to explain why our family does keep in touch (as family) with our second cousins and even third cousins!

      When it comes to such extremes as keeping track of eighth cousins, though, I have another motivation...I'll delve into that tomorrow...

  2. Great point about living in the same area as distant cousins and not even knowing it. It really can be a small world after all.

    1. It certainly was a surprise to me, Jana. And I still wouldn't have known it, if it hadn't been for putting all that genealogical research to work!

  3. I am thrilled to hear you have another cousin and a friend to boot!! I have oodles of cousins... 27 on my Dads side and 32 on my Moms side of the family..I have a few to spare...most of them I know quite well especially on my Dads side of the family:)

    1. That's fantastic, Far Side! I know a lot of people bemoan their large family circumstances, but coming from a small family, that sort of multiplied connection sounds like heaven to me :)


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