Does Anybody Really Care about a Fifth Cousin?  Are Collateral Lines Relevant?

y Sg647112c (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

y Sg647112c (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I have been spending many hours recently researching the children, grandchildren and other descendants of the siblings of my three-times great-grandparents.  Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Why am I researching these people?  They are my third cousins twice removed or my fifth cousins or my second cousins four times removed…or whatever.”  Although I’ve had moments of wondering this before, it’s been especially true for the Nusbaum clan, who for the most part flew under the radar and did not have lots of juicy or interesting stories to tell—they were mostly law abiding merchants; they lived their lives quietly and out of the public eye.  They were not politicians or inventors or criminals or performers.  They did not change history.  Sometimes when I learn that a particular relative had no children, I am relieved.  One more line has been completed.

So why do this?  Does anybody really care about such distant relatives? Do I even care? Is it just my general compulsive need for a sense of completion? For being thorough? Or is there something pushing me forward, person by person, line by line?

Some of it is definitely my neurotic need to finish things.  Until recently I would finish any book I started even if I hated it.  Then finally I realized, “Hey, I hate this book.  I do not need to finish it.”  It was tough, but I started realizing no one was grading me if I put the book away.  And it is not just books.  When we moved into our new home five years ago, I stayed up past 3 am just to put away every last dish, fork, pot, and coffee mug in the kitchen.  Craziness.

But I do think that something else impels me to keep researching and writing about all these distant cousins.  First, it gives me the big picture about the lives of my ancestors.  I start to see trends and patterns.  For example, I would not have seen how important the liquor trade became in the family and the country if I had not followed all those Simon and Nusbaum relatives who started selling liquor in the 1870s.  I would not have understood how important the peddler trade was to early German Jewish immigrants if I did not study all the Nusbaum siblings. I would not have sensed the broad impact of the 1870s depression by studying just my direct ancestors.   And as I move into the 20th century, I would perhaps not have seen how suddenly education became a much bigger factor in the lives of these families as both sons and daughters started getting a college education.

So in order to appreciate the larger society in which our ancestors lived, it is important to research not just your direct line but those collateral to it.  But there is more there.  Because I could do all that research and not blog about these people.  I am no fool; I know that it doesn’t make for sexy reading to follow the life of someone who was born, grew up, sold hats, got married, had children, and died.  So why even bother posting on the blog about that ordinary person? Partly because we all live ordinary lives.  Most people are never in the paper for anything “interesting.” Most of us are not politicians or entertainers or criminals.  Most of us are born, grow up, go to work, have families, and die.  Don’t we matter? Won’t our grandchildren want to be able to tell their grandchildren something about their ancestors?  I hope so.

By Citynoise (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Citynoise (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

And then there is this other thing.  It hasn’t happened a lot, but it’s happened to me enough that I know it can happen.  Someone googles their great-grandfather’s name, say Simon Nusbaum, for example.  They land on my blog, and they learn something about their great-grandfather that they never knew—for example, that he was Jewish or that he was the son of a once successful merchant in Philadelphia. And they leave a comment on the blog, and I now have a new cousin with whom I share a family history and some smidgeon of DNA.

Isn’t that worth it?  Right now I am searching for the living descendants of my three-times great-grandparents and their many siblings, and I have found a number of them.  They are mostly my fifth cousins with a few fourth cousins mixed in.  Some I have already emailed, others I will today.  I have not heard back from those I emailed, as is often the case.  Maybe they think I am a crazy person.  Maybe they have no interest today.  But maybe in a month or a year they will wonder about their ancestors and find my blog or find me.

And even if just one of them responds to me, it is worth it.  Maybe they will have a picture of John Nusbaum and Jeanette Dreyfuss or one of their children.  Even if they don’t, I will have helped them learn about their family’s history, and that will make all of this worthwhile.


32 thoughts on “Does Anybody Really Care about a Fifth Cousin?  Are Collateral Lines Relevant?

  1. Collateral relatives are important to research and from what I have learned especially in Jewish family history for several reasons.

    First, you keep the memory alive of people on your tree that did not have descendants. For example, Jews that perished during the Holocaust left either no descendants or very few behind. To expand upon that, someone that is possibly a collateral relative of mine and I just found distant relatives simply because we are trying to connect our trees. The newly found relatives lost family in the Holocaust and didn’t know that any other family existed.

    Another reason is that most Ashkenazi Jews did not have surnames before the Napoleon mandate and therefore cannot trace family back before approximately 1800. In this case, finding those collateral relatives may give the researcher a better chance of locating ancestry further back in time.

    One more reason why collateral research is important is in the attempt to connect branches that may be related but at this time are still unconnected. This could lead to the discovery of a direct ancestor.

    Liked by 2 people

    • All great points and additional reasons for continuing to research all those distant cousins. You just never know what you will learn and who you will find. I’ve seen people ask about whether it is “worth” researching the siblings of great-grandparents and even grandparents, and so I thought it was worth writing about. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also have researched distant cousins for many different reasons. One reason is that by doing so I cast a bigger net out and as a result I have obtained new information on distant grandparents. Also I have helped people find information on their lines. It was my contacting a distant cousin that I was to receive photographs in which in one picture has my grandmother, great grandmother and my great great grandmother are all together.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Now that’s my fantasy—that somewhere along the line some distant cousin will have photographs of my ancestors. My family has almost no old pictures, and it breaks my heart. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Amy Cohen:
    I was so impressed with your post this morning that I felt I needed to sit down at the computer and reply to it. Since I work in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana Family History Center, I work with people seeking after their roots and branches. I encourage them to not only search for their direct line, but for their collateral family lines for the same reasons that you have presented in your interesting and impressive post of 20 Jan 2015. You’ve hit the old nail on the right spot, the head.
    It is quite interesting to do a descendancy chart of an ancestor and look at their posterity. I think that your Roosevelt family tree depicts the concept somewhat, but leaves out quite a few descendents.
    Personally, I feel that we are responsible not only for our direct lines as far as we can trace them, but also for all those associated with them. As you said, we can learn so much from them.
    Last night my wife Sara and I watched the movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” What a wonderful and powerful movie, it brought tears of pain, happiness, sorrow, and respect to my eyes and heart. It also helped me to realize the hardships that my families had to go through. Their births, growing up in a hostile world, their education, finding their mates, marriage, family and all the challenges associated with it, the love that they had for one another, sickness, poverty, death of loved ones, wars, crop failure, persecutions, forced military evictions, poor housing or no housingat all. And so the list goes on and on, generation after generations.
    With all this going on longer than can be remembered. You might ask why? Why all this? With your permission, I will tell you; it is for us to that we could be here at this time in history with all it wonder and marvelous blessing that have been bestowed upon us in these latter-days.
    Days when miraculous technological advancements computers, DNA analysis and all the other wonderful things that we are able to experience, that our ancestors were never able to experience, or even think about. I believe that their main concern was us their posterity, their descendents somewhere in the future.
    I do not know if you are familiar with the Hebrew Testament, or as call it The OT. In it there is a book by the Prophet Malachi. It is a very short book consisting of only four chapters. In the fourth chapter, Malachi 4: 5-6. 5
    “5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
    “6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
    Our fathers and mothers have turned their hearts to us, and we the children are now turning our hearts to them. We are doing what the Lord wants us to do, for we love our fathers and mothers, and are seeking after them.
    So there it is, my thoughts on the subject of seeking after those that love us, and we need to do the same. It sounds to me that you have already experienced some of the blessings of seeking those who came before us, to prepare the way for us, so that we could prepare the way for them. One more thought, “we cannot be perfect without our ancestors, and they without us, cannot be made perfect either.”

    Fond regards,

    Mathew Richard Jacobs

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so so much for this beautiful note. I completely agree with that sense of gratitude towards my ancestors. They had the courage and the love of their families to risk everything to come to the US and to secure a better future for themselves, their children, and us—their descendants. I often think of where we would be as Jews if our ancestors had stayed in Europe.

      So I will continue to research down every path and trail to tell the story of every person I can who lived and breathed so that we can have all these blessings today.

      Thank you again for that wonderful note. I truly appreciate it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. HI Amy, I just received the attached note – in researching, many yrs back now, the siblings of my Great Gramp, I found this newspaper article about a song – my Great Uncle married a lady – she penned a poem that was made into a WWII song and she had 4 sons in the war – seemed to be a chance in a million that she had one kinda famous song – Then I get the note below and realize it “IS IN THE GENES’ But imagine the happiness in Darylann’s, whio is a direct line descendant of Elizabeth’s, discovery of the song and newspaper article in my tree and that I had ‘bothered’ to include it in my tree even though she is not a direct line blood relative to me! I knew nothing about Elizabeth’s ancestors and their musical lives……..but now the one song seems much more significant. AND I was able to share the info with direct line descendants of Elizabeth that live in CA today. AND I will be able to share any additional finds and we can now work together to search. >>>>>>note to my tree – where Darylann found me:

    Hi! I’ve recently been back to my research and was expanding my great grand aunt, Amanda Varney, the mother of Elizabeth. Amanda was a conductor, and took Charles all over this country and even to South America/Panama, I think, to play music. The music was in her genes, the lyrics. Fascinating! Do you have a photo of her, or any of her family? Good work! Joseph Theophlus Varney, father of Amanda as well as her siblings were very musical and it went right down the Varney line, my own mother, still sings, dances, writes songs and plays music out of love for it and joy! Would love to hear from you. As to me, I can sing, so I’m told, can hold a tune fairly well, acappella, though my voice box is a bit damaged… 😦 So good to see you and this research, it’s precisely what I seek, something about their lives, more than a birth, death, marriage. Kind regards, hope to hear from you! Darylann
    Inbox Yesterday 11:18 PM GMT

    This happiness is the reason I like to share my tree and the reason I search collateral reli’s – you just never know what you may find….suspenseful happiness = Tree JOY. YES!

    Thanks for this wonderful blog post Amy! -MaryAlice

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for sharing that amazing story. It gave me the chills. You are right—it’s those connections that make all those nights staring at census reports and searching for death certificates worthwhile. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What’s really important in connecting with distant relatives (not that you’ll become fast best buddies or anything – sometimes…) but we never know how OUR decendents will look at us or for us. As we get older, I see more and more how my husband’s great grandson’s grandchild may some day ask “Wow, Grandpa! You KNEW your great-grandfather?” And another connection is made. One can NEVER assume that your third cousin twice removed just might have that photo, or that story, or even KNEW your grandparents when they were younger. Even harder than tracing distant cousins is trying to trace simple – but close – friends of grandparents who might have information. Researchers often over look aquantiances, striving only to look at blood realtives. Your great-great-great grandfather’s best friend might have cut the Ohio wilderness with him, and left stories in HIS family about his friend. I found one of the best stories of my 4th great grandfather through the memoirs of an old man who told the stories of his dad.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Do I care about 5th cousins? Absolutely! In my father’s paternal line the only living relatives I know are Emil, my 5th cousin once removed, and his daughter and granddaughter, my 5th cousins twice and thrice removed. I stumbled upon his Hungarian genealogy website accidentally. We began corresponding with help from Google translate and my Hungarian tutor. Last summer we travelled to Hungary and met him and his wife. Emil and I were delighted to find little things we had in common. We had both studied mathematics and worked in IT. And we both love our cats!

    His daughter and I are now friends on Facebook. I can see little sparks of family resemblance in her pictures.

    Someday I hope to find closer relatives on that line who might have known my father or his parents in Hungary. But I treasure these few that I know.

    Thanks for an excellent post! I will reblog on my Geneasearch blog.


    Liked by 2 people

    • (I think I may responded in the wrong place, so I am sorry for the repetition.) Thank you so much for sharing this story—it’s wonderful and inspires me to keep trying to contact my fifth cousins.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Genea-Search and commented:
    Do I care about 5th cousins? Absolutely! In my father’s paternal line the only living relatives I know are Emil, my 5th cousin once removed, and his daughter and granddaughter, my 5th cousins twice and thrice removed. I stumbled upon his Hungarian genealogy website accidentally. We began corresponding with help from Google translate and my Hungarian tutor. Last summer we travelled to Hungary and met him and his wife. Emil and I were delighted to find little things we had in common. We had both studied mathematics and worked in IT.
    His daughter and I are now friends on Facebook. I can see little sparks of family resemblance in her pictures.
    Someday I hope to find closer relatives on that line who might have known my father or his parents in Hungary. But I treasure these few that I know.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You (and your commenters) make so many great points. When I first started my research, I (as many newbies do) went off in a bunch of different directions, wasted a bunch of time, and quickly became very overwhelmed. So, I set some limits for myself, because I really wanted to make progress on my archive project, with which you are already familiar. I decided to focus on figuring out who my “picture people” were; some are direct ancestors, some are not, but I’ve been amazed and delighted at the contacts I’ve had with present-day heretofore unknown relatives as a result. So yes, those collateral folks can be very, very meaningful in ways we can’t possibly expect. Great post, Amy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Leslie! I think we all tend to start and stop and move to different places depending on our interests. It’s all about following whatever paths seems to work and make us happy.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. FABULOUS post, Amy. The answer is yes, it is definitely worth it. I have a fantasy of recreating the neighborhood my grandfather was born into. It fascinates me in part because so many of my relatives lived there, but I am nearly as fascinated by their neighbors, the people that lived on their block, that owned the other shops, that had children, my grandfather or his aunt or his mother played with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a wonderful vision—to recreate their whole neighborhood! I haven’t actually paid much attention to the people who lived near them, and now I am inspired to do that. It will be a whole new way of learning about them all. Thanks so much!


  10. I can’t really add to anything that’s already been said, except perhaps to express my appreciation. I cannot always follow all the twists and turns of your research, yet you create for me (and for others, I’m sure) a picture of the lives of those times in a way that social history or the closest dispassionate study cannot. And to work a picture must have width as well as depth. These pictures work for me – that’s why I keep coming.


  11. Apologies for this comment being added to an old post, but I say there is definitely some benefits to searching past the 5th cousin!! Now while my family and I are not Jewish, my husband and therefore my son, are of French Canadian descent. There are a number of famous Americans who also have French Canadian descent. So I can proudly say that my son is a 7th cousin several times removed, to the singer Madonna (Madonna Ciccone whose mother was French Canadian), 10th cousin twice removed to singer Celine Dion and 12th cousin to actress Angelina Jolie (her mother was of French Canadian ancestry). My son is also 9th cousin twice removed to the Dionne Quintuplets. And FYI – Celine Dion (and her many siblings) and the Dionne Quintuplets are 10th cousins to each other as well. I was actually very surprised that they were not more closely related!!


    • That’s wild! Of course, Jewish records generally don’t go back much beyond 1800, so the chances of finding a tenth cousin aren’t great. But I’ve found several fifth and fourth cousins. Always well worth it, even if they’re not famous.


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