Understanding Some Genealogy Basics

I wanted to share something a bit different this week. Some of you may know this and some may not, but I’m also a genealogist. (If you’re curious about that, my genealogy website can be found at www.holtonheritageservices.com).  Holton was my maiden name. And if you’re wondering, all the pictures on the website are of my family members!

The clients I do take on mostly come to me through word-of-mouth. However, it during the month of April I’ve had three people contact me asking about a few simple things regarding the use of the word “removed” when talking about relationships. Genealogy has also been on my mind because in a few weeks a “first cousin” I grew up living directly across the street from will be visiting from where he currently lives in Oklahoma. The last time he was here happened to coincide with the day my mother passed away. We expect a much more pleasant visit this time!

Side note here: I’m working on a romantic suspense novel in which the leading female character happens to be a genealogist. Let little things in life inspire you, right?

Today I wanted to share some explanations of common genealogical terms. If I hear you guys are interested, another time I’ll offer some detailed explanation about how at-home DNA testing actually works, and its accuracy.

The images used in this article are not ones I created myself; I would have credited them, but I’m not sure who created them. I had them on my computer and it didn’t know where they are saved from!

What are Ancestors and Descendents?

Anyone you descend from is considered an ancestor. In genealogical terms, someone you descend from is someone you “come down from.” So, you descend from your parents, who descended from their parents, who descended from their parents, and so on and so forth as far back as you can trace. That potentially long chain of parents and children are the people known as your ancestors.

Therefore, all of your older relatives are not your ancestors. To give you an example, your aunts and uncles are related to you – they’re your relatives but they aren’t your ancestors. Why? Because you don’t descend from them.

Then what’s a Common Ancestor?

Makes you think of algebra and fractions and common denominators, right? If you remember that stop, it might be easier to understand this, but it’s not that difficult even if you don’t.

common ancestor is someone you and a relative both descend from. To give you an example, your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are all common ancestors to you and your siblings.

The most recent common ancestor is the nearest-to-you shared ancestor. The first cousin I mentioned is coming to visit soon – our mothers were siblings. Our shared maternal grandfather (the man who was the father of our mothers) died in the 1970s. Our shared maternal grandmother (the woman who was the mother of our mothers) lived until the 2010s. It doesn’t matter that Grandpa Al and Grandma Millie passed away four decades apart; in genealogical terms, they will both always be our most recent common ancestors.


Can you explain about Generations?

We hear all the time about the different generations that make up society. The most applicable these days are:

  • The Greatest Generation – born 1901-1924. …
  • The Silent Generation – born 1925-1945. …
  • The Baby Boomer Generation – born 1946-1964. …
  • Generation X – born 1965-1979. …
  • Millennials – born 1980-1994. …
  • Generation Z – born 1995-2012. …
  • Gen Alpha – born 2013 – 2025.

The genealogical order and impact of the people in these generations is critically important to politicians, advertisers, marketers, and people in charge of planning and allocating resources. Each generation is shaped by the times in which it was raised, and each is very different.

Generations in terms of Common Ancestors

In terms of your family tree, people in the same generation are the same number of degrees (or the same number of people) away from a common ancestor. You and a sibling (even if you’re an only child and it’s a theoretical sibling) would be in the same generation because it takes each of you one step to get to your closest shared common ancestor—your parents.

You and your Neice (you can imagine one for this example) are part of different generations because it takes you a different number of steps to get to a common ancestor—your parents (one step for you), her grandparents (two steps for her).

If you’re calculating the number of generations between you and your descendants, the shared ancestor is you. Your children are one generation from you, their children are two generations away, and so on.


What about aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews?

An aunt or uncle is a sibling of your parent or a person married to your parent’s sibling. For example, a man your aunt gets married to becomes your uncle. If she marries a woman, your aunt’s wife also becomes your aunt.

Biologically, an aunt is your mom or dad’s sister; an uncle is your mom or dad’s brother. A nephew is the son of your brother or sister; a niece is the daughter of your brother or sister.

Where does “Grand” come in?

In genealogical terms, Grand means two generations apart. Therefore, a grandparent and grandchild are two generations away: between the child and parent is 1 generation, between the child and grandparent are 2 generations.

The word grand linked with aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews also means two generations away. Here’s just one example: Your grandaunt is the sister of your grandparent, and you’re her grandniece or grandnephew.

What about great? Many call their grandaunt or granduncle their great aunt or great uncle. Both are correct. The terminology used often varies by family and region in which a family lives.


What about “Great” relationships?

A relationship described as Great indicates people are 3 or more generations apart.

Each additional “great” adds 1 more generation. A great-grandparent is 3 generations away because “great” add 1 generation, and “grand” adds 2 generations.

“Great” and “grand” work the same way with aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Your granduncle is 2 generations away; your great-granduncle is 3 generations away. Your great-grandniece is your sibling’s great-granddaughter. You’re your great-grandniece’s great-grandaunt.



First cousins are the children of (their parent’s) siblings. I gave you an example earlier in this article about my first cousin whose mother was the sister of my mother. First cousins therefore share a set of grandparents, and are the same generation as each other. They’re both two generations away from the grandparents they share.

If first cousins have children, the children are second cousins to each other. They’re the same generation because they share a set of great-grandparents. Back to my personal example, my children and the children of my first cousin are second cousins.

Continuing the same way, if second cousins have children, the children are third cousins to each other. They’re in the same generation because they share a set of great-great-grandparents (their common ancestor).


What about the whole “Removed” thing?

Removed means from a different generation. When cousins are in different generations than one other, they’re described as removed. You can look at it as removed” is like “grand” and “great”, but having to do with cousins.

Once removed means a difference of 1 generation, twice removed means a difference of 2 generations, and so on. If your first cousin has a child, this child is your first cousin once removed. Therefore, my first cousins daughters are my first cousins once removed.

A difference of one generation higher in the tree is still once removed. Your parent’s first cousin is your first cousin once removed.


What about Half Relationships?

Genealogically, children who share only 1 parent are half-siblings.

All other half-relationships arise from a half-sibling relationship. People related to you through your half-sibling, or through the half-sibling of one of your ancestors, are considered to have “half” relationships to you.

For example:

  • your half neice is your half sibling’s daughter
  • your half grand-uncle is your grandparent’s half brother
  • the children of half siblings are half cousins


If you’re interested in some of the things to be aware of when documenting adoptions, uncertain relationships, unofficial permanent-type relationships, multiple marriages, and other more common scenarios, just let me know and I’ll try to explain how they tend to be recorded on family trees.

Remember that as far as the emotional links in your family, it doesn’t matter what the technical way is to document connections. The technical ways matter because it’s nice to know who and where you’re from to help have a solid feeling of self. (Again, if you’d like more information about the research behind that statement, just let me know.) But as always, what matters most are the connections themselves. For example, a “half” relationship can be more full of love than a “full” relationship. Or a cousin through marriage, once removed, can be more important in your life than your closest full sibling. Family members who were adopted are every bit as important as those who have a biological origin.

Any questions? Want more information about anything genealogy related? Have any good genealogy stories to share? Reach out to me at frominhere@gmail.com – I’d love to hear from you!

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