Unmarried Relatives: Please Don’t Overlook Them, by Paula Stuart Warren

IrisIt’s important to research every member in your ancestors’ families. I cringe when I hear a family historian say that they didn’t trace their great-grandmother’s two sisters because neither of them married or probably had no children. They might be missing some of the greatest tidbits of their family history and even the old family Bible or scrapbook. I would guess that some of you readers are today’s single sibling and are caring for the older generation or live in the old family home.

The Last Child at Home
Unmarried relatives may have been the last of the siblings to leave the family home or may have been the one to stay and take care of Mom after Dad passed away. Often, they continue to live in the house after Mom is gone. This might be the sibling who ended up with the family pictures, Dad’s letters from the Spanish-American War, Mom’s old address book, or that family Bible. Without such a connection to unmarried collateral relatives, I would never have seen the picture of my great-grandmother Betsy and the two sisters who also left Sweden and settled in the Midwest.

One set of my Irish great-great-grandparents were a bit tough to research. They lived in a relatively big city and had the common name of Cook. I had concentrated on their son, John, who was my great-grandfather. I remember great-grandpa John and can still visualize the apartment where he used to live. Of course, it helps that his widow, my Nana, survived him by a number of years and lived in that same place.

Once I thought I had exhausted all the possible records to figure out more about them, on a whim, I decided to track a son of theirs, William Cook. He died as a young man, was still living with his parents, and due to his age, I assumed there were no children. I was correct in this assumption. However, I neglected to check for an obituary in the big city newspaper and finally did so after a year. I figured the obituary would not even exist in 1899–-after all, he was not famous or infamous. Imagine my surprise some twenty years ago when I did check and found a short two line notice that included: “Faribault papers please copy.” With a little additional help from my grandmother, I now knew where to look for more family records. This led to connections with a whole passel of relatives, the name of the parish in Ireland, and some records from that parish. What if I had not researched this unmarried family member?

Extra Details
An unmarried relative or one without children in the household may have had more time to be an active volunteer in the community. They may be mentioned in the local newspaper, especially in a more rural area. A story about that person’s death may include such things as “when Ms. Hanley moved to Minnesota from Pennsylvania she was following in the footsteps of her sister and brother-in-law, John and Anna Griffith who arrived here five years earlier.” This person might have been very active in their church and minutes from the Ladies Aid Society may mention your relative several times over. Several local news columns I have read include items such as “Ms. Griffin hosted a card party;” “Ms. Griffin was the guest of her sister Mrs. John Smith;” and “Ms. Griffin recently returned from a visit to her sister Mrs. James Jones in Omaha.”

Probate Records
For other never-married members of the family there likely are no children and no husband to whom they left their real property or personal possessions. There may or may not be a will leaving things to the nieces and nephews. If there was property of either kind to be divided, it is more helpful to find that the relative did not leave a will to be probated. Without a will, the law may have provided that in such a case, the estate was to go to first to her parents.

At the time she passed away, her parents were long deceased and perhaps this person was not in regular contact with her siblings who legally were next in line to inherit. The court likely ordered a search be done to determine the siblings or their descendants (in the case of a deceased sibling) who would share in the estate. If the oldest sister, Anna Marie and also her husband were deceased, Anna Marie’s share would likely be divided among her children. They would then be named in the probate proceeding. Just think of how many additional relatives this could add to your family tree.

Every member of the family is a vital cog in research. The laws in effect at the time determine how this is handled and it may also depend on where the deceased resided, place of death, and the location of the real and personal property to be divided. You may find a time period and locality where the search also included previous generations.

Sale of Inherited Land
In some cases, this genealogical study may be necessary for inherited land to be sold. There may have been six siblings who inherited land “out West” or in the “old country” from their father. When the never-married sibling died, the heirs may need to be found for permission to sell land or determine the inherited share due to siblings or their descendants.

Lesson Learned for All of Us
Try to locate and check the records for every family member, married or unmarried, living in the ancestral state or the wanderer–with children or without children–-records about these sometimes neglected family members might help you get past some roadblocks in your research. It is more convenient to do these searches today than it was twenty years ago. With the explosion of electronic databases (including the ever-expanding Ancestry.com) you now have some extra tools to help find these people who are vital to your family tree. Don’t just research them on a whim–-do it because it is necessary and often fruitful.

About the Author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, of St. Paul, Minnesota is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer. She has lectured all across the U.S. and coordinates the Intermediate Course, American Records & Research at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She is a contributor to several genealogical periodicals including
Ancestry Magazine. Comments will reach her at <PSWResearch@comcast.net> Paula is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of e-mails received. From time to time comments from readers may be quoted in my writings. I will not use your name but may use your place of residence (e.g., Davenport, IA).

Upcoming Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG
(I enjoy meeting fellow genealogists at these events so please introduce yourself as an “Ancestry Weekly Journal” and “24/7 Family History Circle” reader.)

5 thoughts on “Unmarried Relatives: Please Don’t Overlook Them, by Paula Stuart Warren

  1. My great-uncle Donald Rockwell had been married, but had no children. It never occurred to me to ask him about family matters, as he was a younger child. About 15 years after his death, my sister-n-law received a phone call asking if she would be interested in some papers and photos, that included the Rockwell name. She of course said yes. A metal box containing pictures and a few documents of my great-grandfather Elwin Rockwell had been left in an outbuilding of the house my uncle had lived in, his wife had outlived him several years. My suggestion — ask no matter the position in the family and/or if they have no children.
    Katherine McArthur

  2. One of the best finds I ever made in genealogy was an estate settlement made when a son of my ancestor died in 1864, 50 years after his father’s death! The son died with no heirs. All of his 14 siblings, who they married, and where they lived in 1864 were listed, along with the names of their children and spouses and in many cases the names of the children’s children – about two hundred names and relationships. In cases where some of the siblings had already died, dates or estimates were given.

  3. In two different familiesof mine, a never married female helped me to locate family members. These females lived with their sisters after the sisters married. Not knowing what the sister’s married name was made it difficult to find the married sisters. Tracing the unmarried woman helped me to determine who her sisters had married.
    In another case, I researched a child of a direct ancestor, even thought the child died before he could marry and have children. His death certificate was filled out by his parents and conveyed that the father was from County Tipperary-a fact not known before that (though I had tried to find this info) I was then able to send for and get birth records for the direct ancestor and his siblings.

  4. My great Aunt died a few years ago. She was the youngest of four children (10 yrs after her 3 siblings)and had never married. She knew all the answers to questions my mother asked on my behalf. She was old school and would not talk about the “secrets” with children in the room (I was 25!). She would tire easy so had to take breaks and never got to answer alot of my questions on her last visit. She died a few months later taking her knowledge with her. It took my parents 4 months to arrange the trip to get her belongings and another year for us to get through what they brought back (lg uhual truck and they still left alot behind) Anyway my Aunt kept everything! first we found over 1000 negatives neatly arranged in envelopes dating back to 1890’s- all identified with dates locations and NAMES!(some even the relation). This tided me over for months getting developed. Last summer I finally made it to an old steamer trunk and found old scrapbooks (the ones with recipes and magazine clippings)and all my aunts College work (did I mention she kept everything lol)I almost tossed this one giant folder when I decided that she was like me and kept her meaningful things- I am so glad I looked becuase the folder contained essays she wrote about her dad (my gt grandfather )some about before he died and what he was like and some about a vacation place the family owned where her dad died. (stories I am transcribing and scanning the handwritten originals). Lastly about three months ago(three years to the week after my aunt died) I was transfering a few cardboard boxes into protective boxes when I discover the best treasures. Copies of deeds from the house my gt gt grandparents bought in 1888, my great grandfathers war records and hidden in an altoids container with a bunch of art supplies were his war medals!!!!. there were birth records death records buriel deeds and countless other things. so this just shows to look inside everything and leave no relative untouched/searched ESPECIALLY the OLD MAIDS! 🙂
    oh and on a side note, I have yet to be married and have two children with their dads last name but look at all the treasures I have!!!

  5. If I read correctly, the widow of your great-grandfather John was your grandmother (Nana).
    Perhaps this was a misprint?
    I agree wholeheartedly with your recommendation concerning research on unmarried family members, and those married ones without children. Too often they get just a page in the family book, with some dry statitics.

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