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Ancestors and Collateral Relatives

An ancestor is a person who another person is directly descended from. While the true definition of an ancestor includes parents and grandparents, in genealogy, ancestors are typically great grandparents and earlier.

Ancestors are either maternal (those on your mother’s side) or paternal (those on your father’s side), and are doubled during each generation. Each person has eight great grandparents, 16 2nd great-grandparents, 32 3rd great grandparents, 64 4th great grandparents, 128 5th great grandparents, and so on. Just researching your ancestors can keep you busy for a lifetime.

Many genealogists typically begin their research by focusing on their direct ancestors. These are typically the individuals that are most sought after in genealogy, since they tell us the most about our family histories. Focusing only on your ancestors also enables you to learn as much as you can about doing genealogy without becoming too overwhelmed or frustrated.

Genealogist wishing to become members of certain genealogical organizations, such as Sons or Daughters of the American Revelation, The Mayflower Society, or the National Society of New England Women, will have to a prove direct relationship to an ancestor who participated in the event as related to the specific organization. These organizations typically do not allow members to join unless they can prove a direct relationship. Documents often used to prove ancestry include birth, death, or marriage certificates, census records, published genealogies, and more.


Collateral relatives are any relatives who are not directly related to you, but who shares a common ancestor. This includes aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. While genealogists typically being their research with a focus on their ancestors, many will eventually begin to research collateral relatives as well.

There are a few reasons why a genealogist may decide to research collateral relatives, referred to as cluster research. Perhaps the most important of these reasons is to help break down a genealogical brick wall. Collateral relatives can lead us to our missing ancestors. They may have migrated together, lived near one another (or even with one another), had misspellings of their names (which was a very common occurrence), and more.

Cluster research can also lead you to other genealogists who are researching a common ancestor. Other genealogists may be able to answer questions, provide new information, or share unknown photographs of your ancestors with you. Exchanging information with other genealogists is an efficient way to progress your own genealogical research.