One thing that is poorly understood in determining family relationships is cousinship. In particular, what makes someone a first, second, or fifth cousin and what does once removed mean? There are lots of cousin charts out on the Internet to help with this, but it really just comes down to some counting.

First, though, a general explanation. Cousins can trace their ancestry back to a common pair of ancestors. The rank of a cousin, such as first, second, etc. indicates the distance from the common ancestor to the closest of the two cousins. The once or twice removed part indicates the distance in generations between the two cousins.

# Determining the level of cousin

- Determine who the pair of common ancestors is for the two cousins.
- Count the number of generations to that pair for each cousin.
- Take the lower of the two numbers. If they are the same then take that number.
- Subtract one from the result of step #3. That is the level of the cousins.

For example, take your uncle’s son:

- The common ancestors would be the grandparents.
- Your grandparents are two generations before you and your uncle’s son.
- Since the numbers are the same then work with the number two.
- Subtract one from two, and you have one. You and your uncle’s son are first cousins.

# Determining the times removed

- Determine the pair of common ancestors for the two cousins.
- Count the number of generations to that ancestor for each cousin.
- Subtract the lower number from the higher. This is the number of times removed.

I will now apply this to the previous example, computing the relationship with your uncle’s son:

- The common ancestors would be the grandparents.
- Your grandparents are two generations before you and your uncle’s son.
- Subtract two from two, and you find that your uncle’s son is a first cousin zero time removed, or a first cousin.

# Eleanor and Franklin

Now to a more interesting example. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were cousins. She didn’t even have to change her last name when they got married. Refer to a nice chart of this on the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project as I calculate their level of cousinship.

## Cousin level

- The common ancestor is Nicholas Roosevelt.
- Nicholas is six generations before Franklin and seven before Eleanor. (Start the count with each of their fathers and go back through Nicholas Roosevelt.)
- Franklin’s six generations is lower than Eleanor’s seven, so we will take the six.
- Subtract one, and Franklin and Eleanor are fifth cousins.

## Times removed

There is just a little more to it. Now let’s determine how many times removed they are.

- The common ancestor is Nicholas Roosevelt.
- Nicholas is six generations before Franklin and seven before Eleanor.
- Seven minus six is one, so Franklin and Eleanor were one generation apart, making them cousins once removed.

Combining the two facts, Franklin and Eleanor were fifth cousins once removed.

The counter-intuitive part of all this for me is the part about the level of the cousin being determined by the one closest to the common ancestor. Say, for example, you are a descendant of Charlemagne, and you want to compute your cousin relationship with one of his grandsons who is not an uncle. You are first cousins. Since the grandson is two generations later than Charlemagne, subtract one and you are now first cousins. The distance between you, though is reflected in the times removed. Say you are 48 generations down from Charlemagne. This would make you first cousins forty-six times removed. Now you sound more distant.

Another point is that no matter the age or the position in the tree for the cousins, they have the same relationship to each other. Nothing indicates which one is higher up on the tree, just that there is a difference in the levels if one exists. This is why Eleanor and Franklin are both fifth cousins once removed to each other.

Nothing to it, and once you get the hang of the two formulas it is easier to use them than using cousin charts. Work through the steps with some examples in your family and soon you will be computing cousins with ease.

What a handy tool. I am printing it for future reference. Thank you.

Meryl

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Ok, I always thought that was something people just “made up” (aka…I totally don’t get it, so I will ignore it as a fictional thing!). This is just fascinating! Would you be willing to do a guest post on my blog about this?

Let me know!

Thanks :)

Kassie aka “Mom”