Once I learn the names of an ancestor’s parents, I am in a position to trace the marriages of the next generation farther back in the line. But first, I set about documenting all of that ancestor’s brothers and sisters whom I find in the same parish, and all of my ancestor's children, including step-children and children by other spouses. And why do I bother with anyone other than the child who was my direct ancestor? There are at least seven good reasons.
First, I want to know more about my ancestors than names, dates, and places; I want to reconstruct their lives as much as possible, so that they can be remembered as real people rather than as entries in a database or on a pedigree chart. This means I have to know more about the family as a whole. The people who were important to my ancestor are therefore important to me.
Quebec records show that in general, there was no social distinction made between full siblings and half-siblings: your half-brother or half-sister is your brother or sister, period. Your half-sister’s husband is your brother-in-law. Your mother’s step-brother is your uncle. (The same holds true with my living cousins, by the way. Some customs are worth keeping, and I think this one’s a good one.) These people were important to that ancestor, and I can’t understand her if I ignore them.
It also means that the witnesses to the marriages of siblings and other relatives, as well as the godparents of all related children may provide crucial clues that can help me take my direct line back to the previous generation. They can also tell me if I’ve picked the wrong person as my direct ancestor: a man who is proved to be still at his home parish in Quebec on a given date in 1836 can’t possibly be my ancestor if my ancestor is proved to be in, say, Wisconsin a week later.
Second, the marriage records of my ancestor’s siblings can give me information as to where the parents were living at the time and/or when the parents died. For example, I may have a burial record for someone with the same name as my fourth great-grandfather, but since so many names were so common, and approximate age at death is not always recorded (and those ages that were recorded are often wild guesses), that record could be for someone else. However, if I know that in September 1752 my fifth great-grandfather Jean-Baptiste was a witness to daughter Marie-Thérèse’s marriage, and that the January 1757 marriage record for son Michel states that Jean-Baptiste was dead by then, I can eliminate any Jean-Baptiste who died before Marie-Thérèse’s marriage or who was still alive after Michel’s marriage date.
Or, if no burial record for Jean-Baptiste has survived, the two marriage records still give me a reasonable 5-plus year time frame for his death. This can help me to find a testament or an inventory of the property he left or a later marriage for his widow.
Not all burials appear in the records, by the way, especially before 1800, and especially for infants and their mothers, who all-too-often died during the first days or weeks after the child’s birth.
Imagine yourself as a habitant in 1703 rural Quebec. If you live more than a day’s travel to the nearest church, you may not be able to take the corpse of your spouse or child to the church cemetery even if you own a horse or an ox and oxcart. If it’s winter, the road (if there is one) may be impassable or invisible, or a blizzard could easily make you get lost. If it’s spring, you or your little farmstead could be in danger of Indian attack, or—since the growing season is rather short so far north—you may need to get your field plowed and seed sown without delay. If it’s harvest time, you need to harvest your crops while the weather is still good and get them into your barn before the autumn rains ruin them. In other words, if you don’t take care of the farm which is your livelihood, you and your family may starve next winter. The needs of the living outweigh the needs of the dead. Besides, you certainly don’t want to endanger other family members by leaving them unprotected or ill from whatever ailment killed this one.
So, you dig a grave on your farmstead, say some prayers and shed your tears, and lay the body to rest, cover it and probably mark it with a makeshift wooden cross. Your duty to the living must take precedence over the niceties of proper burial; you do the best you can. There will be no official record made of the burial, but probably everyone in the parish will eventually hear about it.
If your Quebec ancestor fell into the river and drowned, and the body was not recovered, the parish curé would doubtless say prayers and do his best to comfort the family, but there will be no burial record because burial was impossible.
If your ancestor was captured by Indians, it was highly unlikely that his or her remains would ever be found, although in some cases fellow captives who later escaped or were freed might be able to verify the death so that a surviving spouse could re-marry. (This happened with my 8G Grandfather Louis Guimont in 1659. His widow, 8G Grandmother Jeanne Bitouset did in fact marry again and had 7 more children with her second husband.)
(On the other hand, captured children sometimes showed up alive years after their families had given up hope. This happened with Anne, a daughter of my 8G Grandparents Mathurin Baillargeon and Marie Métayer, captured in 1655 and recovered in 1663. A 9G Grandfather of mine, Pierre Gareman, and his 10-year-old son Charles were both captured in 1653; it is safe to say that the father died a horrible death, but Charles, in Iroqois clothing and with an Iroqois wife, came to the city of Quebec in 1677 to get their infant daughter Louise baptized. Charles and his wife went back into the wilderness and were never seen again by white settlers, but Louise was left in the care of the Ursuline Convent in Quebec, where she died 6 years later.)
Third, the marriage records of my ancestor’s relatives and in-laws may show my ancestor as a witness to the marriage. The baptism records of nieces and nephews may name my ancestor as a godparent. In fact, I can learn a lot about my ancestor’s activities and his standing in the community by taking note of who invites him or her to be a godparent to their child; I can also use this information to sort out my ancestor from the three other persons with the same name, about the same age, who live in the same parish.
Fourth, I often find that there are cross-marriages between my ancestor’s siblings and the siblings of his or her spouse. My Grandpa Henry’s brother Leo married my Grandma Clara’s sister Annie, and a third brother, Frank, married Clara and Annie’s half-sister. My mother therefore has a set of double cousins and a set of first cousins who are also half-first cousins. I used to think this was highly unusual. Now I know it was not at all uncommon in Quebec. Three siblings of Great-Grandfather’s Joseph’s father married three siblings of his mother. I know of one pair of families with no less than five cross-marriages between their children. (One of the fathers was a half-brother to my direct ancestor.)
Fifth, I track the siblings because their records will generally yield more information about the parents and their child who is also my direct ancestor, such as where they were living at a particular time, occupation, and the family social status. Sometimes it leads to a missing marriage or death record if such an event occurred while visiting a relative who lived in another parish.
Sixth, descendants of the siblings will certainly show up in the records of my direct ancestor’s descendants and it’s helpful to recognize that relationship, especially if the surname is different from my direct ancestor’s. Moreover, the living descendants of those siblings may have found information about my ancestor that I lack, and if I can find them on an online message board or website we can connect and help each other fill in the blanks in our family histories.
For example, I met a third cousin online, descended from one of Great-Grandfather Joseph’s brothers. He helped “firm up” my identification of Great-Grandfather Joseph by telling me that, in an old family diary, he had seen a notation for the death of his great-grandfather’s brother Joseph Chaussé. The notation gave the correct month and day but the year was off and the place of death was said to be in Detroit rather than in Baraga. Now, if you are a devout Catholic, what counts is the anniversary day and month of a death so that you can go to the church on that anniversary, light a candle, and say some prayers for the soul of the deceased. The year and town errors were therefore insignificant, while the correct death month and day proved that Joseph must have maintained contact with his siblings when they came to the USA.
In return, I was able to give that third cousin the birth record for his great-grandfather François-Xavier in Ste-Élisabeth. (He had been planning to go to Salt Lake City to find it, because he had no reasonable access to a Family History Center and the Quebec parish records were not yet online at Ancestry.com.)
Seventh, knowing the names of an ancestor’s close relatives enables you to identify naming patterns or customs. Those patterns can help you sort out family groups and firm up the identification. There were several Joseph Chaussés in Quebec who could have been my great-grandfather, but I picked Great-Grandfather Joseph Chosa out of the crowd because (like his parents and several of his children) he named most of his children after siblings and other close relatives. He had two first cousins named Philomène, and his first documented daughter was Philomena. His sons Eugene, Henry, Francis, and his daughter Séraphine were clearly named for three of Joseph’s brothers and one of his sisters. Leo was probably named for Joseph’s uncle Léon. Alexander was probably named for one or both of Joseph’s uncles named Alexis. Son Peter may have been named for Joseph’s father-in-law Pierre Forcier.
This is how cluster genealogy works.