Recently, a subscriber to the Our Black Ancestry Facebook group generated a lengthy discussion when she posted the following question, “Is anyone finding cousins marrying cousins in their tree? Or one set of family & another set intermarrying & being connected in other ways?” The lengthy dialogue that followed was definitely an indication that “kissing cousins” occurred much more often than what people think. I thought of ten reasons why this can happen. If you have other reasons, feel free to share in the comment section.
1) Back in the day, rural communities became populated from couples having large families. After several generations and numerous marriages (or relations) between others in the same community, many people ended up being related, knowingly or unknowingly, as time passed. Many of the following generations even were double related. To me, it seems like it was an unavoidable phenomenon.
2) Adding to no. 1, travel back then is not like travel today. Therefore, long distance relationships were more difficult then, especially if the family didn’t have a good car (or a healthy horse). This added to the likelihood of consanguineous marriages.
3) I grew up hearing some people say that if a person is beyond a 3rd cousin, then the blood is not there anymore. That was absolutely false, and DNA technology is proving that. I find it fascinating that DNA can detect if two people are related. If these marriages between “distant” cousins were occurring often in the area, then I think that it may have become a norm, in a sense. Nonetheless, some people still didn’t play that; they considered it as “incest”. Grandma and/or Grandpa had to meet your date and ask them that famous question, “Who yo people?” That was to ensure that their grandchild wasn’t marrying their cousin. According to a family elder, before my maternal grandmother married my grandfather, she started “courting” a man named Ben Dean of Coldwater, Mississippi. When my great-grandfather got a wind to this burgeoning courtship, he stopped it immediately, informing my grandmother that she and Ben were cousins. I have since figured out that Ben Dean’s maternal grandfather, Sam Milam, and my grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Lucy Milam Davis, were first cousins.
4) In addition to no. 3, people’s definition of cousinships was often inaccurate. For example, someone who was deemed as a 4th cousin, as far as they knew, may have really been a 2nd cousin-once removed. Therefore, that person may have been considered “safe” to marry without much objection in families where distant-cousin marriages weren’t a big issue. For me, I didn’t start understanding cousinships until I started doing genealogy research. Presently, most people erroneously think that their parent’s first cousin is their second cousin. However, a parent’s first cousin is one’s first cousin-once removed. The term “removed” in cousinships is still largely misunderstood. Also, your child and your first cousin’s child are second cousins to each other. Most people would consider the two to be 3rd cousins. This is a good diagram that further explains cousinships.
5) Family quarrels and broken relationships among earlier generations could easily result in future generations not even knowing that they are related. A deceased family elder shared how one of my great-great-grandfather’s brothers, Uncle Sampson Davis, changed his religion, angering members of his family who were Baptist. Uncle Sampson decided to move to the next town, where he married and had a large family. Sadly, he severed ties with his angry siblings. Generations later, better transportation evolved, allowing for more frequent interactions between people in both towns. Consequently, several of Uncle Sampson’s descendants married (or had relations with) several of his siblings’ descendants. They did not know that they are related because of religion issues several generations back.
6) People may have been influenced by the actions of other groups of people, such as the Scotch-Irish, who often married people as close as first cousins to "keep it in the clan."
7) For African Americans (descendants of enslaved people in America), the chances that we may be distantly related to people we know, whose family roots may hail from different states, are amplified by the fact that many families were permanently separated during slavery. Sadly, many of these broken links will never be traced genealogically. While as a member of the Atlanta chapter of AAHGS (Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society), I interacted with another member that I later discovered through DNA technology is a fairly close maternal relative. For more about that, read An X-chromosome Match Provides Needed Clues.
8) Not possessing much knowledge about your family history can easily result in the possibility of marrying (or having relations with) a close or distant cousin.
9) The non-disclosure of the paternity of a family member could result in two people, who are unknowingly related, marrying (or having relations).
10) Last but not least, some people fell head over heels in love with a “distant” cousin, especially in situations where they didn’t know beforehand that their “ray of sunshine” was a cousin. The attraction and love were so strong, that it overshadowed the fact that they were cousins but not first or second cousins. Cupid hit them hard. Believe it or not, one can’t simply turn off an attraction to someone at the snap of a finger. We can only wish that it was that simple.
If someone starts to research their family tree, and both their mother and father’s families were from the same small community in the South, chances are pretty good that they might figure out that their parents are “distant” cousins (or close cousins). I have seen this numerous times. It happened. There’s nothing to be ashamed about, in my opinion. It makes for an interesting family tree and great conversation. “Great-granddaddy is my 2nd cousin-twice removed” would capture some attention, I imagine.