Opinion

Halves and steps

Sometime or other the kinship feature in your genealogical software will indicate that someone is a half-cousin or half-sibling.  If you’re new to genealogy this may puzzle you.  How can a person be a half?  We seldom use these terms today but let’s take a look at what they mean to a genealogist. 

Let’s say Sally has a brother, Joe.  Sally has a son, William.  Joe and his wife, Margie, have a daughter, Julia.  Julia is William’s first cousin.  Now, let’s say that Joe and Margie divorce and Joe marries Ellen.  Joe and Ellen have a daughter, Susan.  How does she relate in the family?  Julia and Susan have the same father, but not the same mother.  That makes them half-sisters.  As for William, Julia is his first cousin and Susan is his first half-cousin.  If Uncle Joe and his new wife have other children, they will also be half-cousins to William.  And all will be half siblings to Julia.

In other words, to be a full cousin to anyone requires having the same two parents.  If they don’t, you’ll see the telltale “half” label, which will clue you to look for other marriages you may not have known existed.

Perhaps the most famous half-sisters in history were the two daughters of Henry VIII, Mary I, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn.  Both became queens of England.

Now, let’s suppose that Ellen, who married Joe, was married before and she has a son by her first husband, named Sam.  What is Sam to Julia, Susan, and William?  To Susan he’s a half-brother because they share a mother, Ellen, but not a father.  To Julia he’s a stepbrother — there’s no blood relationship between them just that they both have one parent married to each other’s.  And what is William to Sam?  Nothing.  They don’t share a relationship unless their family trees connect back in time, which is always possible.

One last tidbit: half-siblings cannot legally marry, but stepsiblings can.  Stepbrothers often married stepsisters, and you’ll find this common in many families, especially in rural or isolated areas where marriage partners were scarce.  As for stepparents, the most infamous stepmother was Cinderella’s, and she was blessed with stepsisters as well.

Today we usually only refer to people as brothers and sisters and don’t differentiate with halves or steps, but genealogists do note the differences. 

To get back to Henry VIII he once thought of petitioning the Pope to allow his legitimate daughter Mary to marry her half-brother, son of one of Henry’s many mistresses.  But then he met Anne Boleyn and abandoned the plan.  Henry finally got his longed for son by his third wife so Mary, Elizabeth, and the new son, Edward, were all half-siblings and all would rule England.  

This has been a basic explanation but I’m sure some of you have puzzled over the meanings of halves and steps and perhaps felt awkward asking.  I hope this will help make it clear.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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