It may be shocking from our point-of-view, but the past convention of cousins marrying cousins adds a lost dimension to our family trees. As I learn to unravel the knots, I become more captivated by this complexity, both from the visual challenge of charting and from the stories implied by the data.
So, before I go on with more charting fun, I wish to share the one that opened the Pandora’s box for me. In researching my 3GGrandmother from Hermeskeil, Germany, I discovered she had been married before her union with my 3GGrandfather. Curious, I researched her first husband, and kept seeing the same sirnames over and over. Soon, I puzzled together that four Dellwo siblings married four Schirra siblings! It was not obvious until I researched the family unit at a whole.
From this knot, tracing further backwards in time, I discovered more sibling pairs, though as doubles not, like this one, quadruples. Charting these knots has become quite an education in relationship possibilities! The resulting formation is not a tree. In addition to knots, there are genealogical chains, intergenerational overlaps, and loops of interfamily connections.
Forgive me, dear fancy website tree designers (or fans), but I find the standard formats too limiting. They try to fit square pegs in round holes, and reality doesn’t work that way. Most importantly, the tree formation distorts reality rather than enhances it. I threw mine out in favor of a new formation, inspired by this ancient knot-forming marriage convention. And, to understand what this means also must consider the historic context.
For those ancestors included in this illustration, born at the dawn of the 19th century, conditions in Germany were desperate. Wars, disease, famine—all took their toll. Even so, there was also only so much land to divide among descendants. These families lived in border towns that went back and forth between France and Germany. Just about every European conflict, between those two countries, marched through their villages. There are some clusters of death dates that indicate devastating events. So marrying cousins was protection for survival as a family during the turbulent waves. Times of peace were shorter than times of war for centuries!
Of these four pairs, the convention of interfamily marriages does end after this point that of configuring the largest number of participants. Tracking them from here turns a page in the history books:
• Johann Peter Dellwo and Maria Magdalena Schirra immigrated to Eagle River, Minnesota, with small children in tow, before 1856. Then there was a twist in this line. The cousin coupling did not end with the bang of these four marriages. It went out with a whimper containing one more knot: at the same time Johann Peter and Maria Magdalena escaped the nastiness of Germany, their second cousin Maria Magdalena Dellwo also emigrated to Minnesota, with her husband (another cousin) and their children. They produced grandchildren who married in Minnesota—a fourth cousin sibling pair. Eagle River was a small place!
• Karl Schirra and Anna Maria Dellwo had ten children. But in my database searches so far, there is no information of their fate. Generally, this means they emigrated somewhere, especially when comparing to the movements of their siblings. Where did they go?
• Reinhard Dellwo and Margaretha Schirra emigrated to Brazil in 1844—again, as a young family. It had to be incredibly bad in Germany to move a cluster of young children! Records of their descendants are currently out of the scope of my current research.
• Katharina Dellwo was my direct ancestor. Married also to a Schirra, she lost him within the first year of marriage. Sad. (With a gap of five years, she then married into a family that was responsible for a whole series of knots on my chart! Although Schmitt is one of the most common German names, my branches had the kindness to marry those with traceable names. Two branches of Schmitts weave around all the other surnames. But, that is another chapter.) Katharina and Christian had eight children, and it seems they all left Germany, though Katharina and Christian stayed. However, Christian’s brother Johann Peter Schmitt came to frontier Illinois in 1840, with wife and children, and built a log cabin in Ridgeville (today part of Chicago). I discovered that I have a sixth cousin who still lives on Johann Peter’s homestead property about three miles south of my house, along the same Green Bay Trail.
So who stayed in Germany of these families? With this mass exodus of young families, what was it like for their parents to say goodbye to their children and grandchildren, knowing they will never see them again?
A couple of the older children from these unions did stay behind. And, there was another sibling on this stage: Nicholas Schirra, married a cousin from another of my branches, and did not emigrate. Rather, his descendants continued to have a fondness for the same Schmitt branches! Research here showed the convention of cousin marriages did continue, but on a much-reduced scale.
Those who research arranged marriages tend focus on inheritance as the motivation. The practice of reciprocal marriages adds to that motivation. The inheritance laws were clear: oldest son takes all. Or, the husband of the eldest daughter (if there is no son) takes all. Arranged marriages were for economic reasons. But they were also for safety. There are no strangers that way. Call this a paranoid society, but they must have spent tremendous energy trying to stay out of harm’s way. Death dates hint that many young men perished in military service, and a few family groups were victims of catastrophes. There are more stories in sibling knots because options of the era can be more discerned.
The way to begin charting these complex relationships is with the sibling pairs. From these points, the marriages between cousins becomes a matter of which generation the union occurs—most are marriages between third cousins. In a way, I am lucky that this quadruple sibling knot is broken up by separating through emigration. I feel already challenged by charting the double pairs and interlinking chains!
Now the family charts will take on a new, more diverse, geographically spread, dimension. The chart becomes more linear, and the tree-structure does work. But go back five or more generations, and the tree becomes more confusing than helpful. When I did let go of it, I started learning how to comprehend the complex.
• • • • • • •
It is a pleasure to help embellish research with customized images I can provide. Always excited to learn more about other places and times, I can work within any parameters clients require. Please enjoy this glimpse into possibilities.
If I can help you with unraveling charting knots or for new ways to create family illustrations, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
—Always inspired, Liane
Please enjoy these examples from my growing portfolio:
FAMILY TREE CHART DESIGN • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Closer than Close: Charting Sibling Pairs
MAPS • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
ILLUSTRATION • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Historic Approach towards illustration: expressing the meaning of the numbers