By Daniel Hubbard | October 23, 2011
John Q. Tangential is one of my favorite people in genealogy. He married a great-aunt or bought land next to a third cousin once removed. Then he moved west and was found in the census on the same page as another family of interest that wasn’t supposed to be related to him in any way at the time. Sometimes John shows up when an ancestor’s document needs to be witnesses. Sometimes an ancestor even leaves him something in a will for no known reason.
Often you don’t recognize him at first because the record says “J Taneshal” but then it occurs to you that it is him. Other times you stumble across William Tanketal and suspect he is John’s brother. There is also that Conrad Coincidental that might turn up from time to time. When investigation shows that he is John’s brother-in-law, suddenly neither of them seems so coincidental. Why, one has to ask, do they both show up every so often?
Ancestors may be the main “suspects” in family history detective work, followed closely by their siblings but what about John and the rest of the Tangentials and their kin? Why research them?
Hunting for Tangential Clues
John is someone I just made up, of course, but the idea is very real. There are these people who appear out in the genealogical fringes who can be worth investigating. Sometimes they are distant relatives, sometimes just people who show up in the same context as an ancestor one too many times to be clearly chance. Sometimes when an ancestor left few footprints for us to follow or we simply lose track of a family, John Q. Tangential can be leaving a trail that is easier to find, a wide swathe through the genealogical landscape. Some people I’m hunting seem like the equivalent of master thieves, they simply leave no clues behind. If we family historians are lucky, John is the incompetent sidekick that leaves fingerprints everywhere, forgets his jacket at the scene of the crime and goes back to the bank to ask if they have a lost-and-found they could check.
My latest John Q. Tangential was the uncle of the wife of the man I was interested in tracking. The ancestor in question was known to have wandered a bit. Nothing out of the ordinary but I couldn’t explain why and it is often the answer to “why?” that turns names and dates into human beings. When I first found John, I wasn’t sure if he was related at all but he lived in an interesting area and had the right last name to be nicely tangential.
After I learned enough to suspect that John was the wife’s uncle, I decided to investigate him a bit. Lo and behold, John was a diarist. His diaries not only mentioned his journey to visit distant relatives, including his niece and her husband, the man I was after, but also when and where he saw each of those relatives. He talked about my quarry’s plans to move down to where John was living. John wrote of their arrival. He wrote of them setting up shop. He wrote of his nearly constant visits, often multiple times per day. He wrote of when they decided to move to a town a few miles away and how that made it difficult but not impossible for him to continue his frequent visits. He wrote of their decision to move west. He left me wondering if they intentionally moved far enough that he couldn’t visit anymore.
John provided some possible answers to “why?” and many wonderful details. He was certainly a worthwhile man to investigate and a good friend once I got to know him, even if he did tend to drop in an awful lot. So when in doubt, trying hanging out with John. He just might turn out to be the blabber mouth who will spill your ancestors proverbial beans.