How Do You Define "Family"?
This may seem like an easy question, but I beg to differ. Although the dictionary definition of "family" is defined as "a group of people who are related to each other", this definition doesn't quite cut it; at least to me.
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, there were a number of people closely involved in my life that I called aunt, uncle or cousin, but several of these people were not related to me by either blood or by marriage. These people were very close family friends, people who my parents had grown up with and, as they married and had children, they were considered our "aunts" or "uncles", and their children became our "cousins". Calling these people by the same pronouns as I did my blood relatives didn't diminish my respect or feelings for my "true" relatives, rather it elevated my respect and feelings for these special individuals.
I bring up this point as I still, even at 55, refer to these people as my aunts, uncles and cousins, whether or not they are still with us today. The fact that they were not related to me by blood doesn't really matter - they were important people not only in my parent's or my grandmother's lives (I only had 1 grandparent growing up), but they were also important in my life. In some cases my relationships with these individuals was closer than it was to actual family members, often through the fact that several of my relatives were scattered about the country or we, as a family, simply did not interact with them on a frequent basis (read: weddings & funerals).
Does the fact that the people that I referred to as my aunt or uncle so-and-so, or referred to their children as my cousins matter? I think that it does.
In my years of family history research, I have often deviated from simply going back through my family in a straight line, preferring to gather as much information as I possibly can about all the interesting people that made up - and make up - my family. In conducting my research about very distant relatives, I often find connections to other interesting people and then I'm off on a tangent, researching people who are not even related to me by blood. Some genealogists may frown on this, but I don't care; I want to put together a picture of my ancestors and their lives to the best of my ability, and excluding so much of what was important to them during their lifetime would be, IMHO, a dishonor to their memory.
By including non-blood relatives in my family tree, such as the relatives of spouses that married into my family, I have made many, many incredible discoveries. Even though these people are not always blood relatives, their lives are no less interesting - and in many cases MORE interesting - than my own family members. This has also lead me to a myriad of what I like to call "6 degrees of separation" between myself and several intriguing historic figures (and many living people who are VERY interesting). When I do add such a person to my family tree, or to my website or blog, I always make sure to clearly state how they are or are not related to me and to my family. For me this is important so as not to confuse or mislead any future family researcher, and it also helps me paint a fuller picture of just how many important and interesting people with whom my family has been involved.
When you start digging into the lives of family members who married into your family, there are often a lot of very interesting historical information that you can discover. This also holds true for family friends (if you can manage to find them), especially if you are able to glean some information about your ancestor's friends from census records, travel documents, newspaper articles, wedding announcements,
obituaries, etc. You never know what you will find, and that's part of the fun of doing this type of research - you never know what treasures are out there to discover!