Tuesday 6 August 2019

Does sharing the same name make you a relative?

We can find many people with the same surname around the world who come from different family lines. Often, they may even have the same unusual spelling that matches our own. But does that mean that they are in any way related to us? Not necessarily!

The people I am talking about might be found within our "families" but are not blood relatives. I have already written about mixed families and individuals that have been adopted (Don’t Forget About Those Half-Brothers and Sisters, 13 January 2015). Some were under formal agreements but, in the distant past, there were frequently never any paper records that demonstrated such relationships. People just took in nephews, nieces, half-cousins or siblings and raised them as their own.

We have all found "cousins" whether through DNA tests or more traditional records. Many would have come down through people who had moved away from their birth places, perhaps to very distant shores. It may have only been accidentally that we ran across them again, through Internet searches and connections that now allow us to view records and databases from international sources.

It is this latter way that Mike, a 5th cousin, found me. As an author of articles, occasional speaker, blogger and Online Parish Clerk, my name is out there where genealogists can find it. I have published many articles and stories about family members, in journals and magazines as well as on my blog. Almost all of them mention the area of Cornwood, Devon, England, where my Shepheard ancestors lived for hundreds of years. A search of 'Cornwood' and 'Shepheard' or with even alternate spellings will bring up references to my work.

OK, so what is all this leading up to?

Mike was born in South Africa and is descended from Shepheards born in Cornwood. His great-grandfather (my 2nd cousin, 3x removed), Richard Shepheard (1861-1934) migrated to South Africa about 1890.  As it turns out, Richard’s father (Mike’s 2nd great-grandfather, my 1st cousin, 4x removed), Nicholas Shepheard (1839-1919), was the last person to own part of the family "estate" there. I wrote about that in a 2011 article about how the lands were passed down to Nicholas through various ancestors' wills.

Incidentally, the family dropped the ‘a’ from their surname. Richard signed his 1886 marriage entry as Shepheard. The birth of his first child was registered in 1887 with the ‘a’; the birth of his second child was registered in 1889 without it. Throughout his life in South Africa he was known as Shepherd. For Nicholas, he made his mark on his 1860 marriage entry and is shown with the Shepherd on most census and other records.

Richard’s family connection is problematic, as is his father’s in some respects. Richard married Ellen Cole (1863-1896) in Plymouth in Plymouth in 1886. They had two children, Arthur (b. 1886) and Nellie (b. 1889), in Plymouth and a third, Richard (b. 1892), in Johannesburg. Nellie Ellen was Mike’s grandmother; her daughter, Olive, was his mother. So, we have two surname changes to get to Mike.

Mike has indicted that, through a DNA test, he has found a large number of hits on his father’s side of his family, but apparently does not have any connections through the Shepheard line. We may have a reason for that.

Mike’s Great-Grandfather Richard was baptized in Cornwood on 6 February 1861 as “reputed son of Elizabeth Pascoe and Nicolas Sheppard [sic]” Nicholas and Elizabeth had married only three months prior, on 29 November 1860. It is possible, then, that Nicholas was not Richard’s biological son. That may explain why Mike has not had a Shepheard hit on his DNA test. No birth registration has been found for Richard either, under Shepheard (or variation) or Pascoe surnames, so we cannot verify Richard’s real name.

A similar conundrum exists for Nicholas. A birth year of 1839 is indicated on the 1841, 1851, 1871, 1881 and 1911 censuses. The 1891 census shows 1841 and the 1901 census shows 1840. He has not been found on the 1861 census. His age on his first marriage in 1860 was 21 and on his second marriage in 1907 was 67. His 1919 burial and death records say he was 80. From this data we can be fairly sure that he was born in 1839.

No birth or baptism record has been found for Nicholas Shepheard or variation. All of the other children of Nicholas’s parents, Richard and Sarah have baptism records. But there was a baptism in Cornwood, for a Nicholas Andrews, which was Sarah’s maiden name. Parents shown were Richard and Sarah, and with him as a carpenter, which makes one wonder if either there was a mistake in the entry, the wrong surname having been recorded, or whether Nicholas was Sarah’s biological son but not Richard’s.

Either of Nicholas or Richard being someone other than sons of Shepheard men would obviously break the biological connection. But that does not make them not part of the family!

In my opinion, families come with all kinds of complicated relationships, some with blood connections and some without. Mike and I are still cousins whether or not we can demonstrate shared DNA.


Shepheard, Wayne. (2011). Analysis of the Last Will & Testament of Nicholas Shepheard (1761-1820) of Cornwood Parish, County of Devon. The Devon Family Historian, No. 139.