Sunday, March 8, 2009


When one thinks of infidelity in the context of a non-paternal event, the obvious scenario is a wife having an affair with a man not her husband. However, there are several variations on infidelity that become important to the family historian.

First, there is the question of the identity of the man the wife is having a sexual relation with. The common assumption is that it is someone unrelated to the wife or her husband. This, however, is not always the case. There was a news story several years ago about a woman who drowned her two children by driving her car into a lake with them strapped in their car seats. Although the focus of the news media was on the act itself, it came out later that the children were the products of an incestuous relationship with her father, a prominent local businessman. Other incestuous relationships, with a brother or paternal uncle would produce a biological link of the children with their mother’s paternal ancestry, while an affair with a maternal uncle or cousin would link to the wife’s mother’s paternal ancestry. On the other hand, an affair with the husband’s brother/father/paternal uncle would not show up as a DNA contradiction but such an NPE might be reflected in divorce, abandonment or disinheritance by the husband if discovered.

Once an NPE is revealed, the family historian should begin thinking about who the biological father might be. If DNA testing of the lines of neighbors’, employers’ or the wife’s line is available, a comparison of the yDNA might reveal their identity. Of course, when there are multiple men of an appropriate age present, a yDNA match can only limit possible fatherhood to that set rather than a specific individual. The case of Thomas Jefferson and his relation with his slave Sally Hemmings, for example, gives us good reason to believe he fathered her children, but the DNA match does not exclude his male relations.

Of course, infidelity is not limited to wives. Husbands also had affairs that resulted in offspring and sometimes these children were given their mother’s surname, and sometimes their biological father’s. These ‘natural’ children were sometimes acknowledge and supported and in some cultures were given surnames that reflected their heritage. The prefix ‘Fitz’ (as in Fitzgerald), for example, indicates a son born out of wedlock. In some Scandinavian countries, the child would get the usual designation, e.g. Hakkons-son or Hakkons-totter, and then might also get additional surname that reflected where they were born.In cases where the child’s surname did not match their biological father’s, there will be a DNA mismatch between others of that surname and their line.

One additional point that should be mentioned is that the identity of the father in cases of marital infidelity is not always clear. Just because a man acknowledges that a child could be his does not mean that he is actually the father – only the introduction of blood type and DNA testing has allowed us to establish this with reasonable certainty.

There are some other interesting variants of infidelity that I will discuss later, since they involve unusual circumstances.

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