As genealogists our main goal is to go another generation back or out, so when we come to ancestors who did not marry, and/or did not have children, we rarely want to spend much time on them. We dutifully enter their vitals in our trees, and move on.
The importance of these aunts and uncles becomes clearer when we reach the stage of adding flesh to the family tree, becoming family historians and putting our ancestors in context, trying to find out more than just their vitals. Often they will be the ones with the most exciting stories to add, as they had the the extra time and energy perhaps to accomplish more that was out-of-the-ordinary for the time. It seems, in my family at least, that they also come down in the one-line family lore: Aunt Annie was a nurse in the war, uncle Barnie was a Sapper in Egypt, aunt Kit was like a second mother to grandma, uncle Hervey was a practicle jokster who was killed in WWI, uncle William headed to the California Gold Rush but never made it and so on. These are women who worked, even had careers, before it was a societal norm and men who sought out a little more adventure.
Not all did, of course. There will likely be many a spinster who stayed at home to look after the family, a dutiful daughter who cared for her widowed father. I have one instance where a childless married uncle basically raised three of his brothers children when the brother and his wife died in a cholera epidemic. Nearly 150 years later, the names of aunt Annie and uncle Robert are still uttered with an endearment passed on through generations. “Hugh and Winnie” travelled and raced greyhounds and their feats may be found in newspaper clippings and postcards, but not in the family tree as they had no children. “Fran and Bill” had no children either, yet they were like second parents to my own mother who, as a child, called Bill da-Bill (daddy-Bill) and was very close to her aunt Fran. Some family money came from uncle Charlie and aunt Norah. So they were important, and are important. They did not live ostersized lives, sitting on the sidelines, watching our ancestors live. They lived, and influenced those around them.
Theirs may also be the Will and Testament that helps you knock down a brick wall, for who did they have to leave anything to but slightly more distant relatives–brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. They may also be the keepers of family heirlooms and legend–I am not the first spinster in my family tree to be genealogically inclined. Family is arguably more important to us precisely because we haven’t got children of our own. I myself keep in touch with as many cousins, and cousins-once-removed, as possible as often as possible. I may be able to tell you more about their lives than their own parents our children could.
I have to admit I hold a personal stake in this for I am just such a lifeless limb, not at all what I planned. And as I hit 40 this year I am trying to make sense of my own contribution to life and to my family. It’s not so easy to see so close up, so I have begun to re-examine from farther afield, studying my fellow spinster and bachelor family-gone-before. It has been heartening to me to see that they have indeed contributed and many still live on in the family lore.