Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cluster Genealogy Research

Why Cluster Genealogy? 
Even if you don't really care who your ancestors siblings, cousins and associates were, cluster genealogy can still be a very effective research technique:

The records of siblings, cousins, and other family members may provide clues to the next generation that you haven't been able to find in the records left by your direct ancestor.

Neighbors may actually turn out to be relatives. Family groups often migrated to the same town, lived near each other, attended the same school or church, and were buried in the same cemetery.

Knowing and recognizing the names of other family members can sometimes help you locate your own ancestor when he has been missing an indexed or had his name mangled in a record where you expect to find him, such as the census.

Tracking ancestors as they move from place to place can often be a daunting task. Knowing the names of relatives and neighbors who may have moved with him can make it easier to identify him in a new location.

Researching more people means an increased chance of making connections and possibly sharing research with other genealogists.

How Cluster Genealogy Works 
The cluster genealogy technique involves expanding your genealogy search beyond your direct line ancestors to include their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends. Check for as many of these individuals as time and finances will allow in major records, including birth, marriage and death records; census records; land deeds; published family histories, etc. Collect information on them just as you do for your direct ancestors and record it all in your notes or genealogy software program.

Don't neglect the spouses of these "cluster" individuals. Even if your family tree appears to be sadly lacking in genealogists, perhaps theirs were not. Published family histories for spouses of siblings can often provide an unexpected gold mine of information.

Census records and estate records are especially useful for identifying additional family members, including brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Land deeds, newspapers, and church membership rosters can often prove useful for pinpointing neighbors and friends.

By increasing the pool of individuals whom you are researching, cluster genealogy improves your chances of locating records and details on your ancestors. In the process, you'll also learn more about the place and time in which your family lived.

Since a single record is often not enough to "prove" an ancestral connection, cluster genealogy offers additional documents to support accurate research.
Our ancestors did not live in isolation, although we often research them as if they did. They were part of a family, with siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and other relatives. They were also part of a community, with friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers. This "cluster" of family, friends and neighbors can provide valuable clues to the lives of our ancestors.

Cluster genealogy, sometimes referred to as whole family or extended family genealogy, is the practice of extending your research on a person to the individuals and families to which he was connected. These connections could range from his brother or spouse, to the neighbor who appeared as a witness on a land deed.

Collateral Research leaves the focus of the individual and expands to include siblings, cousins, and in-laws. Include neighbors and associates and you've expanded to Cluster Research. Cluster research is implied in my Death Record Research Flowchart. 

Cluster Genealogy is also known as whole family research and involves branching out beyond your pedigree ancestors to research individuals connected to your direct line ancestors and collaterals. The connections may be close, as in marriage, or loose, as in witnesses to a will.

Remember, Collateral = Direct Line Siblings and Cluster = Other Family, Friends and Associates. Genealogists who research by clusters are the most successful in extending their ancestral lines.

You've heard the expression, 'We're all in this together.' Try thinking of your ancestors the same way. Just like you, your ancestors were not isolated individuals:

They were part of a family, with siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents. Groups of relatives often lived near each other, worshipped together, witnessed each other's documents and were buried in the same cemetery.

Like you, ancestors had friends and neighbors. Often their spouses came from neighboring families or were the siblings of classmates and military buddies.  They and their friends were lodge brothers or officers in the ladies' literary society.

Your ancestors had business partners and co-workers, were clients of local doctors and lawyers and bought dry goods from the local mercantile store. They were known in their communities and occasionally got their names in the local newspapers.

Sometimes, even small communities had several families by the same surname.  When you start researching, you may not know whether these same-name families were related to yours. They may have been, and it could be to your benefit to find out.

Studying your ancestors in the context of this community of relatives, friends, neighbors, associates and same-name families are practicing Cluster Genealogy."
Consider Family Groups rather than individual direct-line ancestors.  Use your ancestor chart as an index to your family group sheets, your main organizing form.
 Complete Family Group Sheets for ALL family members.
Collect family information: birth, marriage, death, burial, census, obituary, published family histories, land and probate records, etc. on ALL relatives, especially siblings of direct-line ancestors before extending your pedigree chart.  This could help you avoid "barking up the wrong tree," to use another common expression.
When reviewing locality records such as census, tax list, church, newspaper obits, search for and note ALL occurrences of your surname of interest.
  Search neighboring localities, usually townships and counties, if your initial search reveals nothing.
 Widen search to neighbors, witnesses, and so on if documents on collaterals are unproductive.  Look for unrelated people who lived near your ancestors and who may have lived near them in their previous home, too.
 Look for patterns. Migrating families often went due west, and they looked for valleys to settle in that reminded them of the place they'd just left. They moved in clusters, with one family member or even a neighbor being the first to try a new area, and others in the cluster following later. Children of migrating families were more likely to eventually migrate again themselves.

If you do whole-family publishing, a "descendants-of" family history, in which you begin with a "source couple" and cover all of their descendants for a number of generations, you MUST employ Cluster Research.

When publishing information on a whole family, you can't exclude anyone. You must include everyone. And you cannot apply any lesser standards to analyzing their information. You may also find you must rearrange other family groups.

The Internet sites have greatly changed how much information we can access, the facility of that access, and how rapidly data can be acquired. Databases such as those on, on CD-ROMs with census images, or on printed material save literally hours of library research time. Some online family trees may reveal information about missing members of our family, such as where they went when they disappeared from our records (may haps taking both grandpa and the family records with them). These data are constantly being revised, updated and augmented online.

It always pays to do the Collateral Research before moving on to the next generation. Cluster research includes the associates as well as the family while collateral specifically is about the siblings of your direct line. Doing them all will give you more solid footing before moving on to the quicksand of the next generation.

In order to progress back to the previous generation, one must stand on firm ground knowing about the ancestral couple *and their brothers and sisters*. After all the siblings have the same parents as your ancestral couple and what was not said or published or preserved for your direct line might be said, published or preserved for their sibling. And if about their parents then it is also about the parents of your direct line. Only after researching the siblings as hard as the direct line should movement backward be done and is also greatly more possible with many more clues to string together if not an outright document of facts of relationships.

Honing in on only one record group, for example church, or cemetery or birth records, is to limit our search and chain us to our expectations. What if the record doesn't exist and we ignore all the clues around the siblings and children of the couple in our zeal for that "one clue"?

What about the neighbors and associates? Tax lists and deeds should be researched extensively along with the census in order to place everyone in their proper physical places in the neighborhood. They had to get within kissing distance (couples) and usually stayed within hugging distance (relatives). While building a community around our ancestors we will discover who they are and where they came from and why they did what they did. They were real people with real expectations and real reasons for migrating and making their life's choices. By opening ourselves up to them and discovering them through the records -- all the records -- they may yet surprise us with their unique selves who caused us to be what and who we are.

 Copyright © 2010 by Gus J. Marsh

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