If you spend enough time with avid genealogists, you are bound to hear the terms “cluster research” and “FAN club.” But what do these terms mean, and why does it matter? We all have those ancestors who seem to have dropped straight out of the sky and don’t connect to anyone of their same surname. Or an ancestor whose surname is Jones, Smith, Williams, or Davis, and everyone in the community shares their same surname. Then there are the women, whose maiden names and parents can often be a mystery lost to the past. Researching an ancestor’s FAN club may not be a magic bullet in those situations, but it can come pretty close.
John Donne famously wrote, “no man is an island,” and while it can be easy to see the truth in that statement in our social media world, it holds just as true for our ancestors. Every time we touch our ancestors’ lives through some historical document, we are also touching the lives of the witnesses, neighbors, officials, and clergy with whom they interacted—their FAN club. It was Elizabeth Shown Mills, professional genealogist and educator, who coined the term “FAN club” to describe the Friends, Associates, and Neighbors, who make up the cluster of individuals surrounding an ancestor and who often hold the key to our toughest research problems.
While direct evidence—a document that directly answers the research question—is always sought in genealogical research, such a record is not always forthcoming, leaving us reliant upon indirect clues and a preponderance of evidence to build a case instead. Our ancestors rarely arrived in an area completely alone. Often, they migrated in groups or followed one another across the country—or across the world. These cluster members (in-laws, friends, cousins, siblings, neighbors) can provide the keys to finding an ancestor’s origin when no document directly states it. They are often found buried in the same cemetery plot, or as witnesses to deeds or marriages, neighbors in census records, sureties for probate or land transactions, sponsors or godparents in church records.There are several key strategies to successfully implementing cluster or FAN club research in your own family history:
- Know the community. Take note of which names appear again and again in proximity to your ancestors. Chances are, they are connected in some way. But get to know the records well enough to spot the clerk who witnessed every other marriage, or the litigious neighbor who took everyone to court. When you look at a record for your ancestor, view the documents several before and several after in the same source. Read ten households before and ten households after yours in each census. Learn what’s normal in the community so you can spot what isn’t.
- Cast a wide net. Elizabeth Shown Mills often references a “target.” If your ancestor is at the center of the target, their family is one circle out, then their neighbors, their associates, etc. If they don’t give you an answer, you may have to research their friends, neighbors, and associates. You may have success tracing members of the same church congregation or soldiers from the same unit. But somewhere in your ancestor’s life is someone that can tie them to their origins.
- Be tenacious. You may have to track associates back several states, several years, or possibly generations. Look at their probate records, their land transactions, and their census enumerations. You’re a detective—keep canvassing.
Here’s an example: Your ancestor, Sarah Davis, married Harold Johnson. Witnessing the marriage were Thomas Smith and David Johnson. Your goal is to learn who the parents of Sarah Davis were. Neither of the witnesses shares her surname, so they don’t give you any clue, right? Wrong!
For this example, David Johnson is a known brother to Harold, so he’s no help. Thomas Smith was enumerated next door to Harold and Sarah in a later census, so he’s just a neighbor, right? But if we dig into Thomas Smith a bit further, we discover he is the son of Joe Smith. Dig a bit further and you find that Joe Smith inherited land from John Smith. But John Smith’s list of heirs includes a familiar name—perhaps he left land to “my granddaughter Sarah Davis, heir of my daughter Jane Davis.” So that unrelated neighbor who witnessed Sarah’s marriage? He was actually her cousin. And now you’ve identified Sarah’s mother, her maiden name, and the name of her father.
Getting to know an ancestor’s FAN club doesn’t have to be difficult, though it isn’t always quick. Over time it will become second nature to notice who witnessed a land transaction or who administered an estate. Make notes as you go and they will be there if you need them. Once you’ve created the habit you will start to see the patterns emerge faster and faster.
Have a brick wall ancestor in your family? Allow the experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists to tackle the target, and his or her FAN Club. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Successfully smashed through to the next generation using these tactics? Tell us about it in the comments!