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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

A Brief Review of Cluster Genealogy Research (FAN Club)

Did you know that one of the biggest mistakes in genealogy research is trying to research only a specific relative?

Frequently, you may find a few records. But to learn even more about the relative, you have to expand who you are researching.

In this post, I will define and clarify what cluster genealogy research is. In a follow-up post, I will answer many of the common questions beginning genealogists ask about cluster research.

Be advised that Cluster research and F.A.N. Club research are terms used interchangeably because they are essentially the same thing.

The skills you need for cluster research is no different than what you use to research a single person. I love how the Occasional Genealogist explains this technique, “There’s nothing different in the actual research. It’s who you research and how you apply it that makes this a special technique. ”

Connection Groups in Cluster Research

As we start researching a person, we learn facts about our ancestors’ lives and connect them to their biological and genealogical relatives. These relatives could be parents, siblings, spouses, and children. With the increase use of DNA in genealogy research, we could also have biological relatives that are not the same as genealogical relatives. Therefore, you might research half-siblings or adoptive parents.

If we stop researching there, we overlook clues to extend our knowledge or better yet, our family tree.

Genealogy Cluster Research F.A.N. Club

Who is family?

Within the relatives circle, we need to expand our search to investigate:

  • Direct relatives- siblings, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, grand-aunts or uncles, 1st cousins, 2nd cousins, and so forth

  • Step-relatives- step-siblings, step-parents, step-grandparents

  • Half-relatives- half-siblings, half-aunts, half-uncles, half-nieces, half-cousins, etc.

  • In-laws - parents, siblings

  • Distinct cousins - beyond 1st and 2nd cousins.

Many research questions are resolved by researching the ‘whole family.’

Who is a neighbor?

A neighbor can be in the same large building made of separate units, people whose property boarders another, or people in the same subdivision of a parcel of land.

Another 'neighbor' to consider includes people sharing the same last name in the same town. Now, this works well if the surname is not something like Lee or Smith. And it also works best if the town isn't large if you're working with common surnames.

Who is an associate?

This next group can include nearly anyone who interacted with your ancestor in a documented way. I must stress the ‘documented way’ or you might find yourself researching hundreds of people and never answering your research question.

At the surface, associates could be co-workers, business partners, church members, association and club members, and military unit members.

However, to constrict your focus, you want to look for people with a documented connection:

  • Religious leaders - because they signed ritual records for your ancestors. They may have additional records and by researching the leader, you may find more record collections. If not, you may discover more about your ancestor’s religious beliefs.

  • Witnesses - Whether the witness is in will, land transactions, religious ceremonies, or naturalization records, a witness (sometimes called a sponsor) is often known to the subject of these documents. Sometimes they are family members, but the could be trusted friends.

  • Affidavits - In pension, passport, and naturalization applications, often a trusted friend would provide affidavits attesting to their knowledge of a person. Rarely does a person seeking these services use a stranger.

  • Monetary Relationships - Few people will use their money to post a bonds or lend money to someone they do not know. While these financial contracts may be with family members, sometimes a close friend will offer sureties because the subject will do the same for them.

  • Informants - Particularly in death records but also in other records, informants will have a relationship to the subject of the document. Never assume the informant is always a relative if not designated otherwise.

  • Traveling Companions- In the early years of migration, many families traveled in groups. Safety in numbers with known persons can help you trace your ancestors to their home village or from one location to another.

  • Persons Buried Nearby - Persons buried near each other MAY suggest a close relationship with each other. In my lecture, Synergizing Seven Sources to Solve Genealogy Mysteries, I share how to unrelated men are buried in a third man’s plot.

  • Persons in a legal case - Many court cases are between parties that are familiar with each other. If your ancestor is listed in a suit, research their co-defendants, co-plaintiffs, and even the opposing party. How are they connected to each other?

  • Persons named in letters, journals, photo albums, or scrapbooks - If you’re fortunate enough to have home sources where your relative identifies their friends and associates, take time to research these individuals. This investigation may lead you to more home sources or more answers to your research question.

Notice how all of these associates have a documented relationship that would suggest a close relationship if they do not turn out to be relatives. By researching any of these individuals, you may discover more about your ancestor and person answer identity and relationship related research questions.

Do not to get lost in the associates jungle of fellow church members, classmates, teammates, miltiary unit members, people lodging in the same home.


Do you have a close relationship with all of these persons?

Would you suggest your descendants research everyone in your congregation or synagogue to learn more about you?

At some point, we have to cut off our research into cluster groups. We want to do REASONABLY exhaustive searches not exhaustive searches. If you encounter a new person while doing your research, you could consult the groups I just mentioned to see if you find a connection. If you do, then proceed to research the person further.

Otherwise, you might leave some of these individuals unresearched until a later date if warranted.

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Who is in the surname group?

I like to add a final group that is often assumed but in my mind is separate. This group involves everyone in a specific location at a specific time with the same surname (or close approximation of the surname).

For example, everyone with the surname Townsend living in Franklin County, Ohio and documented in the 1880 Census for that time and place. Acceptable surname approximations are Townson and Townsen.

It is a mistake to believe that everyone who shares the same surname is related. This is why I break out same surnames into a separate group. I also recommend a deep Surname Study only after family, associates, and neighbors do not prove fruitful.

I used this group when I tried to shift through the Townsends in an attempt to find the parents for my Civil War Ancestor, William James Townsend.

By researching all of the Townsends in the time and place previously mentioned, I was not able learn everything I needed to know about his parents, But I did rule out who was not his relative with the surname in common. By so doing, I was able to discover the identities of William’s likely siblings.

If at any time you would like the assistance of an experienced heir hunter or forensic genealogist, check out our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.

What Questions Do You Have?

Now that you know the four connection groups or the F.A.N.S. Club, you are likely thinking the most frequently asked question about this research by new genealogists.

More Advanced Genealogy Research Tips

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