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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Common Questions About Cluster Research

Suppose you have heard of cluster genealogy research but haven’t started using it yet. In that case, chances are you have many questions about implementation

Genealogy F.A.N. Club Research

Whether you call it cluster research or F.A.N. Club research, this intermediate and advanced-level genealogy research methodology helps you find more clues and answers while building your family tree.

If you haven’t learned what it is, please read this post.

For those who understand the concept, let’s tackle some questions frequently asked by people who are ready to use Cluster Research but haven’t started yet.

Do You Always Have to Do Cluster Research?

Does every genealogy research question require extensive cluster research?


Because the amount of cluster research you do depends on how easily you can answer a research question.

If you start researching an ancestor to identify their parents and you have:

  • A census record that directly states their relationship.

  • A cemetery plot that identifies that your ancestor is the son of a couple in the same plot.

  • A marriage record that identifies the same parents from the census record and cemetery plot.

  • A birth record that identifies the same parents from the previous documents.

Then, you have a straightforward answer to your question. If you want to move on to another research question, you are set.

However, when you have conflicting or missing pieces pertaining to your research question, then expanding who you research will often lead to answers.

In other words, the more difficulty you have researching a person, the more you will need to leverage this extended circle of that person’s community.

When is Cluster Research Beneficial?

What are some examples of less straightforward research situations that would warrant researching a F.A.N. club? Consider the following:

  • When a research problem is not simple.

    • It requires indirect evidence.

    • It requires separating same-name individuals.

  • When potential answers to your research question conflict.

  • When you're stuck with your genealogy research.

  • When you're doing DNA matching and triangulating.

  • When you start writing a biography about an ancestor.

While you can likely think of causes that fall into these categories, here are two specific examples.

In cultures where the woman takes the name of her spouse often requires finding clues that indirectly point you toward her maiden name.

  • For example, the marriage record of Michael Billman to Caroline Geisley could suggest that her maiden name was Geisley.

  • However, by researching the children of Michael and Caroline, you would soon discover that three of ‘their’ children have the surname Geisler. The other two have the surname Billman.

  • This would suggest that Geisley/Geiszler is not Caroline’s maiden name but rather a married surname.

  • Searching for a father for the three Geiszler children reveals a previous marriage record for a Caroline Mack.

Using indirect clues to get to a record that states her maiden name is just one example of many that fall into this category. Thankfully, all I needed was the extended family circle.

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However, Joseph Geiszler’s neighbor was a man named Heinrich Mack. He’s old enough to be Caroline’s father. Further cluster research (that of the neighbor) would point you to the relationship between Heinrich and Caroline.

  • No record directly connects Joseph, Caroline, and Heinrich.

  • The second example expands on Heinrich Mack, who moved from Hanover to Franklin County, Ohio.

  • After researching him and his children, I couldn't determine his home village in Hannover.

  • Then I began to research his neighbors, the Puseckers.

  • After researching the Puseckers, I discovered they traveled together on the same ship from the old country to America.

  • Therefore, if I could find anyone in this traveling group that identified their home village, there is a good chance that my family was from that same village.

People often didn't ride on the same ship, travel to the same town, and buy land beside each other if they weren't familiar, if not family.

I did discover the village of Gillershiem listed on a Pusecker's gravestone.

To confirm, the Macks and Puseckers were from the same village. My cousin hired a researcher to explore church records for both families. We found baptism and marriage records for both surnames that validated the origins of my Mack ancestors.

Multiple genealogists share their success stories with cluster research. I especially liked this one, and I recommend you read it: Demonstrating the Effectiveness of Cluster Genealogy.

Should You Research All Clusters?

You'll notice in the two examples I shared above that I discovered answers to many questions. Still, I didn’t need to consult each cluster group. As stated before, the more difficulty you have researching a person, the more you will need to leverage this extended circle of that person’s community.

Some research questions are more straightforward, and you only need to review essentially one group. In this case, I only needed to look for neighbors to find my relative.

For instance, when looking for a census record for your ancestor. Perhaps you found them in the Canadian Census of 1881. But you need help finding them in the 1871 census.

One technique involves looking for your ancestor's neighbors in the 1881 census to see if they appear in the 1871 census. If they do, look for your ancestor. You may discover that your ancestor’s name has significant errors making it difficult to find them. But searching for their neighbors, you see the person you were seeking.

By contrast, this case study I shared previously on this channel discussed how I broke through a brick wall using required researching more individuals.

  • When William Long went missing in the 1850 census, I found him in a neighbor's home.

  • To prove that William was likely not a relative of the household members in which he resided, I had to research the neighbor and their close family members.

  • I also researched all the Longs in the county. I discovered no family with a missing William of that age except my Long family.

The more complicated the genealogy problem, the more F.A.N. Club groups you will have to involve in your genealogy research.

If you read my series on My Genealogy Brick Wall: The John Townley Case Study, you will know that I had to:

  • Research all of the descendants of John Townley.

  • Researched all of Townleys in Cincinnati, Ohio, both their descendants and their ancestors.

  • Researched business colleagues and persons that witnessed land transfers to see how all the Townleys living in Cincinnati, Ohio were related.

By so doing, I discovered that three men were brothers, and one was a distant cousin. So guess where my John fit into that family dynamic.

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.

How Much Should You Research a Cluster Member?

It depends on the nature of your research. For example, if searching a database for a neighbor helps you find your ancestor on a census record, do you need to research the neighbor thoroughly?

Unless that neighbor appears on other records, probably not.

With some cluster groups, you can do shallow record research that overlaps the time your ancestor interacted with them. While conducting reasonably exhaustive research is the goal, do you have to do this level of analysis for someone else’s relative?

If you do, you might never research your ancestors.

However, some relatives, surnames, and neighbors have more clues to help you resolve your genealogy research question.

While researching Townleys in New Jersey, I am diving into vital, census, and land records when possible. I’m trying to establish who is related to whom. Sometimes, I must go beyond these records to separate men with the same name. Since I’m doing a Surname Study, this project requires more extensive research than some of the other situations I mentioned.

Leverage Cluster Research Today!

Take a reasonable assessment of your research project. Then decide how much research you need to do to address your questions. Stay focused on your research objects so you do not waste time on a fun but not beneficial research.

More Advanced Genealogy Research Tips

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