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  • Devon Noel Lee

How to Organize Your Genealogy Cluster Research

When tackling complex genealogy research projects, we would do well to be organized. Even more so if we're doing F.A.N. Club research.


So, how will we manage a research project involving our target person, their extended family, neighbors, and friends?



The Question To Ask Before You Begin


There are many tools where you could do genealogy research projects, but the first thing to ask yourself is, what is the scope of your investigation?


Robert Zumstine in the 1891 Census of Canada
Library and Archives Canada. Census of Canada, 1891. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2009. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/1891/Pages/about-census.aspx. Series RG31-C-1. Statistics Canada Fonds. Microfilm reels: T-6290 to T-6427. Place: Gainsborough, Monck, Ontario, Canada; Roll: T-6354; Family No: 153.


In the previous post, we mentioned that I couldn’t find Henry Zumstein in a Canadian census the following year after seeing him in this one.


I noticed his neighbors were named Alanson, Ithamer, and Susanah Comfort.


In the next census, I quickly found Ithamer’s name. As I reviewed the page, I found Henry Swimstine, who happens to be my ancestor with a poorly recorded surname.


Since the neighbors assisted in finding a record, I didn’t need to do much else with their census records. They were a means to an end.


But, if your research project is more complicated, you would need to use different genealogy tools. You would still evaluate the scope of your project to decide which tools match the needs of your investigation.


Tool for Simple Research


Often, Cluster Research involves a handful of persons to solve a genealogy research question. Research plans help us organize our investigations in organized and methodological ways. And this is perfect for small projects involving the family and neighbor cluster.


As such, all you may need to do to track your research is to make a note in your research plan.

  • Search for Comforts in the 1881 Census Record in the same village as they were in the 1871 Census record.

Once you accomplish this task, you can add details about the success of the search (and cite your sources).


Cluster Genealogy Research Plan in Action


What I just showed you might contradict what I said before. Except that Ithamer Comfort’s daughter married Henry Zumstein’s son. As such, you will want to trace both families throughout a project about the family of the boy who married the girl next door.


Two Tools for Complicated Research Projects


Genealogy research plans have their limits. You will still need them in a complex research project, but they don’t help you analyze and organize massive amounts of research.

When you have numerous persons in each ring of this fan, what tools will work best?

  • Spreadsheets

  • Databases / Online Trees


Spreadsheets - Simple


A spreadsheet application like Excel or Google Sheets can help you manage brief details about FAN club members. The column headings for your research depend on what you’re trying to track.


For a simple project, you might have a spreadsheet that looks like this:


Cluster Genealogy Spreadsheet example


The project's primary focus is the Townley family, but we have spouses, neighbors, and so forth. The column headings are

  • Surname

  • Give (or Given Name)

  • Birth (year)

  • Death (year)

  • Relationship, and

  • Notes

Notice the hyperlinked given names when I linked each to a profile on FamilySearch. However, John Jay Marvin’s is unlinked. When I discover his profile, I can update this spreadsheet.


The purpose of this cluster spreadsheet is to provide quick details about relevant persons and links to the FamilySearch family tree. That way, I can go to the profiles if I need more information (particularly sources). Otherwise, I keep the essential information in the table.


Spreadsheets - Complex


Other Cluster projects will require more than one table within a spreadsheet. This fact is particularly true with surname projects. For example, I currently have such a project for my Townley ancestors from Essex County, New Jersey.


Another Cluster Genealogy Research Spreadsheet example


To learn more about my Townley Surname Table, watch the full video on this topic.


Watch this video.




To learn more about this massive research project, particularly the land record table, check out the link in the description box to the Channel Member Training,


The key point is to track the information that will serve you best. You can always create new tables within one spreadsheet, so avoid forcing everything into one tab.



Columns for Multiple Name Projects


Two other genealogists have shared how they track FAN Club Members. One is from Marc McDermott’s blog post, Cluster Research – Start Your FAN Club! Connie Knox, of Genealogy TV, has another table in a video called Tracking Ancestors FAN Club (Worksheet).


Take a momento compare the difference between the spreadsheets Connie, Marc, and I have shared. Which column headings would help you the best?


Leave your thoughts and suggestions below.


Mind you, I have only focused on the genealogical record aspect of F.A.N. Club research, but you can easily modify this information for DNA matches. In fact, that’s the foundation of the Leed’s Method and other table-based genetic genealogy research tools.



↪️ Are you striving to tackle genealogy brick walls? Grab your copy of our Free Research Guides for such projects.


laptop and writing notes with title Free Guide: 5 Steps for Successfully Starting in Family History



Databases or Online-Trees


Spreadsheets can only manage so much information before they are inefficient. Therefore, utilizing genealogy programs or online trees can help you manage an immense amount of data while keeping your key connecting clues in a manageable table.


However, we must ask ourselves where to maintain profiles for the ‘non-family’ member profiles involved in cluster research.


Here are some options to consider:


Genetic Cluster Research


If you’re researching potential genetic relatives, use MyHeritage and Ancestry to build your family tree linked to your DNA. Then add DNA matches (and their trees) to this tree to see where things connect.


Adding your potential genetic relatives to your family tree can trigger ThruLines or Theories of Family Relativities to connect your trees. If not, you’re still using your DNA matches trees in an attempt to build toward your common ancestors.


Brick Wall Research Projects


In a previous post, I discussed creating brick wall only databases. By so doing, you isolate the persons relevant to your project in each cluster group. I’ll advise you to LABEL this separate tree so that other researchers (and anyone who inherits your research) will know these persons are not necessarily relatives but essential to solving research questions.


Collaborative Brick Wall Research


If you are willing to share your research with others, add F.A.N. Club profiles to a collaborative family tree such as FamilySearch, WikiTree, or Geni. You’ll achieve two objectives by doing this.

  • You can leave your research for the descendants of these non-family members for their family members to find.

  • You can leverage the research of others on F.A.N. Club members who may find materials you didn’t know existed.

For instance, my Great-Grandfather George Geiszler has a neighbor and friend, Samuel Barton. Someone researching Samuel will find my research which includes the following:

  • The Geiszler Family Bible that identifies Samuel’s death.

  • Pictures of Samuel Barton.

  • Discover that George’s wife was the informant on Samuel’s death record, even though she’s not genealogically related to him.

  • Samuel is the god-parent to George’s son George Barton.

By leveraging these collaborative profiles, you can link the profiles to the spreadsheet and minimize how much data your tables have to manage.



Be Organized to Find Success


Tackling difficult genealogy research questions always begins with being organized. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.


Fore more genealogy research tips, check out these posts:

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