When trying to locate an ancestor most of us like to just search for one particular individual. After all, we tell ourselves, we aren't really interested in their brothers or sisters, so why should we gather their records also.
But our ancestors did not live isolated lives. They not only had parents, but siblings, aunts and uncles, neighbors, and friends. This "cluster" of family and friends can give us valuable clues to the lives our ancestors lived, and make tracing them easier.
Cluster genealogy is the practice of collecting the names and information on the people to whom your ancestor was connected. This could be a sibling, a spouse or the people who attended their church or lived in their neighborhood. To be effective in this type of research you need to look at as many different records as possible. This will mean you look for birth and death records, census, land deeds, probate and family histories. When you have assembled your information create a chronology or timeline for each person. By placing these side by side, and studying your findings, you will find clues and relationships will begin to emerge.
How Cluster Genealogy Helps:
Your missing ancestor may not have left a record, but a family member may have named him in a will or purchased property with him and named him and identified their relationship in the document. A family member who had no children would often leave property to a niece or nephew.
Neighbors may turn out to be relatives. Families often moved together, attended the same church, and are likely buried in the same cemetery. When you find people consistently living near each other, they should all be examined closer.
By researching more than one person, you also increase your chance of making connections and have more opportunity to connect to and share research with other researchers.
You will usually need more than a single record to prove an ancestral relationship. Cluster research gives additional documents and supports more accurate research.
If you know the names of your ancestor's relatives and friends can help you track them as they moved from place to place.
Unlike today, when someone signed their name as a witness to a will or land record they were often family. It would take at least a good friend to leave their work, or land in order to be a witness.
Newspaper articles such as wedding announcements and obituaries often mention family members
A book about the community may list your ancestor and so may a family history written by a neighbor or by the witness to a deed.
Men tended to join military units with siblings and cousins. People often immigrated on the same ship.
One mystery I solved through cluster research came through reading a will, but not the will of an ancestor. We had been told that Leonard Johnson and his family came from Schenectady, N.Y.
There were family stories of many trips from Missouri back to Schenectady to "visit with family." Research, however, led me to believe he was more likely from Whitehall, N.Y. Looking at a will for whom I believed could have been Leonard's father-in-law from his second marriage, I found listed his second wife "Mary Jane Kibbee Johnson" and her siblings, two of whom were living in Schenectady. This will gave the needed clue to comfortably focus the research on Whitehall and find many more family members, thereby moving the research back two more generations.
By widening your research focus, you allow yourself a bigger target and increase your chances of success.
Enjoy the Journey!