FAN or Cluster Research


Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

All of us have reached a point in our research where we seem to run out of clues, records or even ideas of how to solve certain problems. One way to work around or solve these “brick walls” is to use FAN or Cluster research. FAN is an acronym for the words, Friends & Family, Associates and Neighbors. Who are the members of the FAN Club? They are immediate family such as spouses, children, siblings, then more peripheral relatives such as cousins, aunts and uncles comprise the family portion of the club. Those who appear as witnesses on wedding records, deeds, baptisms, wills, etc. are also members of the club as are names mentioned in military pensions or bounty land applications or business associates. People in the census records that appear on the pages before and after your family belong to the club. You will also want to consider people with the same surname located in the area that your family is from. Your FAN Club may be exceptionally large.

Start by creating a detailed Plan of Attack with a specific goal or goals in mind. This will keep you focused. Next you may want to create a Timeline. A Timeline is a terrific tool to incorporate into this process of searching for the FAN club. As you will likely be jumping back and forth with the various people that you are looking at, putting them on a timeline will allow you to sort out those that do not fit and may make others jump out as probable family members. You will want to start the timeline as soon as you begin your research. Include all details that you have for your ancestor and then add those folks who may be a FAN club member as you find them. By including all details that you find on these documents, it is possible that you may find a cross over in occupation, military service, or locations that they have in common. You may also wish to add your personal theory as to how this person in associated with your family member. This will help you to focus on what they have in common.

Look at what you have you done so far to solve the problem? Review the records that you already have, looking closely for clues that you may have missed previously. Now make a list of siblings, aunts and uncles, neighbors (think census), and business associates. Using that list, select one person and begin to research. Look at all available records on them. You may discover that your father’s sibling’s birth record contains your grandmother’s maiden name. Eureka! This will open a whole new path for you. I looked at my children’s great grandfather’s brother’s will and it contained his father’s forename, a fact that I had been chasing for years.

Another example of using Cluster Research or the FAN Club method would be in the migration of your ancestors. Often immigrants and other groups of people moved together, this is known as group migration. If your family disappears from where they were living and you cannot find them, go back to the last place that they lived and take a very thorough look at the census records. Who else is on that page or the pages before and after that page where your family appears? Now check the next census for that area, are they still there or have they moved? Look to see who if any of the neighbors are no longer located in that area. Search the records for the neighbors who are no longer there. When you locate these folks, you may find that your ancestors moved right along with them, but their names were transcribed incorrectly. If your ancestors were immigrants, check the names on the ship’s record to see if any of the other people on the ship ended up living nearby when they got settled.

Finally look at the members in the FAN Club of the person that you are researching and ask yourself some of the following questions. What do they have in common? When do they appear in close proximity? Where do they appear together? How often do they appear in the same records, or locations? Remember that family members, especially spouses, siblings and children can provide many clues about your ancestor who seems to be a mystery. Re-read last month’s article Harvand’s FAN Club as this will give you a specific example of FAN research.

This is just a brief summary of the FAN Club. I would recommend that you drop by the Hall House to look at the guide written by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Or Google the topic Cluster research as there are many in-depth articles that you might find helpful.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to and visit Janet’s own web page.