During a recent session, assisting someone with their family history has served to remind me of why I love using cluster, or 'whole family' genealogy to help solve those problems we've all run into at one time or another.
Our ancestors did not live in isolation, although we often research them as if they did. They were part of a family, most often with siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and other relatives. They were also part of a community with friends, neighbors and co-workers. This 'cluster' of family, friends and neighbors can provide valuable clues to the lives of our ancestors.
Cluster genealogy or 'whole family' or 'extended family genealogy' is the practice of extending our research on one individual to include the individuals and families to which he/she is connected - these range from the ancestors brother or spouse to the neighbor who appeared as a witness on a land deed.
This type of research leads to a more complete and more accurate picture of our ancestor's life.
On its surface you may think you are not interested in your ancestor's siblings, cousins or neighbors but consider the following:
The records of siblings, cousins and other family members may provide clues to the next generation that you have not been able to find in the records left by your direct ancestor.
Neighbors may actually turn out to be relatives. Family groups often migrated to the same town, lived near each other, attended the same church or school and were buried in the same cemetery.
Since a single record is often not enough to prove an ancestral connection, cluster genealogy offers additional documents to support accurate research.
Knowing and recognizing the names of other family members can sometimes help you locate your ancestor when he has been mis-indexed or had his name mangled on a record where you expect to find him.
Tracking ancestors as they move from place to place can often be a daunting task. Knowing the names of relatives who may have moved with him can make it easier to identify him in a new location.
Cluster genealogy involves expanding your search beyond your direct line ancestors to include their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends. Check for as many of these individuals as time and finances will allow - collect information on them just as you do for your direct ancestors and record it in your notes or software.
Don't neglect the spouses of these 'cluster' individuals!
Census records and estate records are especially useful for identifying additional family members - land deeds, newspapers and church records can prove useful for pinpointing neighbors and friends.
By increasing the pool of individuals whom you are researching, cluster genealogy improves your chances of locating records and details on your ancestors. In the process you'll learn more about the places and times in which your family lived.
Photograph of Earle C, Bergeron, Army Air Corps training at Kelly Field, TX; Bay '7', March 22, 1942. Bergeron Family Papers; photograph in possession of Cindy Bergeron Scherwinski