Cluster Research

by Dae Powell

You already learned some of the principles of Cluster Genealogy Research in your youth.

I'm certain there are more examples, but these spring readily to mind.

Collateral Research leaves the focus of the individual and expands to include siblings, cousins, and in-laws. Include neighbors and associates and you've expanded to Cluster Research.  Cluster research is implied in my Death Record Research Flowchart.  (See Forms on my ShoeString Genealogy webpage.)

Cluster Genealogy is also known as whole family research and involves branching out beyond your pedigree ancestors to research individuals connected to your direct line ancestors and collaterals.  The connections may be close, as in marriage, or loose, as in witnesses to a will.

Remember, Collateral = Direct Line Siblings and Cluster = Other Family, Friends and Associates.  Genealogists who research by clusters are the most successful in extending their ancestral lines.

Emily Anne Croom

"You've heard the expression, 'We're all in this together.'  Try thinking of your ancestors the same way.  Just like you, your ancestors were not isolated individuals:

Studying your ancestors in the context of this community of relatives, friends, neighbors, associates and same-name families is practicing Cluster Genealogy."

Eight Benefits of Cluster Genealogy

  1. Save money and time.  You can overcome many brick walls by including all records available on family members.  For example, the birth location for a mother may only be found on one of her OTHER children's death ertificates.
  2. Find more information on your direct-line ancestors and allow you to confirm and support information on those direct-line ancestors.
  3. Resolve any discrepancies or conflicting data in information on direct-line ancestors.
  4. Better identify and document your female ancestors.
  5. Take advantage of clues from your family naming patterns.  The larger the family, the more important this becomes.
  6. Create additional identifiers (your family members on a census, for example) for direct-line ancestors.  Primary identifiers are name, age, gender, origin.  This can be very helpful with common surnames.
  7. Increase your chances of locating living 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins, who may have inherited helpful family documents, photos, and information.
  8. Document inherited family medical conditions more extensively.
  9. Help your direct-line ancestors come alive.


  1. Consider Family Groups rather than individual direct-line ancestors.  Use your ancestor chart as an index to your family group sheets, your main organizing form.
  2. Complete Family Group Sheets for ALL family members.
  3. Collect family information: birth, marriage, death, burial, census, obituary, published family histories, land and probate records, etc. on ALL relatives, especially siblings of direct-line ancestors before extending your pedigree chart.  This could help you avoid "barking up the wrong tree," to use another common expression.
  4. When reviewing locality records such as census, tax list, church, newspaper obits, search for and note ALL occurrences of your surname of interest.
  5. Search neighboring localities, usually townships and counties, if your initial search reveals nothing.
  6. Widen search to neighbors, witnesses, and so on if documents on collaterals are unproductive.  Look for unrelated people who lived near your ancestors and who may have lived near them in their previous home, too.
  7. Look for patterns.  Migrating families often went due west, and they looked for valleys to settle in that reminded them of the place they'd just left.  They moved in clusters, with one family member or even a neighbor being the first to try a new area, and others in the cluster following later.  Children of migrating families were more likely to eventually migrate again themselves.

If you do whole-family publishing, a "descendants-of" family history, in which you begin with a "source couple" and cover all of their descendants for a number of generations, you MUST employ Cluster Research.

When publishing information on a whole family, you can't exclude anyone. You must include everyone.  And you cannot apply any lesser standards to analyzing their information. You may also find you must rearrange other family groups.

The Internet sites have greatly changed how much information we can access, the facility of that access, and how rapidly data can be acquired.  Databases such as those on, on CD-ROMs with census images, or on printed material save literally hours of library research time.  Some online family trees may reveal information about missing members of our family, such as where they went when they disappeared from our records (mayhaps taking both grandpa and the family records with them).  These data are constantly being revised, updated and augmented online.

Elissa Scalise Powell

It always pays to do the Collateral Research before moving on to the next generation. Cluster research includes the associates as well as the family while collateral specifically is about the siblings of your direct line. Doing them all will give you more solid footing before moving on to the quicksand of the next generation.

In order to progress back to the previous generation, one must stand on firm ground knowing about the ancestral couple *and their brothers and sisters*. After all the siblings have the same parents as your ancestral couple and what was not said or published or preserved for your direct line might be said, published or preserved for their sibling. And if about their parents then it is also about the parents of your direct line. Only after researching the siblings as hard as the direct line should movement backward be done and is also greatly more possible with many more clues to string together if not an outright document of facts of relationships.

Honing in on only one record group, for example church, or cemetery or birth records, is to limit our search and chain us to our expectations. What if the record doesn't exist and we ignore all the clues around the siblings and children of the couple in our zeal for that "one clue"?

What about the neighbors and associates? Tax lists and deeds should be researched extensively along with the census in order to place everyone in their proper physical places in the neighborhood. They had to get within kissing distance (couples) and usually stayed within hugging distance (relatives). While building a community around our ancestors we will discover who they are and where they came from and why they did what they did. They were real people with real expectations and real reasons for migrating and making their life's choices. By opening ourselves up to them and discovering them through the records -- all the records -- they may yet surprise us with their unique selves who caused us to be what and who we are.

Elissa Scalise Powell, CG
CG and Certified Genealogist are Service Marks of the Board for
Certification of Genealogists used under license after periodic evaluations
by the Board. Board for Certification of Genealogists

Most genealogists' research is lineage-oriented.  One goal is to find the correct parents.  Even following good research standards, they may deny themselves access to records that confirm or deny the information they've collected.  Some records could even supply missing information or burst a brick wall!

The speed and accessibility of data today should encourage us to look beyond our own direct lineages.  If you find yourself stuck on an ancestor or a wee bit uncomfortable about a family, try Cluster Research.  It is an excellent way to assure the reliability of your genealogical conclusions.

Home Page Home Page,