“No man is an island” – John Donne
Too often we get hyper-focused on one individual in our efforts to discover our genealogy. This happens especially when the primary goal is to extend the branches of your family tree back along direct line ancestors – “I just want to know who the parents of my great-grandparents were, and their parents, and so forth.” This is a dangerous pitfall, especially for beginning researchers. Why? Because by doing so you are leaving lots of clues along the way. Eventually you will hit the proverbial brick wall, and then you will wish you had extended your search as you went along. Enter cluster genealogy.
Cluster genealogy is a research method based on the premise that our ancestors lives were not lived in isolation. People lived near parents, siblings, in-laws, cousins, etc. They socialized and transacted business with neighbors and close family friends. They were witness to marriages and land transfers and more. Often these relationships were so strong that unrelated households would even relocate or migrate together. So what does this mean for you? It means you need to expand your search and document information about the other people in your ancestors’ lives.
Who is in a cluster?
A cluster includes anyone that interacted on a regular basis with your person of interest. At a minimum this means siblings, extended family, friends, and neighbors. At an absolute minimum I suggest always collecting enough information about your ancestor to complete two family group sheets. One with your ancestor as a parent with spouse and children, and another one with your ancestor as a child in the household. Again, this should be the bare minimum. Sometimes it is useful to extend that to cousins, friends, associates, and neighbors.
Cluster Genealogy is sometimes referred to as:
- Cluster Research
- Collateral Research
- “Whole Family” Research
- “Big Picture” Research
- Community Context Research
Last week I shared a story that utilizes the Power of Place to uncover new information about my primary ancestor of interest. Tracing a family member helped me find the information that I was seeking! These are the kinds of discoveries that you may miss out on if you don’t employ this technique.
Five Tools for Creating Your Own Custom Maps
Once you begin extending your research to family members you will automatically start looking a page or two before and after your ancestor’s entry on a census record. You will note others with the same surname, or perhaps the surname of an in-law. You may begin to notice that your ancestor’s neighbors were sometimes born in the same state or province. Or perhaps they are engaged in similar occupations. You will also begin to note witnesses, etc. All of this information will add depth and context to the life of your forbear.
This is good stuff. But wouldn’t it be great if there were an easier way to visualize this information? I am a visual person and I love maps. There are a variety of different tools available that allow you to create custom pins on a digital map. Each pin can represent a person and/or event. Seeing all these together can be powerful.
Here is just a small list of tools you can use to build your own custom genealogy maps:
- Google Maps: Google Maps have many tools for creating custom maps. Many sites have instructions for creating your own for family history purposes.
- Bing Maps: Essentially this is Microsoft’s version of Google Maps. You can add pins to “My Places” and group them in collections.
- uencounter.me: An interesting site that allows you to create custom pins and tag them with a LOCATION and a DATE. They have a “Genealogy” Tag as well. Your collections can be private or public.
- Ancestral Atlas: Free site that makes it easy to map your genealogy data without a lot of manual work. Upload your GEDCOM file and get a real jump start! Information is shared with all other users of Ancestral Atlas.
- MyHeritage PedigreeMap: MyHeritage just launched a new service that is really cool. Once your family data is in MyHeritage, simply go to the “Apps” menu and select PedigreeMap
What tools have you used before? I would love to hear a story of how cluster genealogy helped you in your research.