We all have times when traditional genealogy research methods yield nothing but brick wall after brick wall. It’s at this point that you have to step back and take a different approach, and that’s when cluster and collateral research comes into play. Based on the core principle that people lived and migrated in packs, this blueprint is designed to track down your ancestors laterally, through the people they interacted with on a regular basis.
Cluster and Collateral Research: Cast a Wide Net
Collateral research involves searching through the records of indirect relations to your ancestor. These people are blood relatives to the ancestor you’re researching, but not your direct ancestor. Instead, collateral research focuses on siblings, aunts, cousins, uncles, and other lines that branch out from farther from the trunk of your tree.
Your ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They went to school, work, church, block parties and other events, and this is where cluster research comes into play. Cluster research involves the non-relatives in your ancestor’s circle, mostly focused on friends and neighbors. These are the people your ancestors interacted with that probably won’t make the family tree, but who are still important to your understanding of your ancestors.
How Does Cluster and Collateral Research Work?
Say you’re researching your great-great-grandmother; only you are not turning up any information on her – not a single record under her maiden or married name! You’ve researched all of your great-grandfather’s records for any clues, but you’re coming up empty. (Go far enough back in your family tree, and we all have these types of brick walls.)
However, you know your great-grandfather had a brother, so the next logical step is to research his records. And before you know it, you’ve turned up her name in his birth certificate in Louisville, KY. So now, you have a name and you can pinpoint her location at the time of his birth. Better yet, as you keep digging, you discover a journal entry that includes mention of your ancestor, or perhaps you stumble across an old wedding photo in which they were best man or maid of honor.
You’ve just done collateral research and demonstrated the first benefit – finding record of your direct ancestors in the records of an indirect relative.
Cluster and collateral research also provides an opportunity to experience our ancestors through the eyes of the people who knew them. Knowing that your ancestor was six of twelve surviving children provides an insight into what their childhood may have looked like, especially compared to another ancestor who might have been an only child.
Researching family and friends can reveal patterns that you won’t notice if you keep a narrow focus only on your direct ancestors. Naming patterns or physical traits might emerge, such as several members of the family being left-handed, or sharing an eye color. Other patterns might include occupations, military service, religion, or even reveal social status, class or education level.
You’ll also discover that some ancestors traveled together, or joined friends and neighbors who migrated earlier. Especially when it came to immigration, traveling and settling in a new place together with old friends and family provided a sense of security and familiarity. In many places, there is a predominance of people from the same region. When you’ve lost an ancestor, check in the places where they most likely would have traveled to based on their ethnicity, language and culture.
Of course, sometimes, there’s overlap between the two. If you look at the names on a census, you might discover that your ancestor married the girl next door. Some names will show up again and again, especially if several generations of your family has grown up in the same neighborhood.
The lines between friends and family can become blurred. “Uncle” Charlie might not be blood related at all, but he’s at every party and family gathering, and perhaps Aunt Linda had the same roommate or renter for years.
When to Expand Your Search
Here are some specific instances when cluster and collateral research can really help:
- you’re unable to identify the next generation back;
- you don’t know much about a direct ancestor’s family;
- when you want to know more biographical details of someone’s life;
- you are trying to trace female, adopted-in, adopted-out or other difficult-to-trace ancestors;
- research before 1850 (especially in the U.S.) and for immigrant generations;
- there are mysteries of identity, kinship or events you want to solve;
- you’ve lost track of the family during a period of time and want to find them again (follow migration patterns);
- you want to confirm whether a record belongs to your ancestor or someone else of the same name.
Want to learn more about cluster and collateral research? Sign up for our 4-week course, Cluster and Collateral Research 101.