Start Your Own Genealogical FAN Club!

The FAN club is a term coined by renowned genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. “FAN” stands for “Friends, Associates, Neighbors”, and refers to researching the cluster of people who interacted with your ancestors. This principle is also called cluster or collateral genealogy. Researching people within this cluster can provide insights into your ancestors’ lives, as well as help answer thorny questions your direct research hasn’t been able to resolve (“I can’t find this guy ANYWHERE! Where the heck was he?” or “Which of the six John Smiths in this county is mine?” or “Who was Nathan Pyeatt’s (1787-1812) mother?”). The FAN club is a great tool for proving relationships, establishing identities, and busting through brick walls.

Many printed and on-line resources contain case studies demonstrating how you can use records of friends, associates, and neighbors to obtain the answers you’re looking for. Some of the best case studies using the FAN club principle have been published in scholarly genealogical journals such as The National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The New England Historic Genealogical Society Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and The American Genealogist. All are well worth reading for their meticulous use of genealogical methodology.

To get started on an ancestral FAN club, you need to find all of those friends, associates, and neighbors. Fortunately, you can find them everywhere. Any record you can use for genealogical research can be used to build your FAN clubs as well. Also, think of the kinds of events at which your ancestor would have been interacting with other people, such as church, workplace, social organizations and venues, and legal transactions, and determine the kinds of records in which those people might be found. Here are just a few examples:

  • A church baptismal record may show names of godparents or sponsors of the child
  • A will or deed shows names of those witnessing the signing of the document
  • A marriage record may contain names of witnesses for the bride and/or groom
  • A Petition for Naturalization for a person seeking American citizenship may contain names of witnesses who personally know the petitioner and can vouch for the veracity of his or her statements
  • A newspaper may contain the names and even pictures of members of social and charitable organizations at various local event venues.

The FAN club principle works very well in conjunction with ancestral timelines. Timelines can be very helpful for researching any ancestor, but they’re especially useful when you’re dealing with ancestors who had the nerve to not leave lots of records for you to find! You can record your ancestor’s life chronologically on the timeline, including the dates, events, names, places, and relationships of individuals with whom your ancestor was involved. This allows you to see where the timeline gaps are. The FAN club can thus help you fill in those missing years by containing names and relationships of people with whom your ancestor interacted.

The great English poet John Donne wrote:

No man is an island,

Entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

The same is true in genealogy. In her blog Empty Branches on the Family Tree, genealogist Linda Stufflebean offers 10 examples of records you can use to expand FAN clubs. She also observes that “Our ancestors rarely traveled without friends and/or relatives when moving from one place to another, whether across the ocean or in a migratory path across the United States. Families chose their destination either because someone else they knew preceded them to a chosen location or they were enticed by offers of a better life. Travel in the 19th century and earlier was dangerous – long trips were not made alone or even with a single nuclear family.”

As it applies to ancestors, this principle also applies to evidences. A single morsel doesn’t prove anything by itself, but pieced together with other morsels they can help solve genealogical problems. Elizabeth Shown Mills emphasizes that the parcels of evidence, whatever form they take, are not “statements of ‘fact,’” These parcels don’t prove anything by themselves, but they can point to other records, or be used to build a case for whatever questions you’re working to answer. Check out Elizabeth’s QuickLesson #11 to see how she used the FAN club principle to identify the correct Mary Smith as the wife of one James Boyd of Leake Co., Mississippi.

For links to more great information about using the FAN club principle, visit Cyndi’s List – Research Methodology – FAN Club or Cluster Research page and check out the list of (currently) 19 sites offering great FAN club help and guidance. Also take a look at Genealogy TV’s Cluster Research videos on YouTube.

Start forming your ancestral FAN clubs today. They will become valuable items in your genealogy toolbox.

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