Our ancestors tended to move with and marry into particular groups of people, and tracing those “clusters”–even if the people aren’t in your direct lines or even related–is a key strategy to break through genealogy brick walls. It can help you discover maiden names, places of origin, and other documents mentioning your ancestor.
From neighbors on census records to witnesses on marriage certificates, hidden clues to may be hiding in plain site–names and relationships that could help solve your biggest genealogy brick wall.
Cluster research looks at all folks who live near each other and migrate together, whether they are blood kin or not. This can include a wife’s relatives, or even young men from the neighborhood.
Among the most common types of clusters are migratory clusters, filled with family friends, neighbors, or other abstract relations. But migratory groups aren’t the only clusters you’ll find while doing genealogy research. What other kinds of clusters are there? Several. Like constellations in the sky, each is unique, but when you put them together they tell stories.
Here are a few examples of other types of clusters:
Immigration chains. In many places in the United States, immigrants came directly from their home countries to work in specific industries, especially in mining, railroad work, auto manufacturing, lumbering and other big employers of the late 19th and early 20th century. Sometimes middlemen even existed, agents from the Old Country who recruited their fellow countrymen (and women) for an industry. Investigating other immigrants who settled in the same neighborhoods as your ancestors, worked the same jobs and spoke the same native tongue can be a great way to identify an immigrant’s ancestral hometown.
Community clusters. People who belonged to the same church, fraternal organization, civic clubs or other community groups often share a history all their own. Even those who shared a neighborhood-especially segregated neighborhoods-have unique histories. Sometimes that history is archived in a book or in local collections of photos, documents, memorabilia and even the memories of older folks in town. If you can identify a group like this to which your ancestor belonged, you may be in for a treat.
Fellow workers. Individual industries have their own stories. They tell of specific working conditions, manual tasks performed, dangerous equipment used, the fatigue of long hours at repetitive or heavy tasks. They tell what kinds of scars, calluses, burns, limb losses, falls, machinery accidents and other occupational hazards they faced every day. A census entry may tell us that an ancestor worked for the railroad as a brakeman. A few questions to a rail historian might earn you important insight: “It was one of the most dangerous jobs because they had to jump on and off between moving cars. You could always tell a brakeman because he was missing a finger or two.”
Of course, clusters can be made up of any combination, from schoolmates to military buddies. To learn more strategies for identifying clusters in your own family, take Cluster andCollateral Research 101.