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Searching for Collateral Kin

Most beginning genealogists think the only way to search for their ancestors is to search for their family surname, then see how far back they can go.


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Most beginning genealogists think the only way to search for their ancestors is to search for their family surname, then see how far back they can go. Genealogical software encourages this approach. If you're using software to help in your search, you'll inevitably run into obstacles along the way, and this research method does little to help you surmount them. However, an alternative method, known as Full Family Context or more commonly as Cluster Genealogy, does work in searching for what's known in genealogy circles as collateral kin.

Essentially, you'll need to alter your train of thought to search for your complete family not just direct lines to certain ancestors. Researching over a shorter span of genealogical time will not only help you solve difficult problems with certain ancestors, but will allow you to flesh out those you do find more thoroughly.

In order to successfully use the cluster approach, you'll need to learn how to create people from just names, getting to know them both as individuals and as part of the family. You'll also need to consider both predictable and unpredictable behavior from your ancestors and their friends and neighbors. This research method requires working with a large number of records, being able to recognize almost by instinct what's important in the record, and what can be noted or even forgotten. To understand your ancestors better, get to know their friends and neighbors if possible.

To begin, you must look at your family from a broader view than as just one family whose pedigree moves back in a straight line to one founding ancestor. Studying ancestors in the full family context has evolved from looking not only for the brothers and sisters of your ancestor, but for other important companions in your ancestor's life. Not only should you identify in-laws, collateral family, and associates, but you'll also need to place them within their own cultural, geographic, and sociological context. Placing your ancestor and his associates in their historical context helps to flesh him or her out as an individual from the dull pages of genealogy books.

When you first started searching for your ancestors, you probably read that you should begin by writing down every person that possesses your family's surname living in your area. While that may be well and good, it will lead you down many false paths. If you have a common family name like Smith, Brown, or Johnson, you may be overwhelmed. You're better off narrowing your research to a specific locality, to established migration routes, or within a defined time period.

You'll also find that published genealogies devoted to families of one surname are often comprehensive, but more often they follow one line for several generations before beginning to cover sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the late 19th or early 20th century. So why not start researching these collateral kin from the start as you run into them?

During the late 19th century, people believed that most people from families of a particular surname were descended from one person. However, this is rarely true. An even less likely scenario is that of a family who came to America together. In fact, most didn't. And the chance of members of a family splitting up once they got here was also rare. Imagine traveling all the way with your family to a new land only to leave them once you got here. Most immigrant families came over separately—the husbands arriving first, followed by their wives and children—or if they did come together, they stayed together for security and friendship.

Newsletters from family organizations and reunions often contain ads for people searching a particular surname or descending from an individual, usually an early colonist. Once you have the name of the individual, then what? Chances are they won't be related to you anyway.

If, on the other hand, you begin the search for your ancestors by compiling a family history for your family that includes spouses, in-laws, and female lines, going back three or four generations, you'll be way ahead of the game.

Unfortunately, the goal of tracing one line backward as far as possible narrows your research to gathering data on certain surnames. Before long, you may find yourself with filing cabinets full of information on families that aren't even related to you. Often, tracing just a surname will lead you on a wild goose chase, or to claim ancestors that later prove to be false.

Today, more family genealogists are researching their families as people connected through relationships, not just through a common name. Learn to investigate your ancestors as people who have emotional bonds as well as blood ties, people who have a common history, common traditions, and a commitment to one another. These bonds, relationships, and commitments—and the records that document them—are what will lead you to success.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

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