FAN Club Research


Often when researching ancestors in early time periods or in counties with record loss, we cannot find the records needed to document our ancestor or extend a line. We often refer to this as a brick wall.

By researching the FAN Club, also called cluster research, we can often find the clues necessary to piece together evidence which can lead us around the brick wall.


Elizabeth Shown Mills created the acronym, FAN Club. See her QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle), (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012.)

Who is in the FAN Club?

  1. Immediate family: direct-line spouse, other spouses, children, parents, siblings

  2. Extended family: grandparents, grandchildren, in-laws, step-parents, step-children, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren of siblings, etc.

  3. Others of the same surname who lived in the same or nearby town - Check census, probate, land, vital, etc.

  4. Associates:

    • Witnesses or informants (such as for weddings, death certificates, deeds, etc.)

    • Executors and others listed in probate records, such as who debts were paid to

    • Signers of affidavits for military pensions and bounty land applications

    • Business associates

  5. Neighbors: begin with those who lived nearby

    • Prior to the early-1900s, people often would migrate in groups. Sometimes they belonged to the same ethnic or religious group, other times they were extended family or close friends who moved together.

    • On a census, begin by recording 12-15 families listed on either side of your ancesto​r.

Deciding When to Research the Fan Club

Fan Club research can be time consuming so before beginning, follow these steps to make sure you have exhausted all other research options:

  • First look at all your previous research to find any missing details.

  • Determine your current research question.

  • Are there other possible records that might directly mention your ancestor?

  • If not, then proceed to research the FAN club of your ancestor.


Applications for FAN Club research:

  • In earlier time periods or locations where fewer records were available

  • For burned counties or other areas with record loss

  • Finding a female ancestor/maiden name

  • Separating identities of people with the same name

  • Identifying the earlier residence of an ancestor who migrated

  • Other cases needing indirect evidence

The FAN Club Research Process
  1. Review all your ancestor’s documents.

    • View the original record when possible. It can reveal other details to distinguish your ancestor, including signatures or the original order of a list.

    • When a list is alphabetized you lose the community context, for example:

    • tax lists or petitions which were done by neighborhoods

    • cemetery lists which can show family plots

    • ship lists which can reveal people traveling together

  2. Create a timeline for your ancestor and include all details: occupations, economic standing, military service, signature, physical features, known locations, etc.

  3. Understand the localities and jurisdictions where your ancestor lived.

  4. Create a list of all known family members (include extended family.)

    • List helpful details and which documents prove the family relationship.

  5. Create a list of other persons found in the documents of your ancestor, include their role in the document

    • For ease of sorting, make a separate entry for each person in each document.

    • Add any possible details regarding the associate such as occupation, literacy, economic indicators, etc.

    • When possible, include in the details a theory for each associate as to his/her relationship with your ancestor, i.e., brother-in-law, neighbor, church member, etc.

  6. Establish criteria for sorting your list to determine an order to research[1]

    • Strength of the connection – a potential family member might eventually provide more evidence. Example: a witness at a wedding is more likely to be related than the judge who married them.

    • Frequency of connections – Start with the people your ancestor would have spent the most time with (usually immediate family) or had frequent interactions with. Example: a neighbor who shows up in a census in both Virginia and then Kentucky is probably a relative, member of the same church, or close friend.

    • The quality of the source – how reliable is the information? Example: extended family listed on an unsourced family tree might not be accurate.

  7. Begin researching at the top of your list and work your way down.

    • Assess the evidence as you research and adjust your order of research accordingly.

  8. Use DNA to provide additional evidence and identify more members of the extended family.


     [1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle), (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012.)

TIP: FAN Club research frequently requires indirect evidence.


Always look for both direct and indirect evidence. Direct evidence states the information outright, while indirect evidence is information combined together to support conclusions. Indirect evidence needs a proof argument to correlate evidence.


Example: Indirect evidence to prove that Dick was maiden name of Sarah who married Samuel Combest about 1799. Notice each of these records are in Pulaski County, Kentucky.

  1. An 1844 will for Samuel Combest in Pulaski County, lists his wife as Sarah.

  2. Samuel and Sarah Combest had ten children. Three of them were named as follows:

    • John Combest

    • Margaret Combest

    • Samuel Dick Combest

  3. The 1803 tax list for Pulaski County shows that Samuel Combest and John Dick both lived on Fishing Creek.

  4. An 1841 pension file from Pulaski County for Margaret Dick, widow of John Dick, included a page from the family bible showing Sarah’s birth in 1778.