Methodology: Ten Ways to Expand an Ancestor’s FAN Club

The FAN Club principle is fairly well known today in the genealogical research world, but back in the early 1990s, it was new to me. Marsha Hoffman Rising’s project, Opening the Ozarks: First Families in Southwest Missouri, introduced many genealogists, including myself, to the idea of an ancestral FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) Club.

Her study of one thousand of the first settlers in the Ozarks shows this method can be very helpful in identifying other family members and previous homes because she was able to  prove the origins of 857 (!!!) of those 1000 settlers, based on FAN Club relationships.

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.

The FAN Club principle is sometimes called Cluster Research because researchers examine those people in the family’s community who interacted with the family in various ways to try to determine less obvious connections.

It can further be used to separate out unrelated families with the same surname.

What records can be used to create FAN Clubs? Just about any kind of document or record set that names names!


1. Marriage bonds, licenses and records – Note names of bondsmen, witnesses and who performed the marriage ceremony.

2. Land deeds – The grantor and grantee are obviously important, but so are the witnesses and perhaps the previous owner of the property before the current sale.

3. Census records – Pay attention to many census details. Others with the same surname in the town and county are not the only important factors. Note the neighbors and birthplaces that indicate a migratory pattern. Neighbors in this context means not only those a page or two ahead of or after your family, but perhaps countywide or even in neighboring counties. I’ve come across families who lived but a couple of miles apart, but happened to live in bordering counties when a new county was set off from its parent county.

4. Tax records – Many county tax lists have been digitized and are, in my opinion, a hugely under-used resource. If you are lucky and the tax list is NOT in alphabetical order, the tax collector might have made the neighborhood rounds collecting the government’s dues. If it is in alpha order, which is way more common, noting all men of the same surname is an easy task. Follow the tax lists to see when a man first appears – did he become of a taxable age and appear with his father – or was the man an adult who moved into the area? Occasionally, women appear on the lists and most often this is because their husbands died after the previous year’s taxes were paid.

5. Plat maps that show property ownership – In the late 1800s, county atlases were published that showed where various homes, churches and sometimes businesses were located. An example is the map of Charlotte, Maine that I used in this post. A visual source like these maps makes it simple to figure out how close or how far apart people were living.

6. Church records – Church records, particularly membership lists, are a clear indication of association by religion.

7. Family and County histories – If your family is mentioned in a county history (not just in the biographical section, but in the historical portion), other families might be mentioned as moving in at the same time, working in a similar business, serving in town offices or giving militia or military service. If there is an entire genealogy devoted to your family, that is even better!

8. Court minutes – Was your family one that went to court? Not only were land conveyances often ordered to be recorded, but disputes were settled, road maintenance authorized, orphans bound out and other county business transacted. Sometimes, mention is made of a previous home, usually because real estate is involved, or administrators are appointed to handle cases. This record set is a great place to learn about the A – associates – in the FAN Club.

9. Military records, particularly pension files – Pension files might be the one and only place to uncover certain FAN Club relationships. People who could verify service and/or attest to an applicant’s character were, at the very least, friends and neighbors, and, at most, might be relatives.

10. Google Search – I hesitate to include this suggestion because of all the really, REALLY incorrect information that is floating in cyberspace. However, someone else might have researched your FAN Club members and already know their place of origin before migration. Those can be big CLUES (Not proof – what if the wrong family is connected to the wrong place?) to follow yourself.

If you haven’t tried applying the FAN Club principle to any of your family history mysteries, now is the time to begin.

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