Geni Podcast: Cluster and Collateral Searches

Posted July 12, 2011 by Geni | 3 Comments

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In this episode, Thomas and Grant dicuss collateral and cluster searches in regards to genealogy. Learn how you can gain information about your ancestors by learning more about history.

What is a collateral search? What is a cluster search?

Some genealogists use the terms “collateral search” and “cluster search” inter-changeably but for me they cover two distinct research methodologies:

  • Collateral search – when you search for those persons not directly-related to your ancestors, but who are considered part of the same family, usually through marriage.

    You are researching your 2nd great-grandfather and you take time to look at the siblings of his wife or his wife’s parents and who they married, as well as their children.

  • Cluster search – when you search within a geographic area, group of records, or social circle and look at those people, places and connections that are not directly tied to your ancestors, but may provide clues and insights into the lives of your ancestors.

    The easiest example is to look at the entire page of a US Federal Census population schedule where you find your ancestor. Look to see who also was enumerated in the same neighborhood, who has similar ethnicities, who was born in the same country, or who has a similar profession.

Why are these searches important in genealogy, and are sometimes ignored especially by new genealogists?

Awareness of the power of cluster and collateral searches means you have begun to make the transition from a beginning genealogist to a more mature, intermediate genealogist.

Collateral searches take an extra bit of time an effort and very often, new genealogists see them as a waste of time. It is common to “circle back” and pursue a collateral search after hitting a stumbling block on your current search. Collateral searches often contain clues that are not always easy to connect to your ancestor, such as an in-law’s birthplace or occupation. This is why it is important to have a good research log where you can record every bit of information, not matter how insignificant it might seem at the time of research. You never know when you will need that data to advance your research.

Cluster searches require even more time and effort because, even more so than collateral searches, there is no direct link to your ancestor. For me, cluster searching is more “background information gathering.” I get to understand the community where my ancestor lived, the cultural practices, the naming conventions, how people lived and worked. Again, a research log is important but for cluster data, I will often record my “insights” in the notes section, such as “everyone on this street is from County Monaghan in Ireland,” etc.

What types of resources are used for collateral and cluster searches?

For both types of searches, the resources are often the same but used differently. Here are some record types to look for:

  • Census population schedules – for collateral searches, look for in-laws, cousins and others. Don’t forget people labeled “boarder” – very often this could be a collateral relative. For cluster searches, review an entire page, an entire address especially if it is a tenement or apartment building, or an entire enumeration ward. Look at birthplaces, ethnicities, occupations, etc.
  • Newspapers – used more for cluster searches. Old newspapers, especially in small towns, documented the social activities of our ancestors including friends and associates with whom they interacted. Careful reading will reveal clues as to the “why” or “how” of certain practices or certain events such as, “How did my great-parents meet? They attended the same church as teenagers.”
  • Land and Property Records cluster searches are more geographical than collateral searches so any record having to do with location is important. Make sure to review transactions located near your ancestors’ property for clues.
  • Passenger Lists and Manifests – for our immigrant ancestors, clusters of people who arrived from the same location often settled in the same location in America.
  • Church Records – the family that prayed together, not just stayed together, but often interacted socially with other families. Churches and synagogues are where connections were made including business connections and, of course, the “match making” type as well.
  • Court Records – another resource for cluster searches. Some court records will reveal the business and financial interactions between our ancestors and others in the community.
  • Occupational Records – believe it or not, many corporations leave a record trail in the form of employee newsletters and announcements that can be used in cluster searches.

How can online family tree programs like Geni help with collateral and cluster searches?

Online programs offer so many options for pursuing a collateral as well as a cluster search. Using Geni as an example, here are some ways you can pursue both types of searches:

  • Projects – under Research, select Projects in Geni ( and then search for geographic locations such as New Jersey.  You’ll find projects such as Salem County New Jersey Families ( and related profiles. When searching projects use keywords related to towns and cities, churches, companies and more. Also don’t forget military searches – very often social circles were developed among veterans who served together.
  • Discussions – under Research, select Discussions in Geni ( and then in the Viewing drop-down list, select All Public. Again, keyword searches should focus on geographic locations, names of churches, companies, military regiments, etc. If a discussion exists, don’t be afraid to start one!
  • Search – utilize the Advanced search function in Geni ( to search for surname and don’t forget the Family section which allows you to specify parent names, sibling names and more.

More About Thomas MacEntee

  • GeneaBloggers Radio: Every Friday evening from 9-10:30 pm Central time, Thomas MacEntee hosts an Internet radio show – GeneaBloggers Radio ( Via your computer, you can listen to interviews with interesting genealogists and companies involved in the genealogy industry. This week, on Friday July 8, 2011, our show is entitled Don’t Know Much About Genealogy – Genealogy Education. Our special guests will include Lee Maxey, of the Boston University Center for Professional Education, Elissa Scalisse Powell of the Genealogy Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP) and Linda-Rae Palmer discussing the University of Washington Continuing Education Certificate Program in Genealogy & Family History.