Tracing Women Using Cluster Genealogy (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women  by Lisa Alzo, M.F.A.. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Cluster Genealogy[edit | edit source]

Immigrants often traveled across the ocean with and settled in the same towns as their relatives and friends. If your Aunt Jane disappeared between censuses, try researching other family members, cousins, neighbors, associates, or friends. Note: pay attention to the names of the witnesses on key documents (baptismal or marriage certificates, naturalization petitions, etc.). Often expanding your research beyond the immediate family may turn up that key piece of information (name of the ancestral town or village, a mother’s maiden name, etc.) you need to find your elusive ancestor.

The practice of immigrants following one another to the same communities in the new world is called chain migration and it resulted in the formation of cluster communities. The immigrants built their own churches and schools, established ethnic presses and formed social and fraternal organizations.

In studying historical context, you’ll see that push factors in the old country drove groups of immigrants from a particular place to come to America during particular time periods. That means you can learn a lot about your ancestor through the behavior of her contemporaries. For instance, groups of immigrants from the same country or ethnic background tended to settle together, at least in the early days of their immigration. The early pioneers might have been drawn to an area or community because of job prospects; for example, work in a coal mine, factory, or steel mill. Or it might have been the prospect for farming—any people left Europe because of a lack of farmland there.

Often, the immigrants’ fondness for a place grew out of their appreciation for the geography surrounding them. But the first immigrants persevered, and although some changed their names and assimilated, many resisted the pressures to abandon their language and culture. The cluster community was essential to preserving customs, rituals and traditions.

If your female ancestor was part of a cluster community, you can get clues to her immigration indirectly from other immigrants in this community. The first step in identifying a cluster community is to look at your home and family resources, which will give you the information about your ancestors’ daily lives. Another useful exercise is to think about the community where you (or your parents or grandparents) lived as a child.

  • Did people in your family move around often, or stay in the same house and neighborhood throughout their childhood and young adult years?
  • Did your ancestors primarily speak English at home or another language? Who were their neighbors? How well did they know them? What race were the neighbors?
  • Did those living in the neighborhood tend to be of the same ethnic background or was it an ethnically diverse community?
  • Who were your ancestors’ classmates in school? Did they all speak English? If not, what other languages were spoken?

Once you’ve identified the cluster community, study it. Make note of the following:

  • What churches did immigrants establish/attend?
  • Were any ethnic newspapers published there? (List titles)
  • Who were the most prominent immigrant families in this community?
  • What clubs or organizations were established for immigrants in this community?
  • Where did immigrants in this community work?
  • What businesses did immigrants frequent?

Now you have a list of research targets. Your next step is to identify individual immigrants within your ancestor’s cluster community, starting with people who would’ve most closely associated with your female ancestor—cousins, coworkers, etc. By researching them, you may learn new information that offers a “back door” approach to information about your own ancestor.

Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.