In our own genealogy research, we often concentrate on our direct-line ancestors. But sometimes it’s the indirect connections that lead us to the most exciting discoveries. One of the most powerful tools we can use is the FAN Club.
The FAN Club refers to the friends/extended family, associates, and neighbors who surrounded your ancestors. This term was coined by Elizabeth Shown Mills, a pioneer in the genealogy field. She realized that our ancestors didn’t live in a vacuum and you shouldn’t research like they did.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned the FAN Club as a tool I used to locate the county in Ireland my 3x great-grandfather came from. You can read that blog post here. If I had just researched him, I would only know he was from Ireland. It was looking at others that led me to that deeper discovery.
Let’s take a look at each part of the FAN Club so you too can use this essential tool.
Friends of your ancestors can be found in letters they exchanged or functions they attended together. Look at the documents of the important events in your ancestor’s lives. There will be witnesses for marriages, baptisms, or wills. Also, newspaper obituaries could mention friends as pallbearers.
Extended family will include aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and any other family member that is not in your direct line. Don’t forget to look at the extended family of your ancestor’s spouse. You never know where those clues will be.
Associates could be co-workers or members of a fraternal organization. Who did your ancestors do business with? Are there grocery store records that show your ancestors shopped at a particular store? Witnesses to those important ancestral events may also reveal associates. Was the person who witnessed a marriage also listed for every other marriage on the page? That person may not have been a “friend or extended family member” but associated with your ancestor just the same.
Many times, people migrated as a group. In census records, do you see the same names near your ancestors? Look at the 3-5 pages before and after and write down the surnames listed there. These are your ancestor’s neighbors. If you’re having trouble finding your ancestors in census or immigration records, look for those familiar neighbors and research them. You may find your ancestors were there, but just “hidden” with a weird surname spelling, etc. These are the people who witnessed your ancestor’s daily lives and they may reveal a unique perspective you wouldn’t get otherwise.
Practical steps in using the FAN Club:
- Research Local Directories – look for city directories, census records, and other documents to identify friends, extended family, associates, and neighbors. These sources often list individuals living in the same area.
- Cross-Reference Documents – when you find names in documents such as wills, deeds, or marriage records, make a note of the witnesses or others mentioned. These people may be part of the FAN Club.
- Study their lives – once you’ve identified members of the FAN Club, delve into their lives. You may not have found a diary of your ancestor’s trip to America, but perhaps one of the FAN Club members kept a log of the adventure and mentioned your ancestor by name.
Whether you use a spreadsheet, Word doc, or Airtable, it’s important to keep track of the FAN Club. Here is a snip of the FAN Club for my 3x great-grandparents, John Krewson and Jane Parker:
I find Airtable is the easiest way to track these people and know how they are connected to my ancestors. When you have everyone gathered in one place you’ll see patterns in how they all interacted.
Embracing the FAN Club and using it on a regular basis in your genealogy research can open up all sorts of possibilities. It reveals that your ancestors were more than just names and dates. They were real people with friends, extended family, associates, and neighbors who cared for them, looked out for them, and stood by them in good times and in bad.
Yes, the FAN Club is essential in breaking down brick walls, but using it in your everyday research can add depth and color to your ancestor’s lives. And in the end isn’t that what we want?
Your ancestors were surrounded by a community. I you need help finding it, please contact me. I’d love to guide you in your journey to the past.