Friday, October 26, 2012

Fishing Expedition (AKA Cluster/Collateral Genealogy) - A Brick Wall Buster

Fishing expeditions, AKA cluster or collateral genealogy, can be one of the best ways to bulldoze a brick wall. In a nutshell, cluster/collateral genealogy is researching the people surrounding your ancestor.

Your ancestor was not isolated. He/she had relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow church goers, fellow workers etc. Researching these people is a back door approach to finding out more about your person of interest.

Here are some ideas:

  • Research the neighbors you find on the census records. Follow them through the census years to see if maybe they migrated with your ancestor. People normally did not migrate alone. They migrated in groups of family and friends. If you have been unable to figure out where your ancestor came from, you might be able to figure it out by tracing the people he might have traveled with.
  • If your ancestor had a Metes and Bounds land description, the owners of the adjoining land will be named.
  • If your ancestor had a Public Land Survey System (PLSS) land description, find out who everyone was that was in the same section and the surrounding sections. You can easily do this on the Bureau of Land Management website.
  • Take a close look at the witnesses on deeds, wills, marriage licenses etc. Witnesses were most often family or very close friends.
  • Take the time to research the siblings and the siblings' spouses of your direct line.
  • Research everyone in the same county that had the same surname during the time period when your ancestor lived.
  • If you have church records for your ancestor, research all of the people mentioned in those church records during the same time period.
  • Check out the people buried in the same cemetery, especially if it is a small rural one. If it is a big city cemetery look at the people in the same plot.

So what do you do with all of this information? All of the top genealogy database programs will allow you to add an "unlinked" person. You can do everything to this person that you can do to anyone else in your file. You can add all of their known relatives and then you will have a mini tree. You can have a lot of these little trees. As you find familial connections, you can start linking them up making bigger trees and hopefully you will eventually be able to link them to your main tree. The number of trees I have in my file fluctuates greatly as I am working on these collateral lines. At this moment in time I have 11 trees in my file. Your genealogy program will have a way for you to list these trees so that you can always see at a glance what is going on.

Here is an example of how you would use this. Samuel Seegar is my 4th great grandfather. He was born about 1796 in Georgia and died 01 Oct 1852 in Madison County, Georgia. In 1820 and 1830 he was in Burke County, Georgia. Burke County happens to be a burned county (the courthouse burned in 1825 and again in 1856 with close to a total records loss). I know he married someone named Nancy but I have no idea of her surname. It just so happens that the Augusta Chronicle is available and Burke county announcements were posted in there. Between the available census records and the newspaper I was able to come up with several other Seegars in this county at the same time. Seegar is not that common of a surname so I can be pretty confident that these men are all related, George, Joab, John, Benjamin, Charles F. and another Samuel. I added all these men to my file with the hopes of linking them up eventually. There are no federal census records for the state of Georgia prior to 1820 with one exception, Oglethorpe County 1800. Of course there are no Seegars there. That would have been too easy! These records were burned by the British during the War of 1812. Because we have no census records for 1790, 1800 and 1810, it is a little harder tracking migration patterns. I can show that some of these Seegars do show up in Madison County for the 1840 census with my Samuel Seegar which further solidifies the case that they were in fact related. The more names you have to work with the better. So my strategy from here will be:

  • Research the Georgia Headright and Bounty Plats for the Seegars(these are metes and bounds) to see where they lived in relation to each other and see who their neighbors were. I also want to note who the chainbearers were. The chainbearers could easily be family, friends, neighbors etc.
  • Search for these neighbors in the Augusta Chronicle to see what tidbits I can find.
  • Search any available Burke County tax books to see if I can narrow down when the Seegars and the neighbors came to this county. My hope is that they DID come from another county that wasn't burned. Even in burned counties you will usually find tax records. Many times they were not stored in the courthouse and they were also sent to the state.
  • Going forward in time, see if any of the neighbors also migrated to Madison County when Samuel did. If so, then there is probably more than just a neighbor relationship but possibly a familial one as well.
  • There is a known Georgia migration route from the Burke County area, through the Wilkes County area, to the Madison County area. The records of the counties along the way need to be checked for Seegars. Finding them in non burned counties will be the key.
  • Wills need to be pulled for everyone that made it to Madison County. Unlike Burke County, the Madison County wills survived. If wife Nancy's parents also migrated, and they died in Madison County, Nancy may be named as "my daughter Nancy Seegar" which would make the connection to her parents and give us a surname.

As I snag bits and pieces of information about the Seegars and their neighbors I just keep adding it to my file. It is possible that I will thoroughly research a person that isn't connected to the family at all but what's the harm? Sometimes that happens but you have to go off on these tangents if you what to find out more about your ancestor through the back door.

I have done step one (research the Georgia Headright and Bounty Plats) and found the Seegars in Burke County very early. The earliest entry is 1786 for George Seegar. It appears that George is older than the rest of the Seegars which makes him a potential father. It also puts him back far enough in time that I might be able to pick him up in the Georgia Colonial Records (39 volumes, thank goodness there is an index!) If George is in fact my Samuel's father (Samuel was born about 1796) that would mean Samuel was actually born in Burke County which isn't a good thing. He would have also married in Burke County which again isn't a good thing. I can still hope that his wife Nancy's parents migrated with them to Madison County so I still have to check the later records in my list. I am telling you this to show you how your focus and direction will change every time you get a new fact in. Genealogy research is very fluid.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Good luck with your research Michelle. I broke down a brick wall for one of my husband's ancestors in the same way. A marriage record listed parents that didn't exist in any other census or church records. Turned out the names were incorrect. By researching the marriage witnesses, I was able to determine that they were a niece and nephew of the groom, and finally place the ancestor in the right family.

  2. What a great story! I love when stuff like that happens :)

  3. Great post! I'm a huge fan of cluster projects. I still have a big brick wall that I need to tackle this way. Thanks for the reminder to get back to it!

  4. Thanks, Stephanie :)
    I think it is a lot of fun. I don't mind research collateral families at all.

  5. Just found your site. Samuel Seegar is my husband's 3g grandfather through his daughter Charlotta/Carlotta. I have not worked with this line much and need to do so. Ironically, your surnames Simmons and Lewis are the most matched in MY DNA. My lines come from NC and SC.
    Susan P. Graben