Cluster Genealogy and Mapping Tools

“No man is an island” – John Donne

Too often we get hyper-focused on one individual in our efforts to discover our genealogy. This happens especially when the primary goal is to extend the branches of your family tree back along direct line ancestors – “I just want to know who the parents of my great-grandparents were, and their parents, and so forth.” This is a dangerous pitfall, especially for beginning researchers. Why? Because by doing so you are leaving lots of clues along the way. Eventually you will hit the proverbial brick wall, and then you will wish you had extended your search as you went along. Enter cluster genealogy.

Cluster genealogy is a research method based on the premise that our ancestors lives were not lived in isolation. People lived near parents, siblings, in-laws, cousins, etc. They socialized and transacted business with neighbors and close family friends. They were witness to marriages and land transfers and more. Often these relationships were so strong that unrelated households would even relocate or migrate together. So what does this mean for you? It means you need to expand your search and document information about the other people in your ancestors’ lives.

Who is in a cluster?

A cluster includes anyone that interacted on a regular basis with your person of interest. At a minimum this means siblings, extended family, friends, and neighbors. At an absolute minimum I suggest always collecting enough information about your ancestor to complete two family group sheets. One with your ancestor as a parent with spouse and children, and another one with your ancestor as a child in the household. Again, this should be the bare minimum. Sometimes it is useful to extend that to cousins, friends, associates, and neighbors.

Cluster Genealogy is sometimes referred to as:

  1. Cluster Research
  2. Collateral Research
  3. “Whole Family” Research
  4. “Big Picture” Research
  5. Community Context Research

Last week I shared a story that utilizes the Power of Place to uncover new information about my primary ancestor of interest. Tracing a family member helped me find the information that I was seeking! These are the kinds of discoveries that you may miss out on if you don’t employ this technique.

Five Tools for Creating Your Own Custom Maps

Once you begin extending your research to family members you will automatically start looking a page or two before and after your ancestor’s entry on a census record. You will note others with the same surname, or perhaps the surname of an in-law. You may begin to notice that your ancestor’s neighbors were sometimes born in the same state or province. Or perhaps they are engaged in similar occupations. You will also begin to note witnesses, etc. All of this information will add depth and context to the life of your forbear.

This is good stuff. But wouldn’t it be great if there were an easier way to visualize this information? I am a visual person and I love maps. There are a variety of different tools available that allow you to create custom pins on a digital map. Each pin can represent a person and/or event. Seeing all these together can be powerful.

Here is just a small list of tools you can use to build your own custom genealogy maps:

  1. Google Maps: Google Maps have many tools for creating custom maps. Many sites have instructions for creating your own for family history purposes.
  2. Bing Maps: Essentially this is Microsoft’s version of Google Maps. You can add pins to “My Places” and group them in collections.
  3. An interesting site that allows you to create custom pins and tag them with a LOCATION and a DATE. They have a “Genealogy” Tag as well.  Your collections can be private or public.
  4. Ancestral Atlas: Free site that makes it easy to map your genealogy data without a lot of manual work.  Upload your GEDCOM file and get a real jump start! Information is shared with all other users of Ancestral Atlas.
  5. MyHeritage PedigreeMap: MyHeritage just launched a new service that is really cool. Once your family data is in MyHeritage, simply go to the “Apps” menu and select PedigreeMap

What tools have you used before? I would love to hear a story of how cluster genealogy helped you in your research.

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  1. Nathan Lowry


    When I think about my ancestral genealogy, of course I think about my direct lines, but then I get to thinking about all the indirect individuals and their families, and whether they have people looking into their lives or not. It is meaningful to know a lot about John Lowry Sr. my great … grandfather who settled from Missouri to the Sanpete valley in Utah as a Mormon convert. But it is as meaningful (and perhaps more important?) to be concerned about the many others that were indirectly related to him and I. For example, looking at a family group sheet and trying to account for siblings’ spouses and their children. This is especially the case for those who had no children or whose direct descendent lines were small or did not continue for any reason. Who cares about these people? Shouldn’t it be me?

    David is right that one way to find such people and to know more about them is to recognize that the events that occurred in their lives had strong associations to those who lived in proximity around them. After all, who attended their baptisms, their weddings, their funerals? More importantly, who was with them as a friend, a brother, a cousin, an in-law — much as we try to do today? The difference is that today we are much more scattered and rely on remote communication more than our progenitors. Although letters were certainly a means for distant communications in their days, day-to-day transactions and their sense of community was very much geographically based. In fact, much of the sense of community that is established in online forums is looking to retrieve what was had in our neighborhoods and localities in our cultural past.

    Regardless of the intrinsic value, geographic proximity shows up in our records. Tobler’s First Law of Geography, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”, is both figuratively and most literally true for people. This law through the networks of relationships of people and their families and friends are reflected in the records maintained by them, official public records, yes – and qualitative, meaningful personal records as well.

    The challenge in representing people on a map is representing a location for each of the people that you want to visualize. Place names are certainly useful for this purpose and each individual can certainly be related to a place name as usually one (sometimes more), principle place name can be associated with a person’s birth, christening, baptism (if any) – or other ceremony or ordinance, like bar and bat mitzvahs for Jews or confirmation for Catholics, and certainly death or burial.

    However, using place names may not be sufficient for placing related persons as points on a map and being able to distinguish them one from another. This is especially true in the past when many related people (of course) lived more often close to one another (still true for many today).

    So, how do we distinguish locations of people more distinctly, particularly the locations of people who lived in the past?

    1) By street address – if they had one. Believe it or not, a numbered address on a named street was a relatively modern invention of western Europe with earlier and easier implementation in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the orthogonal development of westward settlements.
    – Wikipedia’s “House Numbering” article
    – Margaret A. Cowan’s 1978, “Street-Naming and Property-Numbering Systems”,
    – Anton Tantner’s 2009, “L’introduction du numérotage des maisons en Europe”, )

    If you have numbered street addresses for homes (and maybe businesses) owned or occupied by your family members and others in the generational past, matching these addresses with the those of buildings whose locations are represented as points on maps can provide greater precision AND aid in the viewing of these relationships by proximity, by distributing the location of persons across a local geography. It is much easier to see those related to a place name when graphically distributed IN ANY WAY than to make sense of many coincidentally located items on a map.

    But what if you DON’T have a valid street address for an ancestor’s birth, wedding, death or other event? Other means might be harder to come by – but one solution is matches to land ownership (parcel) boundaries. This is largely possible because land ownership over time is a matter of public record and land owners for residential property most often receive title using their given names. It is challenging, however, because not all such records are digitally available or accessible on the Internet to the public and not all such data includes all land ownership transactions in such a form over time. In our current state, depending on jurisdiction, analog efforts to create a map of locations where our ancestors and their family members and friends may have lived may be necessary. It’s also very important to recognize that not all of our ancestors owned land. Nevertheless, such maps are quite possible and would likely adequately or precisely show the distribution of residences of family members at a point in (or over) time for the majority of our progenitors.

    Are there other ways to do this? Yeah. Through oral history and communications, placement of point locations for residences based on local or family knowledge can also accomplish the same type of a map. It may take some time, but someone in your family or someone in the community where your family lived might be able to interpret on a map the approximate (or exact) location of your family’s residence or former residence. The resulting effect is the same, a distribution across geography of the locations of residences of your progenitors and others, allowing you to see the patterns of proximity and perhaps also allowing for cluster research opportunities of induction and incidental associations to take place.

    How many Ericksons lived within about 25 miles of my grandmother’s grandparents? How about those families who would become spouses to Ericksons? The ability to query the data both by family and geographic relationships could be quite powerful for the discovery of information previously not recognized.

    As for tools, we’ll have to just begin here. Certainly commercial and casual web map products by Google, Bing or ArcGIS Online are most helpful for address matching and locating street addresses or place names on a map. Most of the data that these products used originated from federal, state or local government and then were augmented by private efforts, like Google’s StreetView cameras to complete or extend the basic data (e.g. street center-lines) with additional information gathered in the field (address points and address ranges on those line segments). These products also allow individual point placement by the user so placement by approximation is also possible. They also enable lists to be matched and data from those lists to be visualized when matched by address or place name.

    Web interfaces that combine genealogical data with geography are rather new. I’m very excited to hear that such combinations are being presented to the public in the forms mentioned by David above.

    Eventually, however, some larger and more comprehensive software platforms may be necessary. Fortunately, some very helpful GIS products are available at no or low cost. It might take some time getting used to them, but they can perform all the geographic querying and analysis you might be able to think of to help you in your work.

    QGIS is an open source GIS software package that has recently become competitive even in professional circles. Being open source there may be some quirks and bugs that you may from time to time have to deal with in the software, but the developers and maintainers of the software have worked very hard to make it viable product in both academia and GIS data production. And their map making tools provide some of the best-looking cartographic products ever created on computers.

    Esri’s ArcGIS Online product is an effort over time to provide GIS capabilities through cloud computing to whomever needs it on a component basis. Much of the functionality is free with the creation of an account, but some of the functionality requires subscriptions or may be paid by volume use. This is especially true if you are geocoding (address matching and locating) addresses from data in large numbers.

    Esri also makes their flagship software available for low cost ($100/year) for personal use. The value of this low-cost resource cannot be understated as this is an instance of the most used professional software for geographic analysis and map production world-wide, albeit with some limits in its functionality to encourage purchasing of their professional licenses.

    Esri is slowly reinventing their desktop platform so a product called ArcGIS Pro is also available for trial use while the product line, reengineered is increasing its functionality. It will have limitations by its younger development and is available for limited times under trial periods.

    Esri is the largest but not the only commercial provider of GIS software in the marketplace. Other products that a great to consider include GIS Manifold (, Pitney Bowes ‘ MapInfo products (, or Hexagon’s GeoMedia products (

    Desktop GIS software can be quite extensive and so time spent to understand its basic functionality and where certain tools are found requires an investment in time and/or training. Even online platforms take a considerable amount of time and researching help to discover how they go about performing tasks. However, once the concepts and interfaces are learned, the combination of steps and processes can almost be unlimited by the imaginations of the users of the software.

    Yes, this can get quite exhausting quite quickly and may be overkill for most family history use. However, many third-party commercial and casual use products especially cloud-based or web-interface products result from these combinations. The continued development and use of geographic analysis and its application in the field of family history and genealogical research is quite exciting and will have a long period of high opportunity growth in combination.

    – Nathan Lowry
    21st Century Cartographer

    • Reply

      Wow, Nathan. Thanks for such a comprehensive and informative response. Perhaps I should have you as a guest blogger soon! Let’s discuss further some of the tools you talk about. In particular I liked this part of your comment:

      “not all such records are digitally available or accessible on the Internet to the public and not all such data includes all land ownership transactions in such a form over time. In our current state, depending on jurisdiction, analog efforts to create a map of locations where our ancestors and their family members and friends may have lived may be necessary”

      Thanks for all your contributions!

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