Research Like a Pro Using the FAN Club
What is the FAN Club and how do you use it in your research? When working on family history, we tend to forget about all the people that our ancestors interacted with beyond their household. Just like you interact with many people beyond your household, so did our ancestors!
To aid in researching our ancestors and those that they knew, Elizabeth Shown Mills developed the FAN club principle. She defined the FAN club as the friends, associates, and neighbors of your family. Later genealogists have expanded the FAN club to include family members, particularly those living in other households and extended family members. You will probably end up researching different surnames which adds to the complexity of the research. There is certainly overlap in these categories, and you may find that associates or neighbors turn out to be family members!
Examples of FAN club members
Family/Friends: Extended family members, in-laws, cousins, half-siblings and step-siblings
Associates: Grantors and grantees of land, executors and administrators for probate, witnesses, involved in court cases together, those who shared the same occupation
Neighbors: Members of the same church, located near each other on census records, bought land near each other
Uses for the FAN Club
If you’ve hit a brick wall (and who hasn’t?), then the FAN club is for you! These are just a few cases of when using the FAN club principle would be helpful: absence of direct evidence, urban research, common surnames, migration/immigration/emigration, limited record availability, and unknown parentage. By seeing who your ancestors interacted with, you can solve these common and frustrating research problems.
1. Families often moved with members of their FAN club. For example, if the family you are researching lived in Fayette County, Kentucky and they dropped out of records after 1845 in that county, you might hypothesize that they moved away. The 1850 census contains too many entries for the surname you are researching, and you don’t have enough information to distinguish all of them. One way to narrow down the results is to build out the FAN club. If you build out their FAN club in Fayette County, then you can research those people to see where they are in 1850. It’s possible that your family may have moved with members of their FAN club, so searching for FAN club members might lead you to your family.
2. If there is limited record availability, you’ll need to use subtle clues in many different records to solve your research objective. Careful note should be made of anyone mentioned in the records of your ancestors. I would recommend keeping a spreadsheet of the name of the person, the date of the record, the location, and how they are mentioned on the record (witness, executor, etc.)
3. Researching common surnames is a frequent and frustrating research problem. It can be difficult to distinguish between two people with the same name living in the same location. By building out the FAN club for that person, you might be begin to notice patterns in the records of who they are interacting with and living near.
4. The FAN club principle is also helpful in researching certain ethnic groups that often lived together or near each other and moved around together. African Americans and Eastern European Jews often fall into this category. Common surnames are also frequent in these groups, so building a FAN club when researching these groups is very important.
Case Study: Victor Johnson and Emma Johanson
Victor E. Johnson and Emma C. Johanson were married on 16 May 1899 in Hennepin County, Minnesota.
Emma was a recent immigrant, and due to her common surname it was challenging to trace her origins. By using the FAN club principle, this marriage certificate provided useful clues to her origins. The witnesses of the marriage certificate, August E. Johnson and Peter O. Johnson, were noted as associates of the couple and potential family members. Previous research on Victor Johnson revealed that he had a brother named Peter Otto Johnson, so Peter O. Johnson was likely this same brother.
The shared surname between August and Emma suggested a familial relationship, but there was not enough evidence yet to support a familial relationship.
As research on Emma continued, an indexed Swedish birth record for an Emma Christina Johnansdotter was found using Emma’s birth date found on her death certificate. Further research into this Emma revealed that she had a brother, August Emanuel Johanson. Therefore, the marriage certificate added evidence that the Emma on the marriage certificate and indexed birth record were the same person. Immigration records confirmed Emma and August traveling together from their homeland in Sweden to the United States.
The FAN club principle has helped many researchers, including myself, solve seemingly impossible research problems. What problems do you hope to solve with the FAN club principle?