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Everyone Needs a FAN

When we discuss records that document women such as the ones I discussed in my most recent Legacy webinar, 50 Records that Document Female Ancestor’s Lives, we tend to focus on those that name a specific ancestor or a close relative such as a husband or child. However, when we conduct exhaustive genealogical  research we should be doing more than that, we should  be exploring the records for the place she lived which will also include her FAN club.

If you’re not familiar with the genealogical term “FAN club” FAN is an acronym for  Friends, Associates, and Neighbors and was coined by professional genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. The point of the FAN club is that you should seek out records left behind by an ancestral community in order to find mentions of your ancestor. For example, a scrapbook left by a neighbor may include newspaper clippings from funerals she attended or a midwife’s diary may mention tending your great-great-grandmother as she gave birth to her children. Mills describes the FAN club principle on her website Evidence Explained including the article "Reconstructing the Lives of Yesteryear's Women" about its use in researching female ancestors.


I found a great example of the importance of looking at a woman’s community in a publication from a friend's  personal collection. The monograph,  The Life and Character of Mrs. Sarah Byram Dean By Rev. Enoch Sanford (1885) has genealogical information,  including details about Dean’s birth family and her husband and their family.[1]



Reading this 30 page booklet I was especially intrigued by the mentions of Sarah’s female friends. Take for instance this mention on page 22 of her “large circle of worthy and intelligent ladies in her neighborhood…”

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The author continues his list of Sarah’s  friends on the next page (p. 23) documenting “Mrs. Bathsheba Williams, wife of Capt. George Williams, Mrs. Nehemiah Washburn and Mrs. Olive Andrews.” He goes on to comment that Mrs. Andrews was a sister of  Deacon Oliver Washburn “and aunt of Israel Washburn, father of Israel Washburn, Governor of Maine.” A footnote on the page continues to explain the Washburn heritage.

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So this publication is a lovely memorial to Sarah Byram Dean that includes not only genealogically relevant information but also mentions of her FAN Club. The importance of researching an ancestor’s community cannot be overstated. Seek out collections housed in archives that include materials created by community members or that documented those who participated in religious, education, membership, and other organizations. Also consider digitized book websites and scour local and other histories. These materials  can be the key to finding information or not.


**If you're interested in reading a similar booklet by the same author, you can read the sketch he did of  Abigail Alden Leonard  on Internet Archive


[1] Sarah Byram Dean (1750-1849) was born in Mendham, New Jersey and was the daughter of Eliab and Sarah Leonard Byram. She lived in lived in Raynham Massachusetts. She married Josiah Dean.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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You are so right Gena - I have used the FAN club more times than I can count to resolve issues of "three women of the same name" and of course multiple men with the same name as well as to resolve parentage questions and sibling relationships. Placing an ancestor in their community gives depth and new meaning to the official records and makes it a Family History not just a pedigree.

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