Overcoming “Brick Wall” Problems
Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA
No, you’re not alone. Yes, we all have them. What are they? “Brick wall” problems are those genealogical research problems that seem too hard to solve. Wherever we look, we find no answers. Perhaps the name we are tracing is too common, and we cannot sort out all the "John Smiths." Perhaps the family lived in a “burned county” in the South, and the records all seem destroyed. Perhaps we are looking for an ancestor’s wife, and we don’t know her surname. Perhaps the ancestor is an immigrant, and we don’t know where he came from in Europe. Perhaps, ... well, you get the idea. Eventually, if we keep researching long enough, we all get our fair share of “brick wall” problems. In fact, if you are reading this website, you’ve probably been at this family history business long enough to have run into one or more brick walls.
Well, believe it or not, there is a solution to every genealogical problem! Our ancestors did not just appear on earth from outer space (even if we think so on occasion). They had parents, and most had spouses and siblings. However, some problems can seem very hard to solve. For instance, it is true that our ancestors who were peasants in the Middle Ages did have parents, but the lack of records will generally prevent us from finding them. So, what good is it to know that every problem has a solution, if the records won’t reveal the solution?
It’s a mind set. When solving difficult problems, we need to remember the laws of family relations: They did have parents, and a family. Now, with that mind set, you are prepared to think about solving your toughest research problems.
The good news is that you can find the answer to virtually all American research problems. Indeed, I believe that almost all North American families can be traced back to the immigrant. However, it can be costly (but not necessarily in a monetary sense). It takes time and effort on our part. That is part of the price we must pay, if we want to solve a really tough problem.
Paying the Price
Yes, it’s only a hobby, but if a hobby is worth doing, it’s worth doing well (and right). You don’t need to become a professional, and you don’t need a college degree, but if you want to succeed with the difficult problems, you have to pay a price. If you are willing to pay the time and effort, here are three of the tools you can buy to help break down those brick walls:
The first tool to buy is attitude. As noted above, you must first believe that a problem can be solved. Generally, this attitude will evolve as you learn more, and have increasing success. So, let’s begin there. First, review the problems you have solved in your past research. Think through how you solved each prior problem. Did you find a new record? Did you use a different spelling? Did you look in a different locality? Analyze what you did right; this is one reason documentation is so crucial to solving problems--it lets you review where your journey has taken you.
You must believe that problems can be solved. In North America, there are so many records, and, historically, so few people, that with work, you can find the records about virtually any person. The ethnic diversity in America means that fewer people share the same name, so there is less confusion. There is also very little record destruction in America, as compared with our European cousins. If the records are out there, it is really only a matter of finding them, and using them to their fullest.
One of the best ways to find new records, and new information, is through networking. Hundreds of thousands of people are tracing their roots. Some of them have certainly solved a difficult problem like yours before. A few are even distant cousins who have access to records you don't yet know about. Other people know more about some records than you do. They may know about indexes to the records, alternative sources, or the whereabouts of those records you need.
You network by getting involved. Volunteer at a local library or family history center. Join a genealogical society. Teach a class for the community college or adult education center.
Subscribe to a variety of publications or listservs on the Internet. Write articles. Every time you do one of these things, you meet other genealogists. Over time, you will learn of their specialties and interests. You will share your problems, and mutually explore possible solutions.
One friend has been active in a number of genealogical societies. Although he lives out West, he has a great interest in North Carolina research. On day, a friend of his back east (who works in a library) wrote him about a family Bible that had been donated to his library. The list of relatives in the Bible was the same as the researcher’s surname, and was from North Carolina. The friend sent a copy, saying “they probably aren’t related, but thought you’d like this information.” In fact, not only were they related, but they were members of a missing branch on the researcher’s family tree. It was only because the western researcher had been networking, being involved, that he made this friend back east, and the friend knew of his North Carolina research interests.
When it comes to genealogical problem-solving, there is no substitute for education. Think back on your first efforts to trace your family history. How did you begin? Usually, somebody taught you some key concepts. That teaching may have been as a friend tutors a friend. Or perhaps it was in a classroom. Soon, you began to read how-to books to learn more.
For genealogists, education is never-ending. Each research situation is a new problem. Sometimes it is in a different locality, or a different time period. Perhaps the family is of a different religion than others we have searched. Certainly the relatives are different. Just as no two pedigrees are the same (except for full-blooded siblings (and double cousins), no two research problems are the same. Therefore, we must always be learning new things.
How do we educate ourselves further? That is another reason why we belong to genealogical societies. Every society meeting is an educational opportunity. Societies sponsor genealogical conferences, often with a host of experienced teachers. Seek out other genealogical conferences at the state, regional, or national level. For more in-depth instruction, spend a week at a genealogical institute. Currently such opportunities are offered in Washington, DC, Alabama, Illinois, and Utah.
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Other educational opportunities abound in books. New historical and genealogical books are published every day. While you don’t need to (and physically can’t) read every one, you can select significant ones to use in furthering your education. Make it a regular practice to borrow books from your local library about the places or time periods where and when your ancestors lived. Contact genealogical publishers and ask for their catalogs to learn about genealogical books of use for your research. And, don’t overlook genealogical magazines.
So, these are some of the prices we must pay to solve difficult problems: Have an attitude of success, network with other researchers, and continue your education. But, we cannot just “buy” an answer to our research; we must also actually conduct research (or hire someone to do that research). Therefore, it is appropriate to introduce the following six key tactics that will increase your odds of success.
While education is a general price you need to pay, the first tactic of brick wall research is similar: gain more knowledge. In this case, knowledge about the specific circumstances of the problem. The above discussion of education refers mostly to the need to learn more about research in general, and identifies many of the ways in which you can learn. When it comes to solving a specific problem, you need specific knowledge to help you evaluate information about that problem.
For example, one current problem I am working to solve involves a man who first appears on a list of soldiers in Albany, New York about 1703. He soon married a local girl, had children, and became my wife’s ancestor. Of the many questions about him, and his origin, one key question affects the direction of research: Were the soldiers in Albany at that time local militia, recruited from the towns in New York (over which the governor had control), or were they imported from England to maintain peace with the Indian population? Or, might they have been recruited from other British colonies (such as Massachusetts)? Obviously, the answer to this question will determine where I look for the soldier’s origin.
Often that knowledge is already available in books and other sources. The researcher simply needs to find it. Among the new knowledge you will need, you will have to learn about the:
- Locality. Where is it located? How many people live there? What are the geographic features?
- Time Period. When did your family live there? What was happening in the country’s history then?
- Religion. What churches existed in that locality, at that time? Where are their records?
- History. When was the locality settled? Who first (and later) came there? How did they arrive, and from where?
- Records. What records are available for this problem? Are there unique lists or other sources for just that town, township, county?
Once you agree that most U.S. problems can be solved, then you will realize that part of the solution is to seek the answer in additional sources. Too often we get used to solving our problems with simple, standard sources, such as vital records, census, or cemetery records. However, before about 1880, most states did not keep birth and death records. Sometimes we simply have not exhausted all the various sources available. We may know about land records, but find few uses for them in post-Civil War research. They are invaluable as you move further back in time.
With regard to sources, some Internet sources at Rootsweb.com are available for free. Once you've exhausted these, consider subscribing to fee-based database sites like Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com databases.
In our rush to find more ancestors, and add names to our genealogy files, we often try to move too far, too fast. Good research means examining all the records about a person, so we learn more about him or her. In this way, we gain more clues to help in our further research.
Remember, for every “brick wall” problem, you already know some information: You know where the family lived at some point in their live. You know at least one child’s name (i.e.: your direct ancestor). You know when that unnamed wife had children; you might even know her first name. Since each of our relatives is connected to other relatives, we know something about them. Now, use that knowledge to find the “hard-to-find” relative in other records. Until you’ve exhausted all the records, you really don’t know if that relative is really too hard to find!
Your “new” locality may have different sources than you are used to. Using the new knowledge you gain about the locality and its records, now use those records.
For example, if you are a Midwestern researcher, new to New Jersey research, you might be surprised to learn that most early census records are missing (prior to 1830). However, New Jersey has an excellent collection of extant tax lists, a source most Midwestern researchers don’t learn about. You will then want to learn about who was taxed, how often the lists were made, what lists survived, and where you can access them. Then of course, you will need to search them carefully, year by year, to gain the clues you need.
Note, the sources for the area where you have this difficult research may have the same name as sources you are already familiar with, but may be slightly different. Remember the first time you searched a pre-1850 census? It was much different than the 1850 and later census records (no ages, no names of wives or children), yet it was still called a census. Records with the same titles do not always have the same information. Methodist and Congregational church records are much different (in content and coverage) than Catholic or Lutheran records.
Some sources are peculiar to a time period or a locality. Ear marks, for example, are most common in Colonial New England, and sometimes the frontier west, but don’t appear in Chicago and St. Louis records. On the other hand, city directories are very useful in those two cities, while virtually non-existent in Colonial America. Voter registration lists are a common source in California, but not in most other states.
You must also keep in mind a relative’s associates. Often they are relatives themselves. Other times, they may just be clues to where the family came from. In a society, people interact with others. They take them to court (or make depositions in court cases), they witness deeds, they probate estates, they sponsor children’s baptisms, and are listed nearby in tax and census lists. A 65 year old woman with a different surname in the household of a 40 year old couple with children might just be a maid, cook, or servant. However, she could well be the wife’s mother.
As you search more and different records, be sure to note the persons associated with the relative(s) you are seeking. Returning to the New York soldier mentioned above, I never found a clear answer regarding where the soldiers came from. The histories did not address that issue, although it seemed clear that the governor was generally getting his soldiers locally (hence the early militia lists and censuses). However, when examining the list of soldiers, I noted other New York names, some of which I had seen in the same town where the soldier’s surname was noted. This was a clear indication to pursue research in that locality. Another list of soldiers in Albany from just a few years earlier included a soldier with the same less-common surname as the ancestor. This was another clue. The earlier soldier could well be related, as this surname only appeared in two New York localities at that time period.
Too often in our research, we expect the records to do the thinking for us. We want the record to say: “John is the father of Paul, he was born in Stephenstown.” In fact, the records seldom tell us such information so straight forward. Even the pre-1880 census records only imply relationship. For difficult problems, there is likely no one document out there with the complete answer to the problem. You must put the puzzle together, and there is no picture on the box to look at!
This means that we must analyze all of the evidence we find, and then make some theories. Then set out to locate proof, or at least evidence, that your theory is correct, or at least the most plausible interpretation of the evidence.
Some years ago, I realized that my ancestor could not have been married to the Penelope Hazzard whom my great-aunt claimed he married. That Penelope was 20 years older, and yet would have had some 15 children after her marriage! After reviewing some evidence, I theorized that the older Penelope had a cousin who shared her name. Indeed, I knew she had at least one cousin who shared her name, but that cousin already had a husband and children. Both of the two known Penelope Hazzards had a grandmother named Penelope. Their fathers had two other brothers who might have named a girl for their mother. One brother had only boys. The other brother’s (George) family seemed incomplete from the records I saw. Theorizing he had a daughter Penelope, I sought proof. George did not leave a will, and his father’s will was too early. However, his father-in-law did leave a will, and mentioned his grand-daughter, Penelope Hazzard. Thus, I had proved my theory that there was another Penelope Hazzard.
However, that was not yet proof that she was my ancestor. The next step was to show that this little girl eventually married my ancestor. Since she had moved west, I theorized that she would have sold the property left to her by her maternal grandfather. Locating that deed, I found the proof, for by then she was married, and carried her husband, my ancestor’s, name.
When you theorize, don’t develop some outlandish theory. It should be logical, fit the known circumstances, and be provable. It does no good to develop an hypothesis, if you cannot prove it.
Hopefully, the above discussion will show the necessity of clearly documenting what you have already found. All too often, professional researchers find the answers to client’s initial problems in the information the family has already compiled. As you document each family, you will be analyzing the information. You will find clues previously overlooked. You will find neighbors and other associates in those records. You will find puzzle pieces that fit together which you had overlooked before, simply because you found the connecting pieces at different times, and in different places.
Documentation could be subject of an entire article. They key point however, is to list everything you look at, even those sources that don’t seem to provide any answers. As Thomas Edison learned, as he invented the light bulb, it is as important to know what did not work, as to know what worked. The easiest way to begin your documentation is to keep a log of your research. List every source you search, the date searched, the place where you searched it, and what you were searching for. Often we think, “I’ve searched that source already,” without realizing that we searched it for a different person, or a different time period.
Whenever you find new information, review your research log to determine if the new information means you should review some sources again. Perhaps you have now found the ancestor’s brother, or have learned a new spelling you hadn’t tried.
Of course, be sure to enter your sources, and notes, into your computer database program. This helps insure you won’t lose the information, and it will be with you on your print outs (or on your laptop), even if your research files are at home.
Remember the old adage: “No man is an island.” That has double meaning for genealogists. Your ancestor was not an island; he or she interacted with many others, and is recorded in many records. You are not an island either. You must connect with others, learn from them, and help them learn from you. If you are willing to pay the price, you can overcome any brick wall.
Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA, "Overcoming 'Brick Wall' Problems (Online: ProGenealogists, Inc., 2004) [First published in Heritage Quest Magazine, July/August 1999, reprinted with permission.]