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Scraping Every Brick in the Brick Wall

Brick wall research problems often take a second or third (or fifteenth) review, but keeping these tips in mind during initial research can speed the process.


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Brick wall problems in our research are difficult, and can frustrate even a seasoned genealogist. The light at the end of the tunnel is that brick walls can sometimes be solved by searching all relevant records, even those that may be difficult to find or expensive to obtain. Because it may take months and often years to search each relevant record, the information usually needs to be reexamined for clues that may have been missed. A fresh perspective on the research problem may be just what is needed, or learning to spot the little points we miss in collecting the records may save us time.

Some of the ways that we can take our research to the next level and catch the clues on the first time through may lie in what we do with the record once we find it. I have discovered the biggest time-saving measure in my research to date—always make a photocopy, despite how relevant the document looks at the time you find it. Photocopying, if available, can save you hours in the shower of "Did it say she was 46, or did it actually read 48? If she was 46, that means she didn't leave Detroit until she had already . . . " and save additional hours at your repository finding the record a second time to double-check information. Failing to print an internet source you found can leave you diving through Google—in many cases online genealogical information doesn't last long enough for you to have a second time around.

Unfortunately, photocopying is not always available at a repository. Second best is abstracting. In order to do your best abstracting, start by transcribing the entire document. It will refresh your skills of reading the old handwriting and will help you study the document while its relevance is still foremost in your mind. If you find a word you cannot read, stick with it until you have built up the surrounding words and created a sentence that flows. This process can be difficult when dealing with legal terms, but many times the legal jargon included in a document is "boiler-plate" and used in all documents for that area of the same type, e.g. deed records in Webb County, Texas.

If you find that your abstracting abilities are a little rusty, do your best to study up. Information about abstracting can be found in conference lectures and lecture notes, books and online tutorials. And one hint those sources will all give you:  be sure to include all writing following the document of interest, such as acknowledgements and proving of the document.

As you carefully photocopy or abstract the documents you locate, try to make it a habit to check the pages preceding and following the document of interest. Especially in deed books, this can help you catch deeds of the same individual recorded one after another. It was logical and quite common for an ancestor to take care of all of his courthouse business on the same day. This can also be true when a mother was holding on to dower rights until the time of her death. Shortly after her passing, a whole series of transactions may occur.

Checking out the surrounding area is also useful on census pages, where families living in close proximity with the same surname are likely related. In census records, checking before and after a relevant page can also give ideas about the demographic area the family lived in. Occupations, value of real and personal estates, birthplaces, size of family, and number of children attending school can give valuable clues about an ancestor's lifestyle.

While checking for clues the second time around is always necessary, keeping these tips in mind during initial research can often open new avenues that were blocked by a highly-stacked, sometimes well-mortared brick wall.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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