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Overcoming Brick Walls

Overcoming a brick wall is not an easy task, but one that with determination, perseverance and broad-based methodical researching, can be done.


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At one time or another, everyone finds what they think is a brick wall in their research. But is it really a brick wall, or a problem that is a result of not researching the area or family well enough to find the answer? It has been my experience that there are very few "real" brick walls. Most are caused by one of three things: not researching a broad range of sources; overlooking a clue that is in data already collected; or by limiting the search to one family instead of collecting data on all collateral relatives. Below are seven tasks that I have found useful in breaking down my most complicated brick walls. Difficult? No. Time consuming? Yes. Worth the work? Definitely.

Task One: Interview living relatives NOW

With any family history project, this is the first thing that should be done, and often the last thing that is attempted. You should come back to this step again and again, because you will continue to obtain new information as your relative's memories resurface. Do not spend months and years digging up information from outside sources, only to find that it was already known by a member of your family had you asked. Mention to your entire family that you are working on this project; you never know where or from whom your next clue will come that could send that wall tumbling down.

Task Two: Establish an expanded timeline for the family in question

Once home sources and oral histories have been temporarily exhausted, the next step is to plot that information along with any other documentation on a timeline. Timelines are invaluable when plotting an ancestor's life. Set up a form with columns for the event date, age of the ancestor, information found, and source of that information, even if the source is a guess. Choose one ancestor to focus the information on for the timeline. Begin with their date of birth. From there pencil in any information you have regarding their baptism, marriages, childbirth, possible remarriage(s), death, and burial. Go through all of your notes and insert any mention of your ancestor in any type of document or event, their age, the place, and the date. Because people's lives impacted each others, it is important to expand the timeline to include collateral relatives' births, marriages, and deaths also. You will be surprised to see the connections between family members when placed in chronological order in one place. When done correctly, this timeline can point you down many research avenues, and is especially helpful when researching families of the same name. Consider it your roadmap for research. If the idea of putting it all down on paper is daunting, there are many software packages that will do timelines for you.

Task Three: Look at all the applicable censuses – federal and state (if available)

More than just a locator, census records are the "low hanging fruit" of the documentation trail. Often they are the easiest to access and contain a treasure trove of information, particularly the ones post-1840. Census records are also great resources that lead you to other records such as: land, probate, immigration, marriage, birth, and death. In your timeline, you should include census years and places in which your ancestors should have been listed, or in which their family should have been listed, if they were children. Think about the many roles that the ancestor had: daughter/son, sister/ brother, wife/husband, mother or father-in-law, sister or brother-in-law, aunt/uncle, or grandparent. When a family is located, scan the names of the other families in the neighborhood. Many times, people moved in groups with family and/or friends with whom they immigrated. If you cannot find a particular family for a certain census year, look for their neighbors in the census – often times, you will find the family you seek this way. If a search of census records does not yield the ancestor you seek, search for the households of the adult children or parents if they are still living. This is when the expanded timeline is an especially helpful tool. Often, if a female was widowed, she went to live with one of her adult children or a sibling. Be sure to note the addresses, and towns/cities in which your ancestor lived on your timeline.

Task Four: Check out city directories

Once you have located the family in the census, it's time to learn more about the city/town. City directories are a wealth of information about the city/town in which your ancestor resided. From these directories, one can obtain a great deal of knowledge; for example: the number, location, and denominations of churches, location and number of cemeteries, asylums, sanatoriums, or local businesses. In the back of the twentieth century directories are listings of inhabitants by address. A scan of your ancestor's street address may indicate a name change due to a remarriage, or a change of ownership of the property to a child or other family member. They provide clues to other records such as land, remarriage, death, and/or probate. They are especially important if you are researching an area in which you unfamiliar. Many times the directories will indicate where the person went or when they died. If a person "disappears" perhaps they were incarcerated in an asylum, poorhouse, or orphanage. Using these directories gives you an idea of what was in the city/town and potential sources to check.

Task Five: Search current directories and library catalogs

After surveying the layout of the area in which your ancestors lived, it is time to dig down to repositories that may hold personal papers of your ancestors. Both on-line resources such as Cyndi's List ( and paper ones (yellow pages, other local telephone directories, or the Genealogist's Address Book) will lead you to local historical/genealogical societies and public libraries that may have papers on the family that you are investigating, particularly if they were a prominent one. It is likely that one of the surnames in your family tree has had a genealogy printed at some point in time that could be useful. With the collateral relative information on your timeline, you have an easy reference of surnames to check against library catalogs and historical society collections.

Task Six: Check resources from the Church of Latter Day Saints

It is always worth a search of the LDS website at to see if anyone else is researching your line, and to check out local resources that may be available. Be aware of the origin of the family tree information you find on member submissions, as it may be conjecture on the part of the researcher, especially if no source citation information is given. A search of the LDS website for collateral surnames of your ancestors may turn up a published genealogy on a collateral family that may be the missing link in your research. Remember that all information, no matter how promising, is only a clue without proper source citation.

Task Seven: Newspapers – an overlooked resource

Because there was no national news reporting, early newspapers recorded personal family tidbits as the news of the day. Some of these tidbits can lead you to other records such as church, probate, guardianship, and court records. If nothing else, they offer tremendous contextual understanding of the times and places in which your ancestor lived. Thanks to efforts to put newspapers on-line by several genealogical and historical organizations and libraries, it has never been easier to search for information about your ancestors and the areas in which they lived.

If after all of this searching you still come up empty handed, put the project away for awhile. With all of the information coming out on the internet, there are bound to be more records going on-line or new resources found that may further your research. Also, given enough time and a fresh pair of eyes you may find something previously overlooked in your own files. Overcoming a brick wall is not an easy task, but one that with determination, perseverance and broad-based methodical researching, can be done.

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.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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