Solve Your Genealogy Brick Wall

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Lately, I seem to read about someone’s genealogical “brick wall” on every post I read on various genealogy sites. Are these truly all brick walls? I don’t think so. A brick wall to me means a problem that you have been working on for a long time with little success. I’ve seen posts where people indicate that they’ve been ‘doing genealogy for a few weeks and have hit a brick wall’. I’m not sure that qualifies. What that says to me is that they’ve done some straight searching on one (or more) of the big genealogy sites and had no results for their search of ‘Ann Thomas’. So, for those folks, and for those of us who have persistent and long-standing brick walls, here are a few tried and tested tips that may help you break through that wall:

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What do I mean by writing it out? Writing out your research in a report will help you see areas that you may have missed when it comes to further research. Write a paragraph if a report sounds overwhelming. Just put the facts together and see if they make sense. Could great aunt Betsie have had a baby in New York state and appear the next day in California on a census? That’s an extreme example but it does help us see where we may have erroneous information or where we may have missed a vital clue in our research.

And while you’re writing it out, are you using a research log to keep track of where you’ve already searched? We save ourselves time and money when we don’t keep repeating the same searches in the same database. A good place to start learning about research logs is at the FamilySearch Wiki.

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Timelines are excellent tools for organizing all the data you already have and looking at where your ancestor was at a specific time. Are there holes in your research? Are there geographic areas that you haven’t yet searched for records? What record collections might exist based on that specific area and time? Did you miss some critical information? A timeline can help answer those questions. Timelines don’t have to be fancy. You can handwrite your own or use the timeline feature built into many genealogy software programs. You can use a spreadsheet such as Excel or Google Sheets, or create a bulleted timeline in a word processing program. Below is an example of a simple timeline I created in Word to track my great grandfather, John Bellas. He traveled often between County Durham, England and the diamond mines in South Africa so a timeline was a great way to keep track of him and the geographic areas I should be concentrating on when looking for records.

Example timeline

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You don’t know what you don’t know! What I mean by that is, you can’t say you’ve hit a brick wall if you haven’t researched in every available record set for that particular piece of information. Educate yourself on the areas your ancestors lived in. What records are available? What records may not exist (think burned counties if you’re doing U.S. research or census records if you’re doing South African research). Did county or country boundaries move? If so, when? And how does that affect where you’re searching?

A great place to educate yourself on available records is the FamilySearch Wiki. Simply input your search term (e.g. Isle of Man or Iowa or South Africa and so on) and the Wiki will point you to what is available for that particular geographic area.

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Another great way to educate yourself, this time specifically on British Isles research, is GENUKI. Covering England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, GENUKI is, as it describes itself, ‘a virtual reference library of genealogical information’.

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Educate yourself also means learning methodology and strategies for research. Have you used the FAN (Family, Associates and Neighbors) principle to try to break your brick wall? Have you used DNA? Do you need to learn strategies for locating female ancestors? These are all great methods to learn and use. Read case studies in academic journals like the National Genealogy Society Quarterly and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and study how other genealogists solved their brick walls. Watch webinars, read books and blog posts, and attend conferences and classes.

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Sometimes we get too close to our research. Walking away and letting it sit for a few days or a week will help us look at it with a new perspective when we come back to it. And that leads me to Tip 5:

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Ask a friend or colleague to take a look. Perhaps someone who is familiar with the area you’re doing research in or who can give you ideas for further research strategies.

And finally, know that the clue to solving that brick wall may lie in an offsite archive, library or courthouse. Not everything is online as much as we wish it were!

Good luck! I hope 2020 means lots of breakthroughs for you.

Do you have any tips for breaking through that brick wall? I’d love to hear them if you do.

 

Finding Harry

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Harry Joshua Davis was a seemingly complicated man. I never knew him, but the records he left often describe a man with many complexities. Living family members knew little of him, except rumors and hushed opinions as to where he had ended up.

His birth in Lancashire, England in 1879, was innocuous enough. The oldest son of a plumber and his German born wife, Harry spent his younger years at school and at age 21 joined the British Army. In 1901 he was sent to South Africa, fighting there in the Boer War. Something must have appealed to Harry, as he returned to South Africa a year later, signing up with the British South Africa Police (BSAP) service in 1902.

He went on to marry in 1908 and had four children. He became a Detective with the BSAP, his official paperwork containing both commendations for excellent work and bribery allegations against him.  His career in the BSAP came to an end in Cape Town in 1923 when it was disbanded. Harry was 44 years old. This was the last time that my great grandfather, Harry Joshua Davis, appeared in any records. Family members weren’t sure if he had separated or divorced my great grandmother, Adelaide. It was rumored that he started a plumbing business, perhaps following in his father’s footsteps, but that his partner absconded with all the money. Other extended family thought he may have started a bakery business, following in the footsteps of his grandmother, who had worked as a confectioner in Lancashire. However, no one really knew what happened to Harry after 1923.

Harry became one of my brick walls. I spent years trying to find out more about him, including where he died. Thinking he may have returned to England, I followed men of the same name but nothing panned out. Adelaide passed away in 1964, her son, the informant on her death notice, stated she was a widow. That could mean Harry died previous to 1964, but without further proof, that was only a guess.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, 10 August 2019 to be exact. I was in South Africa to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday. One evening, as we sat around chatting after dinner, the conversation turned to Harry. We again wondered if we would ever find out what had happened to him. Since the early 2000s I had been combing through South African records, excited and hopeful as each new record set was digitized by FamilySearch and made available online. Over the years, I had also gone through the available documents on the South African Archive website, without success. I became an indexer on the South African Completion Team for FamilySearch. Who knows, maybe I’d find Harry that way. Every few months I would check all the online genealogy sites for any mention of Harry. Nothing. Until I was in South Africa a few weeks ago. My mom, feeling a renewed sense of hope after our conversation, decided to do a quick search on FamilySearch, not really expecting anything.  Her excited and somewhat shocked voice echoed from the other room, “I found him”.

You can imagine the excitement we felt. My mom had done a simple search and up came a death notice. Had we really found Harry after all of these years? Would we finally know what happened to him, where he had gone after his retirement from the BSAP in 1923? Would we find out when he died?

Both of us peered at the document. And both of us took a breath and let it out slowly. Oh. It was definitely our Harry. The address given as his residence was my great great grandmother’s. The age was off by a bit but it was Harry. But oh. Typed in bold at the top of his death notice was the stark sentence, “Inquest No. 435/45. Death due to asphyxia due to hanging. Suicide.”

Genealogy can be emotional. It’s naturally that way because we care about our ancestors. All of them. The good, the bad and the ugly. And this way of dying, it was ugly. It was shocking and terribly sad. The death notice gave little else to go on. At the time of his death in 1945, Harry was working as a barman in a hotel. He was actually 66 years old, not 60 as stated on the death notice. His place of death was not the same as his usual place of residence, which makes one wonder if he was perhaps not living with his wife and children at the time. More questions.

But for now, we have found Harry. After over 16 years of searching, there is a sense of closure in finally finding him, albeit tinged with sadness at the manner of his death. I wondered if perhaps I had to be in South Africa to find him?

I hope Harry is at rest now, knowing that his descendants cared enough to want to find him and remember him.

Harry Joshua Davis
7 June 1879, Gorton West, Lancashire, England – 5 June 1945, Johannesburg, South Africa.