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.