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.

 

Context is Key: Know the Law!

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At the time our ancestors lived, there were laws that came into being and which affected the way our ancestors lived and the documents they created.  In last week’s post, we learned how important it is to understand the collection our record is in. It is perhaps even more important to understand the laws at the time the record was created. This is particularly important in the case of probate, deed, marriage and other court records. The way a will disperses property is influenced by the laws in effect at the time. These laws may be local, state and national. Just as our lives are subject to the laws of today, our ancestors lived and created records influenced by the laws of their day.

An example: Coverture and the status of women as guardians

In the early colonies and even later in the United States, women had very few, if any, rights. Under the doctrine known as coverture, a married woman could not own property, enter into a contract or even claim legal guardianship of her children should her husband die. All her rights were subsumed under her husband’s 1. It’s important to understand this law and how it affected your female ancestors. Should you come across children in an Orphan’s Court document, with a male guardian being appointed, you would be incorrect in assuming their mother had died and that they were literally orphans. I noticed this recently on a mailing list I participate in. The poster was assuming their widowed female ancestor must have died as the guardianship document, recorded in the local Orphan’s Court, showed the five young children being assigned an adult male guardian. Widowed women held no rights, not even to be guardians of their biological children. Usually there was an inheritance in play, land or other goods, and with women having no rights to make contracts or own property, she was judged unable to properly look after her children’s affairs. A male guardian was appointed to do so. Her children were not taken from her and she still cared for them physically but anything to do with their inherited property was a matter only for the male guardian.

An example: Primogeniture or the right of the eldest son to inherit

Estate law in Colonial America (specifically the southern colonies: the Province of Maryland, the Colony of Virginia, the Provinces of North and South Carolina, and the Province of Georgia) gave the right of inheritance to the eldest son of a couple who had died intestate (without a will). This was referred to as primogeniture and applied only to land and not personal property left by the deceased. Where the deceased man had several sons, the oldest would inherit the entire estate 2. If a man had only daughters, all would inherit equal shares of the land. Should the oldest son be deceased but have a living son of his own, that son would inherit first, followed by his own siblings, in birth order if males, or all equally if females. There were complex rules of descent which had to be followed in every inheritance case. Can you see the benefit of knowing this information when you uncover an estate document from the 1700s? One benefit would be the ability to determine the birth order of children based on the order of inheritance in the document.  One caveat – the law changed often and varied by state. Be sure you understand the law at the time of the document’s creation, in the particular colony or state you’re working in.

These are only two examples of areas where laws greatly affect the way a document was created by our ancestors. There are many, many more.

Where to find information on archaic legal words?

In learning about archaic laws, you will no doubt come across unfamiliar legal words which we no longer use today.  The go to book for genealogist’s is Black’s Law Dictionary. First published in 1891 by Henry Campbell Black, this is the best place to look up those unfamiliar words. It is still being published today but it’s best to stick with the 1891 version. There are a few places online to find the 1891 version:

Where to find information on the laws of British America?

William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England can be found online at:

This volume, the first of four, was published in 1765, and is a commentary on the common laws of England. Early colonies followed English common law so this book is helpful in understanding the laws around some of the early records we may come across.

Good genealogists place their ancestors into their historical, geographical, social and cultural contexts. This involves understanding how the laws of the time affected our ancestors and the documents they created.

 


  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Married Women’s Property Acts in the United States,” rev. 10:35, 25 November 2018. 
  2. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), “Primogeniture,” rev. 00:24, 24 November 2018. 

Context is Key: Understanding the Record within the Record Collection

Records don’t exist in a vacuum. (For the purposes of this post, I am referring to microfilmed images of records we have located online). It’s important to understand the record in terms of the collection it’s found in. Once we’ve located a record, we need to ask ourselves questions about the record and the collection. Questions such as:

Who created this collection?
Does my record fit in this collection?
Is there anything unusual about my record that other records in the collection don’t have?
Is something missing that should be there?
Is the record an original or a copy?
Are there gaps in this collection?
Does the collection have an index and if it does, was the index created at the same time as the record?

We can answer those questions in two ways:

First, by studying our record image and the images that come before it and after it on the microfilm. We can compare handwriting – is it all the same in the collection (indicating perhaps a clerk copied the information from elsewhere)? Have we gone to the beginning of the film (or the beginning of the Item number on the film) and studied any images that may appear of the book cover that our record comes from? As we do so, we gather information which helps us place our record in context.

Second, we can study the collection description, which is what this post focuses on.

Where to find collection descriptions?

A quick example using Ancestry

One of the results in a search for Patty Dawley, born about 1771 in Vermont, is a death record.

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The top red arrow in the image above points to the title of the collection that the record is found in. In this example, the record is in Ancestry’s collection titled, ‘Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908’. The red arrow in the middle gives us further source information on the collection, including where the original data came from and which repository was responsible for first compiling the collection.

The red arrow toward the bottom points to the description of the collection and this is where Ancestry does a decent job of describing the collection further. Click on the Learn more… in the blue circle and a page will appear with a search box at the top, allowing you to search only within this collection. But page down, past the Source Information we just saw on the previous page. Here we are given more information (see image below) about the collection, including a brief history of when vital records were kept in Vermont, when the law came into being which dictated the keeping of those vital records and the availability of the records. Any known gaps in the records are also given. All of this information helps us to place into context our specific record. Perhaps even more than that, the description of the collection allows us to determine whether a record we are seeking exists in this particular collection.

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Another example using FamilySearch

Familysearch.org offers excellent descriptions of its record collections. Begin here at the Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections. This is an alphabetical listing of all the FamilySearch historical record collections (only the published ones). Find the collection you are interested in and click on the link provided. We’ll use the Arizona Marriages collection as an example:

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Image showing Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections

 

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Image showing Arizona Marriages collection description within the FamilySearch Historical Records Collection

There is a wealth of information on the individual collection page. The red arrow above points to the Contents of the page.  Of great importance is the general collection description which states that this is an index only collection so we will not find images of the actual marriage documents here. There is a coverage table and map showing which counties are covered by this index. There is information on what to do if you are unable to find your ancestor in the collection. The blue arrow points to the ability to access and search the collection from this page.

When we understand the record collection, we are better able to understand our specific record. Genealogists consider the weight of evidence in each document they use. Understanding why and how that document was created aids in being able to effectively weigh the evidence the document provides.

As important as it is to understand the collection our record is in, it is equally important to understand the laws at the time the record was created. Next week’s post will focus on how the laws of the time influenced the records created by our ancestors.

Locating Original Records for ‘Text Only’ Indexes on Ancestry

We’ve all seen them. Those Ancestry search results that pop up with a few details but without an image attached. They provide tantalizing bits of information but thorough researchers know that they need to find the original record, if at all possible.

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Image from Ancestry.com

These ‘Text-only’ collections can often be used as a finding aid to the original record. I was surprised to learn how many people don’t realize that there is another, more important, step to take.  The clue is in the FHL film number given.

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This is where we head over to Familysearch.org and using the top menu, hover our cursor over Search. A drop-down menu appears, and we select Catalog. A search page appears with various search options. We want to search by Film/Fiche Number.

Index Catalog
Image from Familysearch.org

Click on Film/Fiche Number and enter the FHL film number which you located on the Ancestry ‘Text-only’ record. Familysearch.org displays a list of the microfilm/s with that number and which contain the original records.

Index Films

The information we found on the ‘Text-only’ record tell us that the birth date of the Craft child in question was 17 October 1883. We can see in the image above that the first film covers birth registers for the years 1880-1913, and this is where we will find the original record. Once we click on that film, we are given a screen which displays the Film/Digital Notes.

Index film notes

The second entry shows us it is for the Register of births, no. 1-2 1880-1900 and we are in luck, as a small camera icon is displayed. This means that the film is available to browse online. Clicking on that camera icon will take you to the original microfilmed images and it is a matter of navigating through the film to 17 October 1883 to find the entry for the child. Always take note of the Item number/s on the film (in this case, Items 2-3) as they will guide you to where those records begin.

Tip: You may be tempted to click on the magnifying glass icon shown in the image above as this indicates a link to a Familysearch index. But be warned, if you do so, you will find yourself looking at the indexed entry again with no image.

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Having the original record in our hands, we might think we have completed our research with this film. But here is another tip … if the film also contains an index to the registers, it is always worth searching it! Going back to those film notes, we can see that this film does contain images of the original Indexes to the Register of Births.

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This is how I discovered a previously unknown child. By searching the microfilmed indexes under C for Craft (and knowing that this family remained in the same place for several years), I was able to confirm all the births of the known children. However, I found one more entry in that Index to Register of Births  for a child that I had no knowledge of.

Index Unknown

By going back to the film and navigating to entry 2501 in Book 1, page 192 as was shown on the Index to the Register of Births, I was able to find a male child (unnamed at the time) born 8 January 1894. This child must have died as an infant as he does not appear in any further records for this family.

Index Craft child

My tips:

  • Sound genealogical research means we should always try to locate the original record from an indexed entry.
  • If searching on Ancestry.com (or anywhere else) and you find a FHL (Family History Library) film number, head to Familysearch.org and locate that film. If you are lucky, it will be available to view online.
  • Always check the Index to a Register, if filmed, for the name you are researching.