Genealogy: The Brick Wall, Part One

Posted by Aaron on

The genealogy brick wall – it is inevitable, challenging and fun to break through!

I have some brick walls in my family history, primarily because of secrets kept – a mysterious adoption, a disappearing husband and an old photograph of “Aunt Maria Billman” who I cannot identify. I ignore those brick walls for a while and then try to have a fresh look at them, either when I find new records to research or when I think of a new approach to try.

Some brick walls seem insurmountable until you can break apart the bricks, then bring them back together again.  It is important to not get discouraged; view it as a fun mystery to solve, with you as the sleuth. Also, be aware that once you solve the “family secret” some relatives may not be as excited as you!

The Family Tree Problem Solver Proven Methods for Scaling the Inevitable Brick Wall book coverI highly recommend The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising. Family Tree Maker recently published an article about brick wall research. In addition, a great deal of information has become available online, which can be very beneficial when researching family who lived in another state. However, some records may not be digitized, so you may have to research the old-fashioned way.

Here are steps you can take to tackle your genealogy brick wall:

Analyze your brick wall.
Ask yourself these questions:

  • What problem am I trying to solve?
  • Where can I find more information?
  • Is there a family member to talk to about it?
  • Do I have documented sources for the information you have so far?
  • What is known, unknown, or assumed?

Anecdote – I was told we had a “Mississippi steam boat captain” in our family. Long story short, he actually had a small steamboat on Canandaigua Lake in New York, by which he would transport fruit and vegetables to the Erie Canal, then on to the cities.

Make a timeline for any person you are trying to discover.
You may only know a name, with approximate dates. Write down everything you know, including dates, locations, events or family stories. Also, look for local events that may have involved your ancestor.

Try different strategies to find ancestors in census records. 

  • Use wildcards and alternate spellings liberally, as they may not be listed using the correct spelling of their name.  See Ancestry’s tips on searching.
  • Compare records indexed by different websites. I have found the same records on different websites which have the same person’s name spelled differently in the index.
  • Search for all persons with a particular surname in the area, or search for all persons with a particular first name (less likely to be misspelled) in a particular county within a certain age range.

Anecdote: My great-great grandfather, John Lanning, is listed in one of the census indexes as Panning, because the L had an extra-large loop at the top. I may have never found him if I hadn’t searched for all the John’s in that county’s census or browsed line-by-line.

Stay tuned for Part Two, with more research strategies for breaking through brick walls in your research.

The Fauquier County Public Library subscribes to AncestryLibrary, which you can access at any library branch. AncestryLibrary has vital records, census, military records, immigration records and much more. HeritageQuest has local history and genealogy books, census records, and some military records. It can be accessed remotely using your Fauquier County Public Library card.

Happy researching!

Mary Sue, Reference, Bealeton library

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