Quick Tips for “Brick Walls”

(This post will probably be more helpful to beginners/amateur genealogists.)

Every genealogist/family historian, from the amateur to the professional, comes up against what we call “brick walls”: places in our research where we cannot find more information or go any further back in time.  I find the most common culprits behind brick walls are:

1.  Lack of female surname.  If you only know the married name of a female ancestor, it is exceedingly difficult to find her parents’ and lineage.

  • What to do:  if the woman was married, search for her husband’s marriage record.  These usually list the bride by her maiden name.   If you’re lucky, a comprehensive marriage record will also list the names of the parents (including mothers’ maiden names) and their place of birth.  So, do not discount the value of marriage records!

2.  Ancestors who were immigrants.  Great, I can see that Joe Smith was born in London in 1834, but how do I get to the records from London with any degree of certainty?

  • What to do:  Work backwards.  Start with their first records in the U.S. (or wherever they landed), then try to find naturalization records, then means of immigration, and then go straight to the source.  A letter, phone call, or email to their place of origin might yield more results than a simple online search.

3.  Poorly kept records.   There are millions of digitized records available on the internet today.  Search engines do amazing work, but they cannot make up for original error.  For example, you might be looking for a Mildred, but the census taker wrote her down as Mary (this has actually happened to me).

  • What to do:  Don’t get bogged down by exact spellings.  Try several different variations of names, or even leave parts of the name blank (M Smith or Mary S).  Try to narrow these types of searches down by time and location as much as possible, so you don’t get thousands of results.

4.  Records have been destroyed.  A large portion of the U.S. 1890 census was destroyed by fire.

  • What to do:  Go to other primary sources.  The federal census might not be available for the particular year you need, but many states also conducted their own censuses.  Also, look for city directory listings and newspaper articles for the year you are looking for.

5.  The most difficult is when a person seems to have never existed, even when you know that they did.  Sometimes a digital search can come up with no results.

  • What to do:  Start with what you DO know.  I know Mildred Shaw’s father’s name was George and her mother’s name was Barbara, but I can’t find anything to confirm Barbara’s existence.  Again, this is where I would rely less on the online search and instead write a letter, email, or phone the city/county she was from.  Try the courthouse and the public library, and see if there are any records matching the information you request.

We all come up against brick walls once in a while, some more solid than others.  What approaches do you take to overcome this hurdle?