Brick Wall Buster Strategies

A Brick Wall Is Something No Genealogist Wants to Meet!

I have had a lot of success in breaking through a lot of brick walls. A professional researcher once told me that I was very lucky, but then said, “No, it isn’t luck at all. It’s persistence.” That was the biggest compliment she could have given me. Persistence means leaving no stone, however small, unturned. Persistence means thinking outside the traditional box. Persistence means continually re-evaluating your information. Persistence means keeping up with new research technologies. How does all this persistence translate into research paths? When I come to a dead end in the family tree, I generally follow these steps pretty much in this order:

1. Begin by taking a new look at all the clues and evidence that have already been compiled about an individual (or, in some cases,  family.) Reread any original documents about the person rather than just looking at a software program database. If any new information is gleaned, then follow up on it before moving on to step 2.

2. Create a simple timeline for this person based on the facts already found. Include dates of birth, marriage, death, residence and any other dates found in the documents already found.

3. Join the FAN club – Make a list of all the friends and neighbors. Do some preliminary research to see if your brick wall might have a familial relationship with them. If you already have adult siblings and are looking for their parents, be sure to follow the same steps with the adult sibling as you would with your own ancestor. Were any friends or neighbors born in the same state? Are there any extant church records if religion is known? If a census record is available, can a group which may have migrated together be identified? If the FAN club is found in land deeds, check deeds for the FANs.

4. Check easy resources on line to see new information might be available if you haven’t looked for a while.

If the first four steps bring no new information, it’s time to get to work and leave no stone, however small, unturned.

5. Look outside the box of typical research tools. Know the resources available for the area in which you are researching. Most importantly, remember that not all records are found on line, on microfilm or even in published books. You might even have to write a letter or two (like in the “old days) or read a microfilm page by page.

I’ve already talked about often overlooked resources in GeneaGems 1, #2, #3 and #4, which included State Libraries and Archives, Historical Societies, State Genealogical Societies and Ethnic Societies.

There are also many other overlooked and underused resources that aren’t as easy as clicking a link, but which may well open up a brick wall.

Examples: Tax lists, court minutes, local church records, county courthouse records that haven’t been filmed, small local libraries may have family history information in their vertical files (similar to those kept by some historical societies) and long distance writers to local genealogical societies looking for the same family you are.

I don’t consider myself “lucky” when it comes to great genealogy finds – sometimes it’s a lot of time consuming boring work – but it pays off. Here are some of what I have found by using just the above resources:

1. I figured out how Margaret, the daughter of John Whitmer in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky married Anthony Donohoo from Sumner County, Tennessee in 1820 or 1821 when there were no apparent ties between the families. By just looking at census records, once the Whitmer family settled in Muhlenburg County, it appears that they stayed put. That is not the case by looking at consecutive tax lists from 1811 to 1829. Between 1811 and 1819, adult Whitmer males were consistently taxed. (All the Whitmers were sons of John and Catherine Whitmer.) In 1820, only John and Jacob were on the rolls. In 1821, not a single Whitmer male was on the Muhlenburg County tax list. In 1822, Valentine, Michael and Jacob Whitmer reappeared. By 1823, John, John Jr., Valentine, Michael and Jacob were all back on the tax rolls. A search of the land deeds of Sumner County, Tennessee showed an 1823 sale of land by Anthony Donohoo. I believe that the Whitmers started to migrate to western Tennessee about 1820. They were all there in 1821, but by 1822, they began to return to Muhlenburg County. By 1823, all were back and Anthony Donohoo had even left Tennessee.

2. By writing to the Friedens Church in Rockingham County, Virginia, which I knew existed in the 1780’s and is still an active church today, I obtained a copy of the baptismal record of Valentine Whitmer, mentioned in #1 above.

3. Roane County, Tennessee has “loose records” (records that were never recorded or bound into official books) that included the 1825 will of Charles Williams of Morgan County, Tennessee. Morgan County is a burned county (1862), but was set off from Roane County in 1819. Charles owned some land in Roane County. I think the heirs delivered a copy of the will to the Roane County courthouse and either didn’t pay the fee to record it or it was somehow misplaced and not recorded. It is the only record that identifies Charles’ five adult children and includes the married names of daughters.

4. In Barry County, Missouri, I visited the courthouse and found divorce papers for Isaac Sturgell and his second wife, Susannah Douthit Alberty. I don’t think anyone had looked at those papers since they were filed in 1868; they have not been filmed and I didn’t realize divorce records went back that far in that county. (By the way, Isaac was “at fault” but was given the right to remarry. Susannah’s divorce settlement was the receipt of “an old gray mare,” which she accepted by marking her “X” on the paper.

5. I wrote to the Hempstead County Genealogical Society asking for information on my husband’s Williams family. Their reply included a contact address for another descendant who had recently written. She only had the original family Bible! Needless to say, we were both thrilled to find each other.

6. A few years ago, I wrote to the Simpson County, KY Archives and Museum asking for information on a pioneer family. They had a vertical file full of family history information that solved another brick wall.

I could give many more examples of successes that have only to do with persistence. I could also list many more types of resources but a GenealogyBlog  post by William Dollarhide on 29 Nov 2012 provided “A Checklist of 150 Genealogical Sources,” so there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

How have you broken through a brick wall or two? They are my favorite kind of genealogical story, so please leave a comment about the treasure you found.

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