How Do You Approach a Genealogical Brick Wall? Part 1

I think we are all certain that if we could just break down that one (or more!) family history brick wall, that we would find genealogical treasure waiting behind it. Often, that is true, but the question is exactly how do we go about knocking through those brick walls? It isn’t easy, but it can be done!

My own family tree had a brick wall that took me over 30 years to break down. It took 37 to discover a Mayflower ancestor. It’s taken just as many years to crack through some walls in my husband’s family tree.

How did I do it? If I had to sum up the process in one word, it would be ORGANIZATION. If a researcher isn’t organized, he/she will be flailing around in circles making no progress.

How do I organize myself? During the early years of my genealogical researching, I kept a meticulous research log – what was I looking for, on what date did I search, who/where did I search and what the result of that search was.

This was definitely in the pre-computer, pre-internet age. I kept that log tidy because I didn’t want to waste time and, sometimes, money on a source that I had already checked out.

Today, I keep a research log, but for two reasons. (1) I don’t want to waste time/money on a source I’ve already checked out. (2) I WANT to revisit sources I’ve reviewed in the past because new documents, photos and images are being digitized and popping up on line every single day. Barely a dent has been made in digitizing all of the genealogical resources in the U.S., never mind in the world.

What next? I set an initial objective for myself. Sometimes, it is very specific and sometimes much more general. For example, if I am looking for a probate record, I search differently than if I want to locate websites that might have genealogical info that others have posted that might contain good hints about a particular family and avenues to pursue.

Before I begin any renewed search, I thoroughly review what I have already found/not found. Occasionally, I notice a clue in notes I already have. Other times, I might have left an item unchecked because I had no access to those resources. Sometimes, I’ve even gotten new clues from collateral family lines which I’ve researched since my last look at a family.

Now, I’m ready to begin with my finalized objective. Technology is my friend and I use it as a first line of attack.

All of the following are important potential sources for the answer I’m seeking. The list isn’t in any particular order because where I go depends on my objective.:

1. Online family trees – Yes, you are reading that correctly. However, I’ve found documents and photos on those trees which have added to my knowledge of a person or family. I’ve even found a document I’ve wanted attached to the wrong person in the online tree! They are also great for finding cousins working on the same family.

2. FamilySearch – I catalog-search every single day I’m working on family history. If I search by name, it’s often as a last resort. I am also a big user of the FamilySearch wiki, which has links to all kinds of databases relating to my person/place of interest.

3. Ancestry – I find the Ancestry search engine to be not great when searching by name. It now brings up all the family tree info and not names in their databases. That means I usually go directly to the database I need – census, state probate, city directory, etc. – and then enter names in the search engine. I also find that when I enter female names in the search engine, more often than not I get no results for the person I want. Lots of people with the same name, but not my person.

4. Other subscription databases – MyHeritage, American Ancestors, Heritage Quest, etc. I maintain subscriptions to a few sites which I use fairly often. Heritage Quest can be accessed at home from my local public library.

5. Google Books and FamilySearch Books – I’m always looking for digital versions of genealogy books. There are other methods to find them, but these are my first visits.

6. Google Search Engine – Putting the name of the person I’m researching with a date and place in Google always brings up many hits. This is an especially successful way I’ve found probate information – wills and actual source citations to those documents. The date and place matter, though. For example, there are many Samuel Woodruffs wandering around. Adding 1835 and Spartanburg to his name search brings hits to him up immediately.

7. FamilySearch Catalog – Yes, I mentioned this is #2 on my list. However, when I go back to the catalog, having worked my way down this list, I’m usually looking at all the items available that might shed light on my person or family. For example, I know that early Kentucky tax records exist for many counties. If I’m searching there, are the records digitally available for me to view? Basically, this re-visit is to leave no stone unturned in my quest for information.

8. Local Libraries, Historical Societies and Museums – Last, but definitely not least, everything is ABSOLUTELY NOT ONLINE! I still mail letters and pick up the telephone to contact organizations in the area where my family lived. I never could have pieced together my Coleman info to connect my Joseph to Nantucket and then Orange County, New York without talking to reference librarians at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Nantucket Historical Association. I had short, specific questions about resources which the librarians could quickly answer and I then found my documents.

I’ve had a fair amount of success breaking down some of my biggest brick walls. My motto is “leave no stone unturned” and revisit my brick walls on a regular basis. Time and persistence are often the solutions.

On Saturday, I’ll share links to others who have described their methods and processes for cracking through those stubborn walls.





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