How to Work Around Brick Walls in Your Family Tree

I can’t say I know a single person working on his/her family tree who doesn’t have a brick wall somewhere. Sometimes, that’s the way it is and will forever be due to the lack of records. A good example is my paternal line of ancestors, all of whom came from Slovakia. They were all peasant farmers who owned no property; most likely couldn’t read or write and even if they could, wouldn’t have had money to purchase a Bible to record family vital records. My only resource, church registers in my ancestral villages, only date back to the early 1800s, which means that unless by some great fortune earlier volumes are discovered, there will be no more ancestors added to that branch of my family tree.

However, that isn’t the only type of brick wall found in genealogy research and some of those walls can be chipped away until the wall finally crumbles and falls.

Here are some tips to get started chipping away:

1. Set up a single goal.

It might be to identify an ancestral home, prove a birth, marriage or death date, to collect data about everyone with the same surname in a small geographical area or whatever other type of information you are lacking.

2. Before beginning any new research, REVIEW every single tidbit of information you have about the person or family you are researching.

I have heard many stories from other researchers that they had the answer they were seeking right under their noses, but didn’t realize it. My grandmother didn’t know the name of the Slovak village where my grandfather’s family had lived. She did have his original baptismal certificate, though, but while I could read the words, I was not able to find any place in Europe that appeared to be the village named in that church record. I set it aside for years. When I visited the Family History Library, the East European volunteers knew exactly where it was because they were familiar with the area and knew the modern day name of the town. I had had my answer in my possession for all those years and didn’t know it.

3. Make a list of all the source citations you have for previous work that you have done.

Source citations work in two ways. First, citing sources helps you avoid repeating a search already completed, which might be a waste of time. However, that same list allows a researcher to take a second look at a source because your current research goal might be something overlooked or deemed unnecessary the first time around. Perhaps the first time you perused a published family history, it didn’t appear to be your family. Further research has determined that it is indeed the correct family. Having that cited source in your notes allows you to easily search for access to the same book.

4. Next, search online for new resources that were unknown or not easily accessible to you before

This step encompasses many types of websites. Check online family trees in FamilySearch, Wikitree,, Ancestry and MyHeritage. Granted, many trees are, to use a modern phrase, a hot mess, but many more contain clues or hints for further research which turn out to be 100% accurate. In my own research, I frequently come across my brick wall names in online trees. Occasionally, there is a new-to-me name, date or place attached to a person which I can follow up on to determine whether it is accurate or not. Be sure to do a Google search for the person or family, too. There are privately owned family trees online and many websites/query forums that appear in the hit list. One of my favorite tricks to locate transcribed wills online is to search for my ancestors’ names plus a death year. If someone else has obtained a copy of the will (or sometimes even an entire probate file), transcribed or extracted it, it saves me a lot of time and energy. Check record collections on FamilySearch and subscription sites for new records that might pertain to your ancestral family. A friend asked me several years ago about Italian church records accessible online. There were none for the town she wanted, but a few months later, I read that FamilySearch had begun adding digital images for Italian records. What did I find? A new database of Catholic church records that included the town she requested! Time is definitely a genealogist’s friend.

5. Search Facebook for genealogical/historical and surname groups who might be able to offer help or further suggestions. Members in these groups are fabulous and want to be able to help others. Katherine Willson has a regularly updated list of all genealogically and historically related FB groups.

6. Lastly, write a letter!

Yes, write a letter on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope. Add a stamp and mail it. Not every repository has an active presence online. Expand your search to include public libraries, local historical societies and genealogical societies. Check state archives/libraries. Sometimes these are two separate entities, but they may be combined into one government agency.

If your first attempt doesn’t work out, don’t give up! Begin the process over again with a different brick wall. The speed at which digitization projects are being completed and indexed increases the chances of success.

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