Four Strategies I Used to Break Down Brick Walls

Brick walls are really, really annoying in family history research. Some of those walls might never fall, but others just need the right strategies to tumble down.

Often, those strategies mean thinking outside the box, researching sideways through collateral relatives or moving two steps forward while taking one back before making any progress.

How can you break down some of your own brick walls? Well, I’ve found that each family and situation present unique challenges that require accessing unique resources. Other brick walls just need a new set of eyes or the “leave no stone unturned” method of research.

What I have learned, through over 40 years of genealogical research, is that sometimes, ancestors have left clues that descendants didn’t notice or just didn’t think were important.

Here are synopses of several of my own successes in bringing down some of the brick walls in my family tree.

Loyalist John Adams

John Adams has hundreds, if not thousands, of descendants and there were many before me who tried to trace the family tree back into the colonies.

What was known about John Adams is that one of his grandsons reported on the census that his father was born in Connecticut. Another fact was that John’s Loyalist service included work in the Commissary General’s Department in New Jersey.

John’s children were identified as: Jonathan, Hannah, John, Daniel, David, Sturges, Edward, James, Thomas and William.

Jonathan was born c1766, so it was estimated that John was likely born around 1740, as 25 was a common age for marriage among New England men.

Thomas is my ancestor and one of the first genea-buddies I made was Alice, who was descended from Sturges. She was already a senior citizen when I jumped into the research pond and she said she hadn’t had any success at finding the Adams home in Connecticut before the American Revolution. Nor, apparently, had anyone else.

Alice shared one bit of family lore with me. Sturges had been named for his grandmother’s family! Even as a beginner, I saw that as a huge clue. Instead of looking for some random Adams family, who probably lived in Connecticut, we needed to look for any Adams who had ties to a Sturges family. That really narrowed down the focus of research, particularly since Sturges was a much less common surname than Adams.

This was back in 1980, way before the internet. When I began visiting the Los Angeles Family History Center, I started browsing every Connecticut book on the shelves. Donald Lines Jacobus’s work on Families of Old Fairfield turned out to be the jackpot.

In it were family sketches of the descendants of Edward Adams of Milford, Connecticut. In the pre-Revolutionary War days of Fairfield County, there were strong feelings for and against remaining under King George’s rule.

Among the records abstracted in Jacobus’s multi-volume work was a marriage record for one John Adams and Sarah Coley on 31 August 1765.

Sarah Coley was the daughter of Jonathan Coley (Hmmm! First child was named Jonathan and that name appeared nowhere else in the earlier Adams generations.) AND her mother was Lucy STURGES!!! Sarah only had one daughter, Hannah, and the name of Sarah’s older sister was Hannah. John Adams was the son of David Adams and he had a son named David.

On top of all that, this family disappeared from Connecticut by the time of the Revolutionary War.

One brick wall shattered. Jacobus’s book had been published 50 years earlier, in 1930, yet no one had connected the dots. I guess I was the determined set of new eyes and the clue could have been followed fifty years earlier.

Johannes Jensen

My grandmother’s mother’s family was my brick wall for over thirty years. Time was my friend as more records were digitized and available online. However, without the help of Ruth Maness (who passed away three years ago this month) at the Family History Library, this wall might still be standing.

Grandmother’s mother was Anna Elizabeth Johnson, born 1872, supposedly in Copenhagen. By 2011, the Danish National Archives had digitized their census records and I was able to fin Anna with her parents, Frits Wille Oscar Emil JENSEN living in Copenhagen.

I thought I had it made, as I had always heard how great Scandinavian records were. I was wrong! Frits’s parents were Johannes Jensen and Johanna Elisabeth Molin.

Johannes Jensen became my new brick wall. Every record said he was born c1810 in Copenhagen. In spite of following every Johannes Jensen I could find in baptismal records, my Johannes was no where to be found. What led to the brick wall dissipating – not smashing or tumbling – into pieces was Johannes’ career choice. He was a career soldier in the Danish army.

With Ruth’s help, we followed him through the Danish laegdsruller, or military lists, until we determined that his birth date was 27 April 1810 in Copenhagen. The first chink in the wall happened when one of the lists of men included all their fathers’ names. At least all of the fathers except for Johannes’s. His father’s name was “not reported.”

The light bulb went on – Johannes was born out of wedlock. Next, we checked the birth registers for the unwed mothers’ hospital in Copenhagen. two sets of record were kept. The first listed the baby’s name and birth/baptismal date along with a file number that corresponded to the mothers’ files. Johannes was one of two boys born there that day. The other child was named Nicholas. The birth registers are accessible online. The mothers’ registers need to be read in Copenhagen at the archives. That was a big expense. However, the mother’s file told the story of his life, as she gave him up for adoption at the age of two days, but notes were added when he was ten years old.

I learned how to use two very rare types of records – the laegdsrullers and hospital birth records where the mothers were permitted to remain anonymous if they so chose.

Martin Miller

The parents of Martin Miller was one of the long standing brick walls in my husband’s family tree. Martin was born c1785 in Pennsylvania, married in Botetourt County, Virginia in 1810 to Catherine Whitmer, daughter of John and Catherine Whitmer, and by 1812 had moved to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky with his new in-laws.

With a really common name like Miller, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be successful identifying Martin’s parents, but I was definitely going to give it my best try. It turned out to take several years.

Martin and Catherine had the following children: John, Jacob, Sarah, Michael, Rebecca, David, Catherine and Martin.

I knew that German families often followed a naming pattern – first son named for father’s father, first daughter named for mother’s mother, second son named for mother’s father and second daughter for father’s mother. I hoped that Martin and Catherine had followed tradition.

They didn’t exactly, but they did provide clues. I knew that Catherine’s parents were John and Catherine. The first Miller child was John, probably named for her father. Catherine was also given to a child, but not the first daughter. Instead, the first girl was named Sarah – not a name that appears among Catherine’s siblings.

Jacob was the second born son. Maybe Martin’s parents were Jacob and Sarah Miller? It was a starting point.

Next, I collected all the land deeds for John Whitmer and any Millers in Botetourt County up to about 1820. I sorted out the English speaking Millers from the Germans and used DeedMapper to plot out the metes and bounds properties, looking for Millers who lived within about five miles of John Whitmer. I bought a USGS map of Botetourt County and could figure out from the waterways about where each property sat.

There was one Jacob Miller, apparently German, who sold land first with a wife Sarah and later with a wife Elizabeth. I strongly suspected that Jacob and Sarah were Martin’s parents. Maybe because Sarah died fairly young, Martin named his first girl for his deceased mother?

I was pleased with my progress, but that is as far as it went for years. Jacob Miller was also gone from Botetourt County before 1820 and his name was way too common to try to find him. He did not go to Kentucky with his son and the Whitmers.

I had a new thought one day when I was in the library. Martin was born in 1785 – maybe his father served in the Revolutionary War. I began browsing Virgil White’s books on the abstracts of Revolutionary War pensions with a focus on Millers. Of course, I begin by looking at the many Jacob Millers.

My eye stopped on one man. Jacob Miller had served in Pennsylvania, lived for a time in Botetourt County and moved to Franklin County, Tennessee, where he died.

Jacob owned land in Tennessee and when I checked the deed index, there was an entry for one Martin Miller of MUHLENBERG County, Kentucky, giving his power of attorney to a brother-in-law allowing him to act in the estate of his father, Jacob Miller, deceased.

This wall came down because of naming pattern hunches, plotting out land ownership, Revolutionary War pensions and a county land deed index. But it came down!

Mary Lewis

The lack of knowledge about Mary Lewis’s parents gnawed at me for a while, but it was one of the easier puzzles to put together. The clue turned out to be the name of one of her grandchildren.

Joseph Hendricks married Mary Lewis about 1813, probably in Simpson County, Kentucky, where records have been lost. Their daughter, Elizabeth Hendricks, married Michael Miller (son of Martin above.), c1837, probably also in Simpson County.

Michael and Elizabeth had the following children: Mary Catherine, Sarah J., Louisa, Wilson Turner, James L., Joab, Leonard, Jacob, Benjamin F. and Elizabeth.

Several of their children’s names were unusual for German families –  Wilson Turner, Joab and Leonard, to be exact.

This brick wall fell apart with one simple call to the Simpson County Historical Society, where they couldn’t have been more helpful. I told them that Mary Lewis was my focus. They had quite a lot of information on the Lewis in their files, which they copied and sent to me. The clincher was that, while there was no vital record connecting Mary Lewis to her parents, it appeared that her father and mother were JOAB Lewis and Catherine LEONARD! Bingo! Two unusual children’s names in the Michael Miller family were accounted for.

I hope that my anecdotes give you a few ideas on how to think outside the box when determining your research strategies.


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