Category Archives: Brick Walls

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.


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.

How Do You Approach a Genealogical Brick Wall? Part 2

On Thursday, I described steps I follow when revisiting brick walls, trying to find pieces that can be chipped away to finally yield the treasure for which I’m hunting.

There is no one correct way to approach brick walls. Many methods work. Here are tips from other bloggers and genealogy organizations and companies:

Expanding Family Lines Using Reverse Genealogy Techniques by Amie Bowser Tennant on The Genealogy Reporter

Hit a Brick Wall? by Cyndy Ingle on Cyndy’s List

50 Best Genealogy Brick Wall Solutions (Part 1) AND Part 1, Page 2, both on Genealogy in Time Magazine

Are You Really at a Genealogy Brick Wall? on Family Tree Magazine

Quick Tips for Breaking Through Your Genealogy Brick Walls on Ancestry

Overcoming Genealogy Brick Walls and Dead Ends – free, online PDF of a Powerpoint Presentation by Capital Area Genealogy

How I Break Down Genealogy Brick Walls on Bespoke Genealogy

Breaking Down Brick Walls with Location Based Genealogy by Drusilla Pair on Find Your Folks

13 Reasons You Can’t Break Down Your Brick Wall and Find the Family History Information You Need on Family History Daily

Tearing Down Your Brick Walls: Removing Roadblocks in Genealogy Research by Thomas Jay Kemp, free online PDF eBook on Genealogy Bank

Brick Walls on LDS Genealogy

Ten Brick Wall Tips for Beginners by Leland Meitzler on Genealogy Blog

Genealogy Brick Wall Tips on Walking the Genes

10 More Tips to Breaking Down a Brick Wall by Owain on Genealogy Guide

Your Genealogy Brick Walls – a Facebook group with over 12,000 members. You must have a Facebook account and join to post.

Remember, sometimes brick walls are here to stay. I can never get back any further than my 3X great grandparents in Slovakia because they were peasants who were illiterate, owned nothing and church registers only begin in their tiny villages in the early 1800s.

However, many brick walls can not only be chipped away, they often can be completely destroyed. This list could be endless, but I hope there are enough choices here to motivate you to get going on smashing through your own brick walls.

Turn your  brick walls into ruins!