I recently published a two-part video series on how to bust through genealogy brick walls. Just like with any good top 10 list, they get a little more creative as they go along. You can watch the entire series here, along with helpful hints and examples. Or, if you’re in a hurry to finally find that elusive ancestor, I’ve outlined the 10 tips below.
Double check your existing information
We all hate to hear it, but one major reason for a brick wall is that we’ve made a mistake somewhere. Double check all of your records and primary sources to make sure that you haven’t accidentally attached the wrong family member to the wrong family, etc. You could also be in for a nice surprise! Maybe a bit of data you ran into on a census, a tax record or a farm schedule didn’t seem relevant when you first found it, but it can now be the clue that busts down your brick wall Kool-Aid man style!
Round up the usual suspects (i.e. records)
It’s easy when you’ve hit a brick wall to believe that you have already sought out every single record that your mysterious ancestor ever left behind. However, it’s well worth it to double check and make sure you’ve found every “usual” record available for your ancestors. The usual suspects include: birth, marriage and death records (BMD), church records, military records, property records, immigration records and those ephemeral “other” records that may be associated with your relatives home, work, etc. (Other can be anything from union records to employer ledgers to anything in between.)
Reimagine the data you already have
When I’m stuck on a brick wall, I take all the names, dates locations and miscellaneous trivia I’ve collected and rewrite it in narrative format. So instead of looking at a bunch of names and dates, I’m now treating my ancestors’ life like a story. Looking at the facts you already know about your family in a new format can show you where you are missing information, or give you ideas for further lines of inquiry.
Research related families
This one can feel frustrating – like starting over. But note down the names of all those ancillary people you run across in records when researching your brick wall family. Who witnessed their wedding? Who was the informant on their birth certificate? Who was the executor of their will? Who were the neighbors in censuses? Who did they attend church with? These are often related families, even if you aren’t quite sure how. When you’re really stuck, research those “strangers” you find and you might break your brick wall.
Read up on history of the area where you lost your ancestor
It’s important you understand the political, social and even environmental history of areas where your ancestors lived, especially the lost ancestors. Vital details like what types of industries operated in the area, or certain types of immigration patterns, could be the key to figuring out where your mystery ancestor appeared from. There are plenty of local history books out there (of varying levels of research and quality). You can look them up on a site like WorldCat or contact the local library or historical society to find out more about recommended local histories.
Visit your ancestral home
Hey, and while you’re reading up on the area, why not pay it a visit? If time, money, health, visas, etc. allow, it can be an eye opening experience to visit your “ancestral homeland.” My favorite thing about genealogy trips is seeing the actual land where my ancestors lived. Often you’ll see street names, neighborhoods, churches, cemeteries, and more with your family names. These can sometimes lead to fun discoveries beyond what you can find in a census or on Find a Grave. Since travel can be expensive, I always recommend contacting the local historical society, library or any relatives you’ve “met” online in the area before venturing forth. They can help you make the most of limited visit time.
Look (non-creepily!) for living relatives
This is one that fill me with trepidation, but I’ve heard great stories about someone who reached out to a long lost cousin on Facebook only to be gifted with the 200-year-old family Bible or a treasure trove of pictures from some family member who had no idea what to do with all this “junk.”
If your relative is also a family historian, they’ll likely be happy to hear from you. I know this goes without saying, but if they’re not a family historian, be sure to be respectful and non-intrusive should you decide to reach out. How would you like it if some stranger from the internet popped up asking you a lot of questions about your family? You’d probably change all your passwords! Also be careful about what personal info YOU share with a stranger from the internet, family or not.
Write a blog post about your brick wall
Not a Facebook post. Not a Twitter post. A blog post. Remember when back in tip #2 when you were reimagining all your data and writing it in narrative format? Instead of letting that languish on your hard drive, put that information in a blog post. Let people know what you have and what information you’re looking for. For example, if you’re looking for the parents of Nebuchadnezzar Butterworth, you might simply call the blog post “Seeking the Parents of Nebuchadnezzar Butterworth.” While you may not get any takers right away, someone may come across your blog post five years later and prove to be the key to solving your mystery. But you won’t know if nobody knows you’re looking!
A lot of people are tempted to simply ask about brick on websites like Facebook. While that’s another thing you can definitely do, keep in mind that those posts get lost in the weeds very quickly. A blog post, on the other hand, stick around the internet forever and allows people to find you quickly and easily. (As long as you provide contact info, of course.)
Here’s an example of my brick wall blog post.
To publish your blog, I highly recommend the free blogging platform WordPress.com.
Set up search alerts for your ancestor
Setting up search alerts is a great way to discover when new information about your ancestor hits the internet. For example, if someone else writes a blog post about your brick wall ancestor, a search alert will (hopefully, usually) catch that new mention and maybe lead you to a break in your mystery.
I recommend setting up search alerts on both Google and eBay. If your ancestor’s name is unusual, I recommend setting up a search alert for his/her name. But if they have a name like John Jones or George Smith I recommend setting up an alert for their name along with a location (or several locations, depending on where you know they lived.)
Here’s a quick guide on setting up Google Alerts. Depending on how you set your search alerts up, these notify you whenever a new mention of your ancestor or a place where you ancestor lived appear online.
And here’s how to set up eBay alerts:
- Go to eBay.com
- Create an account if you don’t have one (you’ll need this in order for eBay to send you notifications)
- Perform your search. This could be your ancestor’s name “Melissa Archer” (be sure to use her maiden and married names!) or a location, like “Black Lick, Virginia” or “Smyth County, Virginia.”
- When your search results appear, click the words “Save this Search” at the top of the search results. From there, you’ll be notified of whenever anything new fitting those search terms is listed on eBay.
Why eBay? Because sometimes people will post family history books, Bibles, letters and postcards, and even family heirlooms!
Chase every little clue
Last but not least, leave no stone unturned. When you’re really, really stuck it’s time to turn to those weird little facts about your ancestor that might lead to a well… lead. Do they have a really weird middle name? Did they have an unusual job? Did they come from a tiny town in the middle of Italy? Did the farm schedule say they grew a whole bunch of peaches while everyone else around them was a cotton farmer? Any weird little idiosyncrasy you can find about your ancestor may be the clue you need to breaking your mystery wide open. Pay close attention!
Do you have any creative tips for breaking down family history brick walls? Let me know in the comments! And until then, happy detecting!