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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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How to Break Through Genealogy Brick Walls

crumbling brick wall

Understanding the concept of genealogy brick walls and more importantly, identifying how to overcome them, is crucial for anyone delving into their family history.

Genealogy brick walls can be frustrating obstacles for family historians looking to trace their ancestry. True brick walls are points in a family tree where the researcher faces a dead end.

What Are Genealogy Brick Walls?

Understanding the Concept of Genealogy Brick Walls

Genealogy brick walls refer to the points at which genealogical researchers find themselves unable to make further progress in tracing their family history. These barriers can occur due to a variety of factors, making it difficult to move beyond a particular point in their ancestral line.

I like to use the analogy of genealogy being a journey. You select various paths to explore which are ancestors or topics you choose to research. A true brick wall is when you are unable to progress further in your journey. Imagine a wall blocking your path.

Root Causes of Genealogy Brick Walls

Real genealogy brick walls can arise due to various reasons, including missing records, errors in documents, common surnames, and migrations. There are a variety of strategies to overcome the toughest genealogy problems.

However, most brick walls are actually created by the researcher.

Signs that You've Hit a Genealogy Brick Wall

When You Hit a Brick Wall vs. Creating Problems for Yourself

It's essential to differentiate between hitting a genuine brick wall in one's genealogical research and creating problems for oneself by failing to pursue all available resources. Understanding the signs of hitting a brick wall is crucial to determining the best way to break through.

Imagine you are on a path and you see a brick wall across the path. What would you do? Many genealogists just stop. They often turn around and try a different path, that is, they research a different branch of their family.

But what if it isn't an actual brick wall, it just looks like one? What if it only blocks the path, you could just step off the path and go around. What if you could step over the brick wall or go under it? These actually all equate to strategies every genealogist should be using, including first examining the brick wall to make sure it isn't an illusion, a projection, or a brick wall printed curtain you could simply push through.

Brick walls probably aren't as bad as you think!

Exploring Solutions When You Can't Find Ancestor's Information

When you're looking for an ancestor's information and can't find it, it can be frustrating. However, there's a way to break through these barriers. The first thing you need is information. When you can't find the information you were seeking using a method that has previously worked, try something different.

You need information on what other options you can try. Sometimes this is simple. You were searching a website for information and can't find it. You try a different website. But maybe you need to stop searching and try browsing records on that website. Maybe you need to stop looking online and try off-line records. Once you have enough experience that you routinely go to specific records (instead of searching a website), you need information on other types of records that can provide the information you are looking for.

Finally, when you can't find the information you are seeking in any source, you need to learn to find and use clues to create a solution. This is almost like creating the information you need because it is not explicitly stated anywhere.

Knowing When to Hire a Professional Genealogist

Professional genealogists can help with brick walls in two dramatically different ways. It is vital to understand what you are hiring someone to do because not every genealogist can provide what you need.

The easier option to hire a professional genealogist for is to have them get copies of records for you. This might be more affordable but it is easier to hire someone because you know exactly what you are asking them to do, get a specific record.

The other option is hiring a professional to do the research for you. This means you must find a genealogist who's skills are beyond your own with regards to your specific problem. You also want someone with the skills you expect. That is much trickier since most people don't have much experience hiring a professional genealogist. Remember, you need someone for a specific problem. They might be the world's foremost expert on Irish immigrants to Minnesota. If your problem involves Bavarians (that didn't leave Bavaria) and that researcher has no experience in German research, they are not an expert when it comes to your project.

You need to understand your own brick wall problem before hiring a professional. You don't need to know how to solve it, but you need to understand what makes it unique so you can get someone best suited to that problem.

Determining if You've Truly Reached the End of an Ancestral Line

At times, it can be challenging to determine if you've truly reached the end of your ancestral line or if there's additional research to be done. If you've gotten extensive education on your specific problem, consider hiring a professional genealogist for a consultation to discuss if you should set that problem aside. If you know someone that is an expert in the specifics of your problem, you can also have a conversation with them.

There's one other consideration. You can also decide to put a brick wall on the backburner because you don't have the money or time to deal with it. You might not technically be at the end of that line but the research may be more involved than you want to deal with. This is your research, you can stop and start it based on your own preferences and desires.

Strategies for Overcoming Genealogy Brick Walls

Don't Stop at Free Genealogy Resources

When you hit a genealogy brick wall, it's crucial not to rely solely on free genealogy resources. Investing in subscription-based services is one option. Don't overlook free access to paid subscriptions at your local library or FamilySearch Center (or FamilySearch Affiliate library).

Visiting local archives or courthouses can provide access to valuable records that may break down these barriers. Be prepared to invest money in carefully selected online subscriptions, travel (local or long-distance depending on your ability), professionals, and copies of records. One brick wall might involve one or more of these expenses. Your genealogy overall should involve all of them at various times.

Top Research Strategies for Breaking Brick Walls

I have several strategies I always recommend when dealing with a brick wall.

  1. Focus. You need to identify your brick wall and what makes it unique. You will need to do targeted research. This can't be done if you just stick a name and a couple of dates in a search form. You will need to break your problem down and create research plans as part of your focus.
  2. Review, review, review. A review is not hard. What's tricky is creating the support documents you should review. This includes research notes, summaries of your research, and research reports. Copies or images of records are one of the last things you should review. To create all the support material, you should follow the genealogical research process.
  3. Learn about and use alternative records.
  4. Learn about and use alternative research subjects.
  5. Think outside the box. Honestly, this covers all the best brick wall research strategies. You must know the details of your brick wall (suggestions 1 and 2) and then look for other ways to research it. This includes other records (suggestion 3), other people (suggestion 4), plus research methods you haven't tried. You'll need to learn to do genealogical analysis for most advanced research options.

I have one research strategy that is my absolute favorite, though.

Using Family Groups Plus More in Genealogy Records (FAN club research)

Utilizing the "FAN club" research strategy can provide valuable insights and potentially break down brick walls in your research. FANs are the friends, associates, and neighbors. You already know you need to research family (but remember to include all family, not just your direct line). You can also use research into other people, the FANs or cluster.

How a Professional Genealogist Can Help

Learning alternative research strategies, especially some of the more complex ones, can take time. This might be a good place to hire a professional. As previously mentioned, know what you are hiring someone for. You may need a professional with access to records you can't access. You might instead want to provide your existing research and have the professional review it, using research strategies that are more advanced than what you personally know.

Utilizing Genealogy Records to Find Ancestors

Strategies for Using U.S. Census Records in Genealogical Research

U.S. census records can be a treasure trove of information for genealogical research. Learning effective strategies for leveraging census records can significantly aid in breaking through genealogy brick walls.

We have a blog post specifically on getting more from U.S. census records.

Beyond Indexes to Break Down Brick Walls

Going beyond indexes and delving deeper into genealogy records can reveal hidden details that may help break down brick walls in your research. When you search online, often the first thing that pops up is technically an index record. Make sure you look at attached images of the records, not just the typed up details. Online records often include more details in the typed results than you'd find in a book index but there might be even more information in the image. There can also be errors in the typed information that will mislead you.

You wouldn't stop at the index when using a book, don't stop at the typed online result if an image is available.

Exploring Surname Variations in Genealogy Records

Considering surname variations in genealogy records is crucial. Misspellings and alternative spellings are common.

Understanding and accounting for spelling variations in family history is imperative. Variations in first names, middle names, and surnames can be pivotal in overcoming genealogy brick walls and uncovering missing links in your ancestry. There can be differences in surnames you might not think of without learning more. For example, based on your own experience, you might not consider switching out the letters D and T in a name. In a German-speaking community in the U.S., this might be common, even if your ancestor isn't German. Learning about spelling variations in genealogy can really change your research.

When it comes to genealogy, always remember, spelling doesn't count.

Family History Research Can Be Tough

There are many reasons you may be unable to break through your brick wall. First, focus and make sure you've learned enough to be sure you aren't missing an easy solution (going over, under, around, or even through what appeared to be a dead end). Employ a variety of strategies including following the genealogical research process plus trying alternative records and research subjects.

Sometimes records were never created in the first place. Sometimes the information you want wasn't recorded or didn't survive. You can develop your own advanced research skills or hire a professional to deal with these particularly tough research situations.

Education and perseverance are key. When you've exhausted all the records and strategies you learned, you may wish to set a research brick wall aside. Family history is your journey. Focus and get the education needed to enjoy it. But if the effort is more than the enjoyment you'll get, you can research someone else.

FAQs for Dealing with Tough Research Problems

Q: What records should I be using to bust a brick wall?

A: Most U.S. genealogists start with online family trees and federal census records. Make sure you've gathered information from living family (including asking if there is research or information like letters from deceased family). If you're lucky, you might find a family Bible!

When you've exhausted home and family sources, expand to vital records (birth, marriage, and death). Consider church records, not just civil records. You may find court and probate records, including wills and deeds. Don't overlook other types of census records such as a state census or other records like city directories or membership lists.

You might have military, naturalization, or immigration records. Depending on the time and place you're researching, you may need to use a state or national archives for this information.

There are a huge number of records in the world that can be used for family history information. You can learn about general and specific ideas by learning more about genealogy.

Q: What should I do if I can't find a birth record for an ancestor?

A: First, birth records may not have been created for the time and place you're researching. Don't waste time constantly searching for one if that's the case. Learn about what records were normal for the time and place you're dealing with. If a birth record for an ancestor isn't available, consider looking into alternative sources for the same information.

Q: When should I consider a family tradition as credible evidence in my genealogy research?

A: While family traditions can be valuable, they should be verified using genealogical evidence. This actually applies to all your research. Don't rely on one source, whether it is something a family member tells you, and online tree, a death certificate, or any single source. Corroborate the information you have found by using a variety of sources. Often you'll need to learn to identify and use clues since there are many instances where you can't find information explicitly stated. Great genealogists can still uncover the truth.

Q: Can genealogy websites like Ancestry.com help me break through genealogy brick walls?

A: Online genealogy records, from a site like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch, make genealogy research so much easier. These are just one type of source. If you're lucky, you'll find, and verify, the solution to your brick wall easily. If you don't, remember to think outside the box and try a variety or sources and research subjects.

Q: How can a genealogy group assist in overcoming brick walls in my research?

A: Genealogy groups come in a variety of types. They can offer a supportive community of researchers who can provide guidance, advice, and fresh perspectives on your research challenges. Collaborating with others who share your passion for family history can yield breakthroughs in your research. Consider online and in-person groups and genealogy societies. Societies often offer education as well as a community.

Q: What should I do if I can't find a death record for an ancestor?

A: Like birth records, death records may or may not have been created. First, know what information you are seeking and consider alternatives for that information. Common alternatives to a death record are obituaries, funeral home records, cemetery records (not just a tombstone), and even military records.

Q: How can a funeral home help in my genealogy research?

A: Funeral homes often keep detailed records that can offer valuable information for genealogy research, including death records, obituaries, burial locations, and family connections. Contacting a funeral home could provide the missing piece of your family history puzzle. Check at archives, historical societies, or other repositories for records from funeral homes that no longer exist.