Written by: Flora L VerStraten

Genealogy Problem Solving

As genealogists, we spend our time solving genealogical problems. Some are harder to solve than others. If we happen to be lucky, we may find that some of our lines are very easy to trace. Documents may be easily available to us. No courthouses were burned, our ancestors are mentioned in the county histories, and they left wills behind that told who each child was. There may have been a well-documented family genealogy written and deposited in the major genealogy libraries.

Then again, if you’re like most of us, the above example just doesn’t fit into all family lines. In my own research, I’ve found that most of my lines are a challenge. That challenge coming in the early 1800’s in some lines, while others may be easy to trace only to the early 1600’s.

When we seemingly can go no further in our research, we say that we’ve hit the “brick wall.” Some might take that to mean that it’s all over, and our search is finished. However, the persevering genealogist will attempt to find a way around the proverbial brick wall.

After thinking and spending much time pondering and preparing for this workshop, I have learned one most important lesson; Just be patient! I’ve learned that a bit of patience, lined with fierce perseverance can often be rewarding! You may lay the search aside for a bit, but then regroup and come back to it! The brick wall can be surmounted!

Over the Brick Wall

Whether a professional in the field or a hobbyist researcher, every genealogist occasionally will encounter a “brick wall.” Although everyone likes the excitement of discovering new ancestors and these difficult problems are frustrating, a positive way to view them is as challenges that will strengthen research skills. The following materials will cover tips for approaching brick walls. It will include some common sense ideas that will be review for many researchers attending here today, as well as what perhaps are some new ways of looking at a research problem that may help readers break through that brick wall.


Learn All You Can About the Geographic Area or Subject, and Look At All Materials

This probably is the most important tip for defeating a brick wall. Knowledge really is power! Learn everything there is to know about the area where the individuals lived, their time period, their nationality, and or other appropriate subject that may have bearing on that family line- whether or not the family surname appears in the index to the material. You are educating yourself at this point!

At this point, you the researcher may find that you have developed a “feel” for the individuals or the family. Instead of hard facts, this feeling of being able to distinguish between individuals often is based on circumstantial evidence after having immersed oneself in the available records.

The importance of studying the geography of an area cannot be overstated. How did the family get to the area? River? Trail? Mountain range? Did they run a ferry across the river? Have a mill? Farm? Was a move made because of hard economic times? Much of what I have stated so far are gut feelings one has to go by when researching your brick wall lines.

Understanding people’s motivation for their actions the family took and in short, to “know” the family better and do more effective research is the result of this line of research.

Now you’ve spent time learning about the history and geography of the area in which your family lived, now it’s time to target a particular ethnic or religious group, it may be advantageous to study that subject as well. Different motivations may have been behind the migrations and other actions of these particular groups and knowing about these migrations will help you do your research more effectively. Were they Jewish? Native American , African, Quaker, Mormon, Huguenots? Now, just think how studying about relation and relation persecutions etc can assist you in your research.

Become immersed in the materials available for the area where the family lived. These groups in many cases had their own records. Once the handwriting becomes familiar, it may well be possible to locate people whose names did not appear in the index! The compiler of data, the names all had the same importance. Errors were made as indexers attempted to decipher handwriting in old records.


Study the Neighbors and Collateral Relatives

Research has become easier in some ways today than it was just 20-30 years ago because of published indexes etc. These are fantastic tools for gaining access to records, and can speed up research that one was tedious. However, relying too heavily on indexes and abstracts can be dangerous in several ways:

- Researchers may stop at the index- the soundex for the 1900 census for example- and never look at the actual records to gather additional information.

- If a name does not appear in the index, a researcher may assume that the family does not appear in the actual records. In fact, it may have been missed or misinterpreted by the indexer.

- Perhaps the most important problem that comes from substituting indexes and abstracts for actual records is that it does not allow the researchers to study the family “in context” or among its neighbors. It is important for us to remember that people did not live their lives the way they appear in indexes- in alphabetical order. Instead, they interacted frequently with families, neighbors, and sometimes entire communities would migrate from one place to another together!

Join a society in the ancestors geographic area, and then use its resources

Local genealogical societies are a fantastic resource for genealogists- and not just for those that live in that area! Take advantage of its services . Many genealogical societies offer the following resources that can prove helpful in your research efforts.

- Many genealogists collect pedigree charts, family group sheets or ancestor files which are collected and kept at local libraries. Most genealogy societies have committee chairs to maintain and keep updated materials in the library.

- Many have websites, visit it frequently! It is a fantastic way to communicate with non-local researchers sharing the same research area. They will advertise upcoming meetings, activities, field trips, benefits, and links to other worthwhile sites.

- Most publish a newsletter or other materials and accept free queries from it’s members. Take full advantage of these opportunities! You may make connection to family bibles, or other memorabilia that can help you solve research problems that you thought were insurmountable.

- When you receive the newsletter, read it cover to cover. Don’t skip the queries section and they have listed local researchers many are free to assist.

* They can assist when planning a research trip, provide you with lists for researchers, LDS Family History Centers, local history museum and libraries. Many be able to set up meetings with others researching your same surname!

- Editors of local genealogical societies publish newsletters and are almost always looking for someone to contribute to their articles. It has been said, That one quick way to get information about a family is to publish some incorrect “facts” about it in a newsletter. Many will come out of hiding and respond! (this is just an example of how the editor is sure to hear about any mistakes that are made!)

- The local OGS may have meetings with educational speakers, or host seminars and workshops. Often these are NOT limited solely to those researching in just your local area, but may be something for everyone approach with general topics on the schedule for the year that may benefit the community as a whole.

- Join your local OGS meetings... We have several: Belmont Co OGS, Cumberland Trail (Belmont Co), Brooke Co OGS, Jefferson Co OGS etc. These are good opportunities to suggest “lets have a meeting to share “our brick wall problems” with each other.  Perhaps someone will be able to offer an idea for records or an approach you haven’t tried yet.

- At the very least, a society meeting can be an excellent motivator! For those of us that work at other professions, this can be an excuse to dust it off, and begin thinking about genealogy again!

Attend a workshop or conference to learn more about genealogical research in general.

Try New Resources

New can mean newly discovered or released, or just new to you. It is an “awesome” job now to keep up with new sources being published daily. Get involved in societies that concentrate on brick wall problems in that specific area. Subscribe to local periodicals, whose otherwise records of tombstones, church records etc may have been destroyed or perish through time.

Use the Internet

The internet is still in its infancy for genealogists. However, where the internet really shines is in the wealth of information about sources and collections, as well as bulletin board, chat rooms and family pages.

Exchange Research With A Friend

The basis of this suggestion is that two researchers exchange their brick wall problems, including sources etc. and check each other's theories. This is a good way to get a fresh perspective on a troublesome problem without spending alot of money!

Consult With An Expert In the Geographic Area or On the Specific Subject

It may be worth the money to hire someone with knowledge of a particular ethnic group who is an expert in that area of research. Good place to look for professionals is: The Board of Certification of Genealogists (BCG). Keep in mind, that not all are qualified or certified and they are not required to join the Association.

Things To Consider

  1. The professional qualifications.
  2. Research costs.
    - Rate can range from $15 to $100 an hour.
    - Average being $25 to $50 an hour.
    - Some will require full payment, while others require a retainer.
  3. Define the professional’s work.
  4. Examine the results.