Real strategies for overcoming that brick wall


Both novice and experienced family historians have likely encountered a common obstacle while researching their histories: hitting a brick wall.  You may discover that family records were destroyed, lost or simply unavailable; information about your family members or timelines may seem conflicting or incorrect; ancestors who lived before 1850 may be difficult to locate and relatives after 1850 (the year in which census information became available for every individual in a household) may be missing from census records completely.  There are many strategies that genealogy experts have written about to overcome your particular brick wall challenge.  Below I highlight some of the most useful strategies and tips for tackling your stumbling block and moving forward in your research.

Collect and review all the information you have.  It is essential to locate and evaluate the data you have already discovered.  You might have a substantial amount of information that you collected over a period of time.  Perhaps there are forgotten details that would be instrumental in your research.  Or there is information that you assumed was irrelevant in the past that may be significant in dealing with your current obstacle.  Once you have gathered these documents, create a comprehensive timeline and include all known facts about your ancestor.  This timeline will serve as a shorthand way of determining what information you presently know and don’t know.  In some cases, the answer will emerge from the research you have already done.

Refer to original sources rather than notes, abstracts or summaries.  In the course of reviewing your information, you should always consult the actual documents.  Sometimes when synthesizing data extracted from vital records, census records, deeds or other resources, you may transcribe facts erroneously or omit crucial details.  Re-read these original resources to ensure that your information is complete and accurate.

Approach your research from a new angle.   It can be helpful to analyze your materials from a fresh perspective.  Perhaps there is a small clue that appeared to be a dead end; following that clue might lead to more pertinent information.  Another strategy is to expand your research to other family members, such as siblings, in-laws and other relatives.  This technique, known as cluster genealogy, entails learning about the ancestor’s “cluster,” which includes both family and neighbors.  For example, if you are trying to ascertain an ancestor’s place of birth, then researching his neighbor’s place of origin and migration patterns would be helpful since neighboring family units often migrated together.

Be flexible with dates and names.  The further back your query leads you, the more likely you are to encounter errors and inconsistencies in vital information pertaining to your ancestors.  Ages and dates are not always recorded accurately and name spellings can be altered over time.  Expand your search to several years on either side of your target date and include as many alternative spellings as possible when doing your research.

Seek outside assistance.   Finally, once you have exhausted these strategies, it may be time to involve others in your inquiry.  Find out if other relatives have conducted similar research.  Consult with member of the local historical society or post questions on relevant forums.  Be creative and resourceful and eventually you will overcome that brick wall!



Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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