Brick Wall Research

Brick Wall Research

by
By Jeanne Lund, Belaugh Research Services

What is a Brick Wall?

A Brick Wall is a dead-end that you have reached in your genealogical research. It may be a small problem or a much larger one. You may have exhausted every avenue of research and are totally frustrated and at a loss. This article will attempt to give you valuable pointers in proceeding and eventually breaking through your brick wall. It is also a good refresher to basic research for those of you lucky enough not to have brick walls.

Double-Check Your Work

The first piece of advice in dealing with a brick wall is to double-check what you have already researched. During your research you should hopefully have saved numerous notes and documents, therefore your first step should be to go back through EVERYTHING you have ever researched and accumulated. When I was stuck on an ancestor's date and place of birth, I went back through all my records - it took several days to cover everything, but eventually I found the solution: I had written a letter many years before to a local county records office in England asking them to search some baptism and burial records they held on microfilm. Their return letter to me, containing the results of the search, mentioned several people with the same surname who had died in that parish. When I went back through this letter I discovered the name of a woman with the same surname who was about the age that my ancestor's mother would have been. This finding led me to undertake a further search of the records, and I discovered that she was indeed my ancestor's mother and I was therefore able to eventually piece together his place and date of birth, and ascertain his parentage. If I had not checked my records again I would have missed this lead. When the original letter came I was not searching for this particular piece of information, so had therefore just put the letter in my filing system. I would always advise anyone to take this first method of approach first - if you are truly stuck this first approach could yield wonderful results. It is also a great way of refreshing yourself on your research and sources searched, and you may discover other avenues of research from this.

Have you Checked ALL Records?

Are you satisfied that you have checked every available record source for the information you require? For example, for the record of somebody's birth you may have looked for the birth certificate, on the IGI, in parish registers and with state offices, and so on, but have you looked at the death certificate? Some events/records appear opposite to what we are searching - such as birth/death - but in fact many records not pertaining to the actual event we seek may enlighten us to the correct answer - death certificates give the age at death for instance, allowing you to have an approximate date of birth (although always allow for errors). Refresh yourself with all available genealogical records. Read 'How To' books again, search the Internet for guides to record sources, and ask friends and fellow genealogists for advice. Even if you are certain you know everything there is to know there may be something you have missed.

Are you sure you have it right?

You may be looking for a certain date of birth, marriage or death - convinced that the date is correct. You may have got the date from another source you thought reliable, or have been told the date by somebody who should know - even perhaps by the individual themselves. Be very FLEXIBLE with dates. Always search for several years either side of a supposed date. Ages and dates are not always reported accurately. For example on death certificates we are dealing with a secondary source of information - the person reporting the death may not have known the exact age of the deceased person, and reported what they thought to be true. An individual may have gone through life elaborating slightly on his/her age (one of my ancestors routinely knocked 10 years off her age!). The further back we go in records also the more open to error it can be. In previous generations it was not as important as it is to us now for people to know their exact date of birth/age. In a time when there were no drivers licences, credit cards, social security, and so on, it wasn't important for a person to know his/her exact age. Go back and check that you have allowed some flexibility in your research - perhaps you haven't searched far enough back, or too far back.

Strike out the available resources one by one

When searching for an event it is obviously common to check a source/record, then if it reveals nothing, to move on to another record source. Make sure records are there for an event as you work through this system. For instance, a person born in 1835 in England would not have an official certificate of birth - as general registration did not begin until 1837 in England & Wales. An ancestor also wouldn't appear in parish registers in 1500, as parish records did not begin England & Wales until the mid-1500s. Check locally regarding records and sources that you seek. Don't forget also that some records that should be available aren't - due to fire, theft, loss or the ravages of time. Check to see what records are available - ideally do this at the start of research - make a list of all sources you should be checking for the event you seek, and work through this list one by one. You may be wasting time searching for a source that just isn't there.

Don't Overlook the Obvious!!

Not every child born lived to adulthood - a large number of our ancestors died in infancy, and not every person married. Therefore, if you are searching for the marriage of an ancestor which should be recorded and you have exhausted every source - are you sure that they didn't die young and therefore couldn't have married? Many hours of genealogical research have been wasted by those barking up the wrong tree - excuse the pun. Always 'kill off' your ancestors who died young by checking death records - otherwise you will waste time and money searching for non-existent marriages and lines. The same also goes for other lines of research. If you cannot find great grandpa's death certificate in California - could it be that two years before he died he moved to live with his son in Florida? It seems logical to see it here in print - but these are very commonly made mistakes.

Let others look over your research

As with anything that we are so caught up with, and which is so personal to us, it can be hard to see our research with a fresh approach and in a different light. Whenever you have the opportunity show your research to another person - even a person not skilled in genealogy. That person may see something in your research that you have missed or overlooked - it may stand out to them but not to you.

Are there others researching this also?

Most of us will have a large network of people we have met personally or by mail/Internet, whom we have come across whilst researching our ancestors. These people may be distant cousins or other family members, also researching the same line. Tap into this resource - contact others researching your line. Find out if they have already done this particular piece of research, and if they have results or have encountered obstacles with this. It may provide valuable clues and pointers. For instance your distant cousin Eric may have already tried to find your great grandfather's birth and knows he definitely was not born in Hampshire as he has checked all those records - therefore you can systematically rule out that from your research. Although always be prepared for the errors of others. If you go by this route, ask them what sources they checked to try to be sure that they have done a thorough job in their research.

Brick walls can be broken through - Good luck!


Belaugh Research Services is a genealogy research company with many years of experience and satisfied clients. With memberships in the Society of Genealogists, London, Norfolk Family History Society and others, they offer a full range of genealogy services for England and Wales, the British Isles and USA. For more details about the services they offer, visit their web site.



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