Brick Wall Series | Part 1
Updated: Apr 15
If digital is your primary method of family research, then you KNOW how limited some digital repositories can be.
We run into these limitations at the intersection of Algorithm Road and Brick Wall Street in our genealogical research. These limitations force you to think creatively about how to get the information you need.
Here are a few tips that can help you find a lose brick or two in that wall.
1. Leave it alone and change focus.
Something I learned long ago in college is not to overload your brain and handle frustrations appropriately. Now take a deep breath because what I'm about to say might sound a little crazy: TAKE A BREAK!
Your brain will inevitably fatigue and your memory doesn't retain as much when it's tired, stressed or frustrated. Taking a break - whether it is 15 minutes or several days - can help you recharge and come back with a clear head.
I ran into something like that recently tracing a family beyond the 1850 census. The challenge I faced boiled down to two men with an identical name -- Jr. and Sr. I needed to prove, through primary documents, they were father and son. They both had large farms in the same county, but lived in different towns on consecutive census records. At one point one of them altogether disappeared from the county records.
FACT: Before 1850, censuses only named the head of household and included a count of people (by age group) living in the household. This lack of detail made it challenging to decipher which is the right family for my research.
After a few days of frustrating searches, I decided to set it down and walk away for a bit - clear my head.
During this particular mini research vacation of a few days, I took in a genealogy video about state border changes and where records were kept afterwards, thumbed through the familysearch.org wiki and found a great resource on boundary changes (mapofus.org), and also read up on migration routes from early American/colonial times. Then I ran across probate records and wills on one of the wiki pages.
Lightbulb! Based on the typical patterns of movement and settlement around the time the two men lived and a noting a key detail from my source summary sheet on a close family members' movements, perhaps they hadn't moved at all? Perhaps the boundaries changed? Within the hour, I found a copy of the father's will from a neighboring county mentioning his son by name (and as the executor), the date and location the will was written and proved, and my first document to link the two together. Success!
Bringing all of those resources together fired off an idea to search for information in new ways, which I wouldn't have found if I'd never chosen to take that break.
2. Review what you already have.
When I began this journey I thought it wasn't necessary to list out my sources and keep notes; especially if I already had the details online.
What was the point of doing more work, right?
At some point, I noticed records looked familiar but I couldn't tell where I'd seen them before. They weren't on my ancestry.com tree, either. Talk about duplicating work! That's when I learned about the importance of note-taking and keeping source records. I needed a quick way to write out the information... and preferably all on one page and typed (so that it's neat and tidy).
Scouring the internet yielded resources with convoluted coding and complicated rules you had to follow.
I don't know about you... but I could already see myself giving up on them before downloading them. So instead, I created my own!
Source Summary sheet, Individual sheet, and Family Group sheet are available for free download here.
There are two versions: PDF and Google Sheet. Now I can choose whether I want to print off the sheet and fill it in, or type directly into each field and print it off.
My favorite is using the Google Sheets app and using dictation. I can speak and type much faster than I can write!
BONUS: They make my research binders look neat and tidy. Love it!
3. Get All You Can from the Records You Have
This is probably the most underutilized and discounted tip of all. It takes time to look through it all, but keep your determination!
Around the time I learned about proper note-taking I also learned about triangulation. The theory basically goes like this: use three or more resources to strengthen your research.
Every record has clues. You just need to notice them. What helped me identify the right things was getting it all out on the Family Group sheet and Source Summary sheet. It was so much easier to see everything at once and be able to evaluate it (aka see where the holes are and what other records have what I needed, or at the very least, a lead to what I needed to find).
You may run across something that you didn't realize you had all along, which could lead you to a breakthrough. Use that to focus your research.
4. Aliases and Name Changes
Remember that in the United States, you can assume a name without any consequences as long as you aren't committing crimes under this alias. For more check out my previous article on Alias and Name Changes.