Monday, September 3, 2012

Tips For Breaking Down Brick Walls

Many of the questions I receive have to do with brick walls. I thought I would post some of my favorite brick wall busting strategies. Every researcher has his/her own top ten list so my list certainly isn't exhaustive. A couple of these we have talked about recently so it will be a reminder for you.

1) Always use a Research Calendar so that you stay focused and so you don’t duplicate your efforts which wastes time.

2) Write everything you know about the person down in a list or table and analyze what you already have. See Analyzing the Data for more information. Many times you have the answer to your dilemma right in front of you. If you put it in a slightly different format you will start seeing things you didn't notice before.

3) Set your work aside for a time, maybe a week, a month, or a couple of months. You have plenty of other lines you can explore in the meantime. When you pick up your brick wall again, you will look at it with fresh eyes and you might see something you missed before.

4) Have another researcher look at all of your data and see what they think. They might pick up on something or have a suggestion for you. I like to ask someone who has absolutely no knowledge of this particular family at all so that they can be completely objective.

5) Take the time to really learn about the history of the geographical location of your brick wall. Make a timeline for the county, state and country. Once you put together these timelines, keep them in your Research Binder so that you use them again and again. You can get a lot of great info from the FamilySearch Wiki. Here is a simple State of Mississippi Timeline. Most counties have published history books that are usually fairly small and inexpensive. Understanding what was going on at the time will help you understand what your person might have been doing. Another helpful thing to know is some of the general laws of that location at that time. Something as simple as knowing if a person could get married at age 18 vs. age 21 without consent can help you. Learning the general topography helps too. Knowing where rivers were is very helpful because people tended to stay close to water and travel following water. Knowing where bad terrain (mountains, swamp) was can help show you what routes someone might have taken when moving which may lead you to a certain county over another.

6) Speaking of migration, make sure you have maps of the known migration routes. If your ancestor was last known to have been in Charleston, SC, you can follow known migration routes from that starting point to figure out where your ancestor might have gone. These go in your Research Binder too.

7) Be VERY familiar with county and state boundary changes. Ani-Map is very helpful for this. You can plot out your communities and watch the boundary changes over time. This may lead you to counties you hadn’t considered before. Also remember that when a new county is formed, some of the parent county records might transfer. For example, Lamar County, Mississippi was formed from the 2nd District of Marion County in 1904. All of the 2nd District’s marriage records transferred and are held in the Lamar County courthouse. If you have someone that you think was married in Marion County in the 1800s, you might want to check Lamar County as well even though the marriage took place long before Lamar was formed.

8) Find out exactly what resources are available for your locality. You can check Printed Sources, Redbook, The Handybook for Genealogists, Family History Library's Card Catalog, FamilySearch Wiki, Ancestry’s Card Catalog etc. Record all of this information in your Research Binder. Readily knowing what records are available will make it easier to write up a competent research plan saving you a lot of time.

9) Post queries on locality and surname message boards, locality and surname mailing lists and with the local genealogical society where your mystery person lived. Someone out there might have the little tidbit of info you need to break through your wall. This shotgun approach is often overlooked as a research technique.

10) Spread your net. Sometimes the best way to find out more about a person is to investigate their collateral family members and neighbors. Don’t forget the people that witnessed documents for your person of interest. People tended to travel with other families from place to place so if you can follow a collateral family back in time, you might figure out where your person came from. If you have a metes and bounds land description, the neighbors will be listed. I have a blog post on Metes and Bounds if you would like more info about that (evil! evil! evil!). This type of research technique is called collateral research or cluster genealogy. You can research everyone in a specific geographical area and/or everyone with the same surname in a particular area. Both techniques can produce results. There will be a blog post about cluster genealogy sometime in the near future.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Great post, Michelle. My favorites are 2, 5 & 10 for working on brick walls. Writing has always helped me see the "holes" in my research.

  2. Thanks so much, Lisa. I learned about writing everything down and analyzing what you already know in The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood. He has a section called "Pedigree Analysis" starting on page 53 (3rd edition). He does an excellent job explaining how to analyze the data and come up with some theories which will lead your investigation in the right directions. #5 is one of my favorites because I am a big advocate of writing short bios on everyone in your direct lines (and siblings). Putting them in context with when and where they lived make the stories so much more interesting. It will also lead you to more records if you know what was going on at the time.

  3. Great blog! I, too, am particularly fond of #5 and #10.

    We can't do genealogy in a historical vacuum. It is important to know what outside forces were pressing on a family - a nearby gold rush, an earthquake, a change in national policy regarding military service - and use that knowledge to think about what people might do in that situation.

    And cluster genealogy, while time-consuming, is a lot of fun, too. You get to really know how the whole community (okay a little bitty neighborhood) lived and worked (and sometimes moved) together. Again, great blog and thanks!

  4. It took me awhile to understand how useful learning about the place and the other people in that place actually is. If nothing else, when you write your narrative biography on your ancestor you can really bring his history to life and make it interesting.