Think Like A Historian to Solve Genealogy Brick Walls

Use these 8 steps to solve most ancestry research brick walls.

One of my early lessons as a historian and genealogist became very important in helping me break through some of the brick walls I have and pick up the trail of very cold clues. Think like a Historian and not a Genealogist.

Genealogists. We look for clues that might direct us to the birthplace in the country of origin. We start searching through deeds, wills, bible records, etc.

Think Like A Historian. Look at your ancestor’s life from a historian’s point of view and not from the genealogical point of view. You’re trying to understand what your ancestors did and why.

Solving Genealogy Brick Walls
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In the concept of think like a historian, consider the following ten steps to help you with managing brick walls:

Analyze Spreadsheet and Develop Timeline

Once data has been entered into the spreadsheet, you can sort and compare information by county, date, record type, name, etc. Go over every piece of information with a fine-tooth comb. Denote each piece of information as to whether it is:

  1. Truth, what we could prove.
  2. Probable truth, but not sure.
  3. Possible evidence supporting family truths, but we can’t prove it.
  4. Nonsense, based on the information presented.

From the data in your spreadsheet, develop a timeline. Take the information you know and begin a written profile and timeline. Use an existing form or create one of your own to help track your ancestor’s information and what you find. It would help if you also documented where you find the information you record, as the need will always arise to review at least one of your data points to confirm or search deeper for information. I believe you should record any information you learn about your ancestor, no matter how insignificant you consider it. It will help in your search, but it will help you write family histories once you find them. The following are the types of information you should be found:

  • Name of ancestor
  • Name changes — both given and surnames
  • Names of Parents and their birthplaces
  • Names if siblings
  • Name of spouse (s)
  • Names of children
  • Familiar names were given to family members
  • Names of family and friends with whom they associated
  • Birth date/locality
  • Localities lived in
  • Geographical clues
  • Historical clues
  • Documents in your possession
  • Information about culture and religion
  • The period of immigration
  • Family stories and traditions
  • Family heirlooms

You can start putting together pieces of information to begin to complete your puzzle from which you can begin to conclude.

  • What do you see?
  • Any trends?
  •  What don’t you see?
  • What gaps do you see in the information?
  • Write down “all” the questions you still need and want to answer.
  • No question is too small or out of bounds.

Be critical of the conclusions you draw. Is it possible that you have misinterpreted something someone has said or written? Have you made assumptions without sufficient proof? Intuition isn’t always wrong, but it isn’t always right either.

If you are using information gathered from oral interviews/histories, try to confirm the information with actual records and documents. The same is true for printed histories; just because it’s printed doesn’t mean it’s been confirmed. It would help if you never made assumptions about the quality of the research done by others. Anyone can make mistakes, including certified genealogists.

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Identify the Gaps and What You Want to Know

Based on the period in which your ancestor lived, outline some of the documents that might exist for your ancestor and where they might exist to help fill in the gaps and answer your questions. Start with the paper trail you already have for your ancestor. You won’t be looking for a birth certificate if your ancestor’s life predates civil registration. Start with the basics — birth, marriage and death records, church documents, indentures, land records, court records, and immigration materials.

Try to find at least two records, more if possible, of your ancestors to help confirm and collaborate the information provided. Throughout your search, you will be exposed to resources that range from oral discussions to the information you find in print, online, and on other types of media (e.g., CDs, tapes). It is essential always to ask questions such as:

  • What is fact? What is suspicion?
  • Did I search for the entire family?
  • Did I search for a broad period in this record?
  • Did I search for a wide enough geographical area?
  • Did I search every location they lived in covered by this record?
  • Did I search for variant spellings of names in this record?
  • Did I search for and record neighbors, family, and friends found in this record?
  • Did I search for and use indexes?
  • Do you understand this resource/record’s intention, what it offers, how it’s put together and its limitation?

As you gather and review information, continue to add to your current ancestor profile and timeline. Keep a detailed log of where you have been. As you continue the search, you will check off questions answered and add new questions based on your findings. Keeping this list up-to-date is vital to keeping focused and helping to shed light when you need inspiration.

The following are examples of where you can search for specific types of information.

  • Birth Date or Location: Vital Records, Church Records, Newspaper Notices, Family Sources, Military Records, Census, Cemetery Records, Immigration/Emigration Records, Land Records, Will/Probate Records
  • Death Date or Location: Death Certificates, Church Records, Newspaper Notices, Cemetery & Funeral Home Records, Family Sources, Census Mortality Schedules, Military Records, Will/Probate Records, Land Records, Social Security Death Index
  • Marriage: Marriage Certificates, Marriage Banns, Marriage License, Marriage Bonds, Death Certificates, Church Records, Newspaper Notices, Family Sources, Census, Cemetery Records, Pension Records, Land Records, Will/Probate Records
  • Divorce/Marital Status: Court Records, Divorce Records, Newspaper Notices, Vital Records, Military Pension Records, Family Sources
  • Maiden Name: Marriage Record, Church Records, Newspaper Notices, Bible Records, Military Pension Records, Will/Probate Records, Cemetery Records
  • Immigration/Emigration Date: Ships Passenger Lists, Naturalization & Citizenship Records, Newspaper Records, Census (1900 on)
  • Country/Town/Parish of Origin: Ship Passenger Lists, Naturalization Records, Vital Records, Military Records, Census Records (Individual’s birthplace from 1850; birthplace of individual’s father and mother from 1880), Obituaries, Church Records
  • Names of Parents: Census Records, Vital Records, Newspaper Notices (wedding, engagement, obituary), Church Records, Social Security Records, Adoption Records, Family Sources, Cemetery Records, Land Records, Will/Probate Records
  • Name of Spouse: Marriage & Divorce Records, Census Records, Church Records, Family Sources, Military Pension Records, Will/Probate Records, Newspaper Notices, Cemetery Records

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Evaluate the Times and Geography of Your Ancestors

It becomes essential to become familiar with the times of the ancestors you seek. For example:

  • Learning about the geography and political history of the area becomes critical in understanding where records were kept.
  • Knowledge of historical events such as weather disasters, pestilence, and wars can lead you to additional records or provide answers to family questions.
  • Contacting the local historical and genealogical society can help you learn about and research records unique to your family’s area.
  • County, state and even country boundaries have moved many times through the years; this knowledge can be critical in knowing where to look for information.
  • Understanding the transportation of the area of the time can help to define where they could have come from. Migration usually followed the main roads of the times.

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Search the Collateral Lines and Neighbors

When the trails still come up cold, try researching the siblings of your ancestors. Just because you haven’t found the records of your ancestors doesn’t mean the records don’t exist for their siblings. It could very well be that your ancestor was born before mandated records were kept. A marriage record kept in one part of the country may have limited information, while a record from another state contains extensive detail. Looking in the census for siblings may find a parent or other family living with them for which you seek. If the names of their great-grandfather’s parents do not show in his death certificate, they are listed in a sibling’s death record. If you don’t know the names of your ancestor’s siblings, you can often find them in census records, wills, probate records and obituaries. Even if your ancestor had no siblings, you could still trace them through other collateral lines, such as aunts, uncles and in-laws.

Don’t forget to look at the Neighbors. Before today’s modern transportation conveniences, families often lived close together. It was widespread for families to migrate in groups with their cousins and friends and take up land in the same area upon arrival in the new location. It was also common for these neighboring families to intermarry. As I have searched for my ancestors from the 1700s, I see the same families and neighbors for 2 and 3 generations. Their names are on land records, witnesses for weddings, and members of the same congregations. While they are from different families, they most likely came from the same roots.

It is a common practice among genealogists when recording census records to record the family under investigation and six families on either side of them. While they may seem unrelated now, you may find something in the future to indicate otherwise.

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Look at Alternative Spellings

If you are sure a family lived in a specific area, but you can’t find them. Consider looking for alternate surname spellings. In addition to the traditional surname alternatives, consider looking for names that may have been Americanized to help with pronunciation or to set themselves apart from other families or cultures. Some questions to ask include:

  • What is the full name of the ancestor? Was the name changed when they came to America? If yes, identify what the name was before it was changed.
    • Name of ancestor
    • Name changes — both given and surnames
  • What are the names of your immediate family?
    • Names of parents and their birthplaces
    • Names of siblings
    • Name of spouse(s)
    • Names of children
    • Familiar names were given to family members

With the above information, you can look closer in the area to see if you can see the names together with a variation of the spelling or new last name altogether.

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Look to the Land Records

Deeds, mortgages and other land records can also hold many answers to family relationships. A neighboring family may be the parents of your female ancestor with the unknown maiden name. Fathers often gave land as a deed of gift as part of a daughter’s dowry or sold it to their sons for a trivial sum. Family members may also be listed as witnesses on land deeds.

7. Follow the census one generation at a time
Consider taking your generations back one generation at a time. When possible, broaden your search by checking various records before moving back to another generation. Build a checklist for each generation; it could include census, military, military pension, vital records, court records, land records and newspapers. Simply following a family from one census to another can lead you to a family that may be yours. For example, in some communities, Jr. and Sr. were used only to distinguish between two men with the same name even if they were not related. When the older Sr. died, the use of Jr. was discontinued for the younger man. If a younger man with the same name then appeared in the community, related or not, the previous Jr. became Sr., and the new younger man became Jr.

When things are not clear, expand the search by creating a picture of the community. Ask the following questions:

  1. Who were the neighbors?
  2. Were there others with the same surname in the community?
  3. Compare family naming practices. Are there unique middle names that are related to surnames?
  4. Who was named in whose wills?
  5. If the courthouse burned, maybe the newspaper didn’t. Check the records of the county institutions, poor farms, orphanages, jails, prisons and hospitals. Finding and reading local histories involved in problems are always helpful. Not all of these histories are academically correct, but they can provide clues about a community’s problems, churches, and politics.

Make sure that you only go back to recheck a previously searched record for an excellent reason.

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Research the Immigration/Migration Patterns

Consider researching ancestors’ immigration/migration patterns about the group they belong to. By learning about the immigration patterns for a specific ethnic group to which your ancestor belonged in the period they lived, you begin to see trends that correlate to your family, such as the ports they arrived at, the counties and cities from which they came and where they settled, the reasons for decisions that were made, the types of records they left behind and where.

You start by answering the question:
• What was their ethnic background or group to which you think they belonged?
• Were they Puritans, Welch, or Germans?

Now you begin to answer the questions:
• Why did they come?
• When did they come?
• Where did they settle?
• What were their social and work conditions?
• What was their religious background?
• Are there any clues to family naming patterns?

A Few Words about Maps. Maps help trace the migration paths our ancestors took. More detailed maps will show what routes were available at the time, including railroads, waterways, early roads, etc. It is essential to trace the path our ancestors took because there may have been records created. The naturalization process may have been started at the port of entry, and the records may be scattered in stops along the route to the final destination. Ethnic and religious groups often traveled together, and your ancestors’ travels can be traced by tracking others in their group. Also, on the long journey west in the United States, babies were born, people married, and people died. There may have been records of events created along the way.

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Retrace  Your Steps to Solve Brick Walls

You have now reached step 10, and you still haven’t found your ancestors. Start over with step 1. Why?
Remember, this is research. By reviewing your information, you more than likely will find that one piece of information you missed. Suppose it’s been a few years since you did the above steps. In that case, you will find that your experience and knowledge as a genealogist have grown, you will be made better sense of the data, and you may have more information that can be included with the data you have that will tie puzzle pieces together. If puzzle pieces don’t fit together, consider trying another way.
Have faith and patience. You will find the answer, it’s there just waiting for you to find it.

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