Breaking Down Brick Walls When You’re Stuck Behind Walls

Image of brick wall emerging from a hillside

Another week has gone by, and you’re still stuck at home. If you’ve been working on your family history, it’s possible you might be getting stuck in a different way, too. Every genealogist will eventually encounter a relative who poses a problem of some sort or another: a great-grandparent whose origins are opaque, a cousin who disappears into thin air, a person named John Smith who seems indistinguishable from a thousand other men by that name. These brick walls can be extremely challenging to overcome, sometimes requiring years of research or special visits to make inroads. What can you do to break down a brick wall when you’re not able to visit archives or head off to the county clerk?

As a genealogist and an archivist, I’m happy to share a few tips that I’ve picked up in my personal efforts to knock down brick walls and in assisting patrons with doing the same. These are all tactics that you can use from your own home–no visits required!

1. Take the last name out of the equation. As someone with a Finnish surname, let me assure you: people can come up with an infinite number of ways to misspell a name. This problem isn’t unique to last names, but it appears more commonly there, in my experience. If you’re not finding someone by searching his or her full name, try removing it. Use other details, like dates or the names of immediate family, to help narrow down your quest instead. For example, I knew from walking through Lakeview Cemetery that a relative named Francis (Frank) Stanfel had died in 1925, most likely in Houghton County. I wanted to find his death certificate, but I had no luck when I searched for either Francis or Frank Stanfel. Given this dismal track record, I decided to try a different approach. I searched just for men named Francis who died in Houghton County in 1925, and that led me to the right death certificate–filed under Francis Stanfil.
2. Try variations on a given name. Francis Stanfel from tip #1 is a good example of someone who could be located under either his full first name or his nickname of Frank. One of his grandchildren, Alben Kovachich, was challenging to research under Alben–but I found him under Benny. If you have a relative who had a two-part name, like Mary Catherine, try looking for her under Mary, Catherine, Kate, Katie, etc. It may be that one moniker was used at a particular time in her life or on certain documents, while another appeared on materials prepared at a different period.
3. Searched there already? Give it another shot. I spent many years trying to find a birth or baptism record for a certain ancestor, Jane Broad. This information was available for siblings both older and younger than Jane, and I could find no obvious reason for her absence. I continued to search the same database on an intermittent basis, and one day Jane appeared. Volunteers added data from various sources to the website periodically, and one of the new sources contained Jane’s record. Persistence paid off.
4. On the other hand, try a new source. If you’ve been checking Ancestry fruitlessly, maybe it’s time to give FamilySearch a try. If you’ve been relying on censuses to piece together family relationships, see if you can find digitized probate files instead. Maybe you haven’t considered the value of religious records available on Ancestry and other sites. City directories on Google Books can be powerful tools. A change of scenery in sources, so to speak, can conquer a number of challenges.
5. Expand your geographical horizons. Maybe you know that the person you’re seeking came from a certain town, but you haven’t been able to find him in local records. Try searching nearby settlements, too, to capture relocations of people and adjustments in geographic boundaries. I couldn’t locate a certain family in Kaustinen, Finland, before a given date in parish records; they just seemed to vanish as I went back in time. When I expanded my search to Lestijarvi and Toholampi, parishes not far away, their tree filled in with incredible speed.
6. Consider the value of searching for friends, associates, and neighbors. Renowned genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills popularized the term “FAN Club” to describe a technique of researching ancestors by looking into those connected with them: friends, associates, and neighbors. Information about these persons can inform your knowledge of your ancestors. For example, a man immigrating through Ellis Island listed one of my relatives as the person he planned to join in America. Although I haven’t yet been able to piece together just how the two were connected, obtaining the name of the new arrival’s home village has helped me to target my search in the old country more effectively. You can also use names of FAN Club members to assess whether a certain document pertains to your relatives or others by the same name. Want to know whether the Mary Collins who married Michael Sullivan in 1857 was really your third cousin? If parents’ names aren’t listed, see who witnessed the marriage. You might find the same names listed in sources that you’ve already tied to your relatives, such as census documents.

Hopefully, these tips will help you make inroads as you continue your research! If you have any advice of your own to add–any insight that has let you overcome challenges–please feel free to leave a comment on this post or on our social media. We would love to learn from you, as well!

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