Oh, the dreaded brick wall ancestor, the bane of every genealogist’s life! We all have them, those ancestors who refuse to cooperate and instead prefer to lurk just out of reach of our inquisitive minds. Luckily for us (not so much for the lurking ancestors), there are plenty of tricks to help researchers break down those brick walls. Here are four useful techniques:
1. Go back to the originals.
Published records transcriptions make our jobs as researchers so much easier. Good transcriptions can help us easily locate needed information and apply it to our research. There’s just one problem: these transcriptions don’t always include all of the information contained in the original record. Remember Ethel Lee (Penland) Ritchie? I used a published transcription of marriage records to locate that information for her and neglected (through, I admit it, sheer absent-mindedness) to follow through by procuring a copy of the original marriage license. That license contained exactly the information I needed to make a breakthrough because it supplied her parents’ names. Fortunately, I caught the weakness in my own research almost right away, thus saving myself hours of painstaking labor researching in another direction.
Published family histories warrant the same care. Just because someone else has completed research on your ancestor doesn’t mean you should neglect to obtain documentation. Those records contain a lot of clues to your ancestors’ lives and will be well worth having in your files. Plus, you’ll never know if that family history is correct until you take the time to check the researcher’s work. My Jackson Co., GA, Morgan family is a case in point. A reputable and widely known author incorrectly placed the wrong William Morgan as the son of William and Priscilla [–?–] Morgan. How do I know that? Because I, and several other researchers, went back to the original records and checked the author’s work. Go back to the originals! You’ll never be sorry you did so.
2. Add different records sets to your repertoire.
We all fall into a habit of relying on certain records sets. For 19th and 20th century researchers, federal censuses and official vital records fit that bill perfectly, but don’t always answer the questions we have about our ancestors. For this, we must turn to other records sets, like estate records, deeds, court records, and newspapers. In my own research, I’ve had incredibly good fortune by practicing this maxim. For example, I’ve found:
- An obituary confirming that Hattie (James) Teague was the mother of Roy Teague’s children and tying together much of the information I’d gathered in previous research.
- A Poor School List from 1842 containing the names of two of Amos and Neoma [–?–] Curtis’ children, children who were not named in any other record I’d found, including estate records, federal censuses, and land records.
- A deed naming all of Samuel Hopper’s heirs.
And the list goes on. Expanding our knowledge and use of records sets outside our comfort zone can often yield large rewards in our research.
3. Expand the search to neighboring localities.
Our ancestors wandered around more than we might imagine, a fact brought home to me as I transcribed Rabun County’s late 19th century newspapers. Poor interior roads and the lack of a railroad did not stop Rabun Countians from taking their products to market in Athens, Augusta, and even Richmond, VA. It did not stop them from taking jobs in neighboring counties or from visiting relatives and friends who had moved across state lines into North and South Carolina. Travel between here and California might have been slow, but it didn’t stop anyone from going there if they wanted.
For those who lived on or near political borders (e.g. the border between two states), it was sometimes easier to do business in an adjacent area. Imagine living in Pine Mountain in 1893. Where would you conduct business: in Highlands, NC; Mountain Rest, SC; or Clayton, GA? The answer might have been all three, in spite of the fact that Pine Mountain had general stores of its own and, eventually, a post office. Legal affairs might also have been settled in either of those areas, depending on what needed doing. For instance, people often owned land on both sides of a state line. Amos Curtis did, and he’s mentioned in both Rabun Co., GA, and Macon Co., NC, land and court records. Further, he had friends and family on both sides of that imaginary line. Communities have seldom been dictated by political boundaries. They were fluid and changing, something we should remember as we research our ancestry.
4. Look at your research from a different perspective.
Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, the records just don’t contain the information we want them to. For instance, research into the life of Amy (Nichols) Ledford of Macon Co., NC, has yielded not one single record directly connecting her to her parents. But by following a trail of deeds, estate, and other records, I can establish Amy’s connection to her siblings and, through them, to her parents. I would never have found this trail, however, if I hadn’t been willing to look at the records differently. Instead of treating each record as a dead end, particularly the two records that best demonstrate Amy’s relationship to two brothers, I expanded my research, followed where those records led, and eventually found the evidence I needed to reassemble this family group.
Focusing research on possible siblings and parents, as with Amy, is one way researchers can obtain a different perspective, but it’s certainly not the only way. In fact, there are a ton of ways researchers can do so, including:
- Creating a timeline of an ancestor’s life, which shows gaps in research and possible inconsistencies in the data gathered.
- Exhausting the “usual” records, and then exploring the unusual ones.
- Studying the history of the area(s) where our ancestors lived.
- Expanding research to not just known or suspected family members, but to neighbors and associates as well.
If all else fails, set the research aside and work on another project for a while. This mental rest will most certainly allow all the records gathered to be seen in a new light.
Sometimes, our research hits an inexplicable dead end, but there are ways around this, including the four tips mentioned above. Perhaps the most important tool we can use, one critical to any research solution, is a creative and open mindset, without which our research will surely stagnate.