Solving Brick Walls in Genealogy

Tips for breaking through genealogical brick walls


I like to begin the discussion about brick walls with a few definitions. I think the term "brick wall" is an unfortunate choice of terms. It gives the impression that there is some force out there preventing the researcher from finding the ancestor. In fact, most commonly, the failure is on the part of the researcher's inability to find sources for information that will continue the research. But this would mean the researcher would need to take ownership of the problem and not blame circumstances.


In defining a brick wall situation it important to realize that an end-of-line is not a brick wall. One example of an end-of-line issue is when a woman has an out-of-wedlock baby and never reveals who fathered the child. Another end-of-line situation is when there is a foundling left on the doorstep of a hospital or church or in a dumpster. Yet another instance is when there is no further hope of finding records of the family line, such as when the line has been extended into the 1500s or 1400s. Absent some verifiable connection to a proven royal family line, there is little hope of finding more information about a local, unremarkable person.


Concerning the availability of records over time; if I were going to graph the number of genealogically useful records available at any given time, beginning with the present and extending into the past, I would see a curved line that would start very high and decrease slowly like a standard parabolic curve. Beginning about 500 years or so in the past, there would be fewer and fewer records kept about ordinary (not royal) people as individuals. So, whether you like the idea or not, genealogy as we know it, has it limits and around 1550 A.D. is the limit.


Now let's go a little bit further in the definition of a brick wall. Failure to find any one type of record is not a brick wall at all. For example, if I am unable to find a birth record, there are two or more possibilities; either no such record exists or I still haven't found it. This brings up another rule, the absence of a record does not prove that event did not occur (I sometime phrase this somewhat differently). What this means is that if you are looking for proof or specific information about a specific event, there is no guarantee that a specific record exists documenting that specific event. I claim that if any one of the following conditions is present, then the likelihood of a brick wall is very slim indeed. The conditions are as follows:

  • The person lived within the past 500 years.
  • The person had living descendants
  • The person lived all or most of his or her life in the United States


But what about one classic brick wall situation, having multiple people with the same name and of approximately the same age in the save general geographic area? Isn't that one of the hardest brick wall issues to solve? Well, yes and no. The proper approach in this situation is to do the in-depth research on each of the individuals until you can separate them out and rule out those who could not be your ancestor.


If you are always thinking in terms of finding a specific individual in a specific place at a specific time, you are likely to be frustrated in your research. The real way of approaching genealogy research is to think in terms of finding records, documents and sources. Most of your effort should be expended in pursuit of documentation and finding the records that exist. Searching the records you find is the natural extension, but searching for names and dates only leads to frustration and the belief in brick walls.


Let me give one short example. Let's suppose I am looking for my ancestor and want to find a marriage record. The ancestor was supposedly married in Apache County, Arizona in 1930. I go to Ancestry.com and begin using its very effective search engine to find a marriage record. I search again and again using a variety of search techniques without results. Why? If I had gone to the Ancestry.com Card Catalog, I would have learned fairly quickly that Ancestry.com does not have any records at all for Apache County, Arizona. This is what I mean, we need to look for the records first and then the people. In this same example, if I look at FamilySearch's Historical Record Collections, I will find a lot of marriage records for Arizona and specifically Apache County. Look for the records then look for the people.


Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.


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