Research Tips

What to Do if Your Research Isn’t Getting Any Results

What to Do if Your Research Isn't Getting Any Results

As any experienced genealogist knows, some family lines yield information much more readily than others. You might find record after record on one line leading you all the way back to the first immigrant to America and beyond. Another line may be full of brick walls and cause you to work hard for just a trickle of information. Once in a while, the information seems to stop coming at all on a line. This is naturally quite frustrating to genealogists, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your research on that line. Here’s what to do if your research isn’t getting any results.

1. Look Over Your Research Again

If you’re having difficulties with a line, look over what you’ve already done. Do it with a fine-toothed comb. You may be surprised at the new avenues of research that will appear to you on a second look that you didn’t notice the first time. Sometimes, we’re too close to the research to see where to go with it. We must step back and leave it alone for a while, then come back to it with fresh eyes to really see what we have there. You may not have a brick wall at all, once you look at the research after being away from it for a while.

2. Try Moving Forward in Time Instead of Backward

While it is the generally accepted purpose of genealogy to go backward in time and trace our ancestors to their origins, the way to get there is sometimes by going forward. You likely have a lot of living distant cousins on the line that is giving you all the hassle. Trace that family line from the farthest ancestor you’ve reached to the present. You can do this by looking at census records, city directories, and obituaries (which often mention children and grandchildren, who are also in your line). Don’t just concentrate on your own direct line from your ancestor. Trace the lines of all that person’s children to the present day. The records you read about them along the way may provide you with the clues you didn’t find in your own line’s records. These are the clues you need to take that family back farther into the past. You may also get in touch with some living relatives of that ancestor who may have old family trees, research, family Bibles, and photographs you would never otherwise discover, and these things can open the doors to the past for you, too.

3. Research Your Ancestor’s Neighbors

Another way to get clues about your mystery ancestor is to study their neighbors. People in the past usually lived near people they had some familial connection to, either as distant relatives or in-laws. If there aren’t any relatives living near them, no matter how distantly related, they were almost certainly on intimate terms with their neighbors. People relied on each other in the past in a way they don’t today. You needed your neighbors and they needed you, for a variety of reasons. Because of this, close friendships among neighbors often developed. These friendships may mean that your ancestor is included in a will, a military pension application, a homestead application, or some other historical document involving their neighbor. If you aren’t finding records on your ancestor in other places, research their neighbors and see what interesting things you may find. – Learn More

4. Call or Visit the Local Historical Society

Sometimes, the documents you need to trace your ancestor back farther into the past and learn more about their origins aren’t online. They may not even be listed in any book. Sometimes, they are hidden deep in the archives or files of the historical society where your ancestor lived. People donate all kinds of things to historical societies. The city donates, too. Plus, historical society workers or volunteers collect whatever they can, often salvaging things from buildings that are going to be torn down, or going through the basements and attics of ancient buildings that haven’t been searched in ages. Calling or traveling to the historical society may yield a surprising amount of information on your ancestor and his or her family that you won’t find anywhere else. When it comes to making your research productive again, all of these things are worth the effort for the genealogical prizes they may produce.


Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)

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