Even the most experienced of genealogists find themselves looking at brick walls every once in a while. It is frustrating. You can easily spend weeks, months, or years trying to get over, around, or through those walls. When you come across a wall in your genealogy research, even the tiniest bit of information you can find on your brick wall ancestor, no matter how insignificant, seems like a piece of gold. That is because most of what you are finding on him or her is nothing.
It may be possible that the information you are searching for truly does not exist, or at least it doesn’t exist anymore (lost to a courthouse fire, dumped in a landfill, etc.). If this is true, you will have to take alternate routes to finding what you need. It is also possible that the information IS there, but you haven’t discovered it yet. This is where taking your genealogical research skills to the next level can be invaluable.
Here are six tips to help you become a better researcher, even if you are already at expert level. Even the best researchers can always improve their skills. Here’s what to do to give you a better chance of getting past those brick walls and striking genealogical gold.
1) Don’t Search Multiple Databases at Once
It is quite tempting to do a search of all the databases on a genealogy website, like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org, at once, because you normally get so many search results returned. However, the drawback to this is that you can get SO many results, that you miss that one crucial piece of information you need while sifting through them.
It takes longer, but it is better and more effective to seek out the individual databases you want to use, then search them one at a time. This way, you only get results from that database on any given search, which gives you more precise and easy to sift results.
2) Only Look for One Piece of Information on an Ancestor at a Time
You might also be tempted to just toss your ancestor’s name into a website and see what pieces of information come up about him or her. While it is true you may get some surprising and unexpected results this way, but it can also keep you going in circles in your research. The better thing to do is to decide on one thing you need to find out about your ancestor, something that is important to getting past the brick wall and moving to the next generation beyond him or her.
Write down everything you already have on this ancestor to help you know what you need to find next. Then, look for only that until you either find it or discover it isn’t there. If the information doesn’t exist, then move on to the next piece of information on your list that you need about that ancestor. This approach keeps your research focused.
3) Use Wildcards in Your Searches
This is a particularly useful technique when looking for an ancestor by name, especially if the name was unusual, easily misspelled, or had more than one possible spelling. Remember, in times past, people often spelled things phonetically, and this including spelling things according to what they sounded like in someone’s regional accent. If you can’t find the name with the spelling you know, throw in a wildcard (usually the “#” symbol on most sites). You can put it anywhere in the name that might be problematic with spelling. You will get search results with all possible letter combinations in the wildcard part of your search request, and this can help you find your ancestor.
4) Try a Boolean Search
This is another way of searching for hard to find names that are very effective. Boolean searches increase the relevancy of your results to your search request by using other words to refine your search. “And,” “or,” and “not” are some of the most common refining words used in Boolean searches.
If the database you are using has the Boolean feature, use it and see what you can find with it. You will be surprised at what is there. There will be instructions on how to use Boolean on most sites. However, an example of a Boolean search would be something like:
“Martha Welsh OR Walsh born 1884 NOT Welch”
5) Go Beyond the Big Genealogy Websites
Contrary to popular belief, genealogy research is not all about Ancestry, FamilySearch, GenWeb, and GenealogyBank. There are hundreds of smaller genealogy websites online, and some have information that can only be found there. Do a Google search for lesser known genealogy databases, or do a Google search for your ancestor and see if it comes up in any databases you haven’t heard of before. Then, go there to look for your ancestor
6) Don’t Limit Yourself to the Internet
Remember, just because there are millions (maybe even getting closer to billions) of genealogy records online, there are plenty that is still only available in person. You may have to go to the historical society, local archives, local courthouse, or town library where your ancestor lived to find the information you require to get past the brick wall. Don’t forget the hundreds of local LDS Family Research Centers around the world, which have records not listed on their website or anywhere else… and, if they don’t have what you need on-site, they can order it on microfilm for you from their main branch in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Most of these places have volunteers on site who are more than happy to help you find what you need, and are more familiar with their office’s search methods and records than you. Be sure to ask them for assistance if you need it.
State archives may have what local ones do not. I once found a treasure trove of original documents from the late 1600s and early 1700s pertaining to a branch of my family at a state archives building, and I have never seen those records online or in print anywhere else, which means I am probably the only descendant who has bothered to look for them in person in centuries. I wouldn’t have found this very personal, detailed information on my ancestors if I hadn’t gone in person, and because I did, I know much more about their lives, and who they were as people, nearly four centuries ago. Get offline and go looking. You will find some real genealogical treasures.
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!)