Every genealogist will eventually encounter a particularly troublesome problem in their research. In genealogical circles, this is called the brick wall. It is when you reach a point in your research where you are out of available or known records to search, you’ve made all of the reasonable assumptions about your problem that you can with the information you have available, and you still can’t come up with even a theoretical solution that would pass the genealogical proof standard test. Brick walls are the nemeses of genealogists. However, they can be as challenging and exciting as they are frustrating because one thing we genealogists love is solving a good mystery. Most genealogists can’t stand to just sit there staring at the brick wall. They’re determined to bring it down one way or the other, even if it takes decades (and sometimes it does!).
If you are facing a genealogy brick wall that seems unscalable, here are some tips to get you around, over, or through it more quickly than you imagined possible.
1. Try DNA
DNA testing is becoming the go-to solution for solving many of genealogy’s brick walls these days. It has really only been available and affordable to the general public for the past few years, but it is proving to be very useful in solving long-standing genealogical mysteries. You can use it, too. It might solve a mystery outright. More often, though, it will give you the clues and family connections you need to do further research that will lead you to your solution.
You can get your DNA tested at a number of popular and trusted companies, such as Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe.com. Once your DNA is tested, you will be matched with other people in the database of those companies who share all or some of your DNA profile. You will be given an estimated relationship with those people, as well.
While Y-DNA (which only traces the father’s side) and mtDNA (which only traces the mother’s side) were popular in the past, now most companies use autosomal DNA, which looks at relatives on both sides of your family. Once you find a match that looks like the person could have a connection to the family where your brick wall is, contact them through the DNA site and see if they will exchange information. If they will, you can work together to find out if the family connection is where you think it is, and discover what they know about the brick wall branch of your family.
You will often be surprised at how much other people know about lines that are brick walls to you. The more people you can find who share your brick wall family line, the more opportunities you have to piece together the family tree and solve the mystery.
2. Take a Road Trip
Not every record is online. Real genealogy still requires some in the field work. You can get a good start online, but if you run out of records to search there, don’t think you no longer have a paper trail to follow. There is a wealth of information just waiting to be discovered in courthouses, town halls, city and state archives, and historical societies all across the country.
If you know where your brick wall ancestors lived, take a trip there in person. If they moved from one place to another, go to every place you know they lived. Explore the local record sources and repositories. You will be surprised at what you may uncover. Many genealogical mysteries have been solved by a trip in person to an ancestor’s hometown and the discovery in a dusty archive of a document no one has seen or touched in a couple of centuries (or even more!).
3. Look Through Old Newspapers
Old newspapers are a treasure trove of genealogical information. You can find them in many places online, like GenealogyBank.com, Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, and more. They are also often available on microfilm at local libraries in the places where your ancestors lived (these will be local papers, and more likely to have mentions of your mysterious ancestors).
If you’re searching using an online database, search by your ancestor’s name and place of residence. If you know the approximate range of dates of their life, search within those parameters, too. You will often find little tidbits of information on them that will give you just the clues you need to either solve the mystery or continue your research through other, newly discovered potential record sources. If you’re searching in person on microfilm, you’ll need to know the town and date range you need to search, and then scan hundreds of pages carefully for your ancestor’s name. It can be time-consuming, but the rewards are worth it.
Genealogy brick walls are not impenetrable. You can get through most of them with just a little extra work and a lot of determination. Use these suggestions to get you going on that mystery line again, and you are much more likely to find the answers you seek than you imagine.
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- What’s the Deal With DNA? Using DNA to Trace Your Family History