Hit a brick wall in your search for immigrant and overseas ancestors? Don’t throw in the proverbial towel—look to these 13 ancestral adages for valuable genealogical advice.
Whenever I was trying to decide what to pack for a trip, Mom
always told me, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it
and not have it.” Because of this bit of common sense, I now fork over
checked-baggage fees whenever I fly. No doubt the adage, which
expresses a truth based on practical experience, was handed down from
her mother and her mother’s mother and her mother.
ancestors shared these short bits of wisdom and guidance with younger
generations. We’ve come to know them as proverbs. Some cross into many
cultures, usually with slight variations, but each one carries a
there’s no better time for a time-tested truth than when you’re flat up
against that proverbial brick wall in tracing immigrant ancestors and
kin in the old country. As the Swedes would say, you can’t prevent the
birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent them
from nesting in your hair. Translated into genealogy lingo, that means:
You can’t avoid hitting a brick wall in your search, but you can find
ways to surmount it.
ancestors’ sage words, viewed through a genealogical lens, can help you
climb over those brick walls. So let’s put that advice to use: Here are
the research truths behind 13 ancestral proverbs.
1. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
English warning applies when a relative or Web site proffers a complete
genealogy back to Creation (or some other improbably distant date). Be
aware of possible errors—especially if that genealogy purports to have
scaled a brick wall but cites no source. Although you’d hope other
genealogists would be meticulous about properly linking one generation
to the next, alas, many are not. Some are merely eager to gather as
many names as possible or to show a prestigious lineage. So beware of
genealogists bearing faulty genealogies, and double-check the facts
using original records.
2. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.
your ancestors came from China, where this proverb is popular, or
another country, sooner or later your research will leap from America
to your ancestral homeland. But as the Irish would say, it’s no use
going to the goat’s house to look for wool.
you won’t be able to begin research in a foreign country without
knowing precisely where your ancestor came from—as in a town, city or
county name. If you still need that bit of information, scour records
your immigrant ancestor made in America for clues that’ll point to his
or her origins. In particular, look for naturalization records, death
certificates and obituaries.
3. Not the cry, but the flight of the
wild duck leads the flock to fly and follow.
searching your ancestors’ records hasn’t revealed their hometown in the
old country, heed this Chinese proverb. Many immigrants traveled to
America in a pattern called chain migration: A few people would
immigrate, then others in their family or town would follow.
you’re stuck, research relatives and neighbors to see where they came
from. Even though your ancestor might not have left the information you
need in his own documents, a relative or close associate might have
been so kind. When I began researching my Italian “chain,” I knew of
three relatives who came to America. Following the chain, I discovered
four more relatives:
(Veneto) Vallarelli was listed on a March 1916 passenger list as going
to join her son-in-law Salvatore Ebetino in Rye, NY. Salvatore Ebetino
was on an April 1906 passenger list, joining his brother-in-law Albino
DeBartolo of Harrison, NY.
DeBartolo was on a September 1905 passenger list, joining his cousin
Giuseppe Lambarella of Harrison, NY.
Lamporelli was on a March 1905 passenger list, joining his cousin
Francesco Lamparelli in New York City.
Lamparello was on a December 1904 passenger list, joining his daughter
Giacchina Lamparello in New York City.
easier when you’re dealing with immigrants who came in the early 20th
century, because passenger arrival lists of this period record who the
immigrant was joining in America.
4. A tiger dies and leaves his skin; a
man dies and leaves his name.
knew names are important. Although in genealogical research the
spelling of a name can vary widely (as in the Lamporelli example
above), it’s critical to know your immigrant ancestor’s name in the old
country—not necessarily the one he used in America—if you hope to find
him in the records there. But the Irish knew that even if you put silk
on a goat, it’s still a goat. Sometimes ancestors shortened their
names, such as Adamczyk to Adams; in other cases, they adopted loose
translations, as in Giuseppe Verdi to Joe Green. Check with family
members to see if they’re aware of any name changes. Most likely,
you’ll find the ancestor’s original name on passenger lists and
5. Ask about your neighbors, then buy the house.
you lose your immigrant ancestor from one census to the next? Doing as
this Jewish proverb suggests could help. One trait is common to almost
all immigrants, no matter when they arrived or what their ethnic
background: Upon arrival, free people often settled with friends and
relatives from the homeland.
and neighbors tended to migrate on to other places together, too, so
track those folks if you “lose” your ancestor. In Ireland, if one sheep
puts his head through the gap, the rest will follow. Watch for clusters
of the same neighbors or relatives in census records and property
deeds. Track your ancestor’s brothers, sisters and in-laws. Where they
goeth, your ancestor probably went, too.
6. Look for the good, not the evil, in
the conduct of family members.
probably good advice for getting along with living relatives, but
flying in the face of this Jewish proverb can be productive when you’re
tracking dead people. The ones who got into trouble with the law or
with their neighbors usually left more records. In researching a family
member’s “evil conduct,” you might find your brick wall ancestor was a
victim or testified on behalf of the wayward one.
the ancestor didn’t do anything wrong, but she died in an unusual or
mysterious way that triggered a coroner’s inquest: Mary Hogan, born in
Ireland, died in New York City from apoplexy in 1847. Her sister,
Catherine Hogan, told the coroner they had arrived in the United States
about six weeks earlier on the Alexander. This might be the only place
the immigration details survived. Court records, newspapers and
coroners’ inquests are prime resources for tracking the black sheep in
7. Despair doubles our strength.
might need to put this English proverb into practice when trying to
find arrival dates and ports. Determination is sometimes the only way
to find answers. Narrow the date of arrival by searching every possible
record the immigrant created within the time frame you think he came to
America. City directories can help because they were usually published
annually, but remember that many immigrants don’t show up in them for
several years after arriving.
censuses provide the year of arrival, and in some cases, this may be
the best you can get. You might not find a passenger list even when you
have an exact date and port. Bavarian immigrant Julius Ney’s
naturalization record pegged his arrival on July 23, 1854, through the
port of New York, but I still don’t have his immigration record. I’m
determined to keep watching for newly available resources and indexes,
though, and I continue the search for others with early connections to
8. You may go where you want, but you cannot escape yourself.
Norwegian proverb reminds us that our ancestors didn’t necessarily
leave the old ways behind when they moved to America. Or as the Irish
version goes, you can take a man out of the bog, but you can’t take the
bog out of the man. Historians have found that the first generation of
immigrants typically tried to maintain native customs. Remembering
these social customs could help you solve genealogical riddles.
1900 census, 10-year-old Lillian Denny lived with her uncle and aunt
John S. and Dollie Stephens in Hopkins County, Texas. But is John the
brother of Lillian’s mother? (The two different surnames tell us
Lillian’s father wasn’t John’s brother.) Or is Dollie a sister to one
of Lillian’s parents?
that Lillian was in the care of her mother’s sister—more in accord with
social custom—I found a marriage record for John Stephens and Dorothy
B. Minter. Now I had a potential maiden name for Lillian’s mother.
Another search of Hopkins County marriages revealed a J.H. Denny
marrying Mattie E. Minter, who turned out to be Lillian’s
9. Prepare your proof before you argue.
the sources of your information will help you stay on the right
research track and keep you from retracing your steps. But more
important, keeping track of documentation and making a chronology for a
difficult ancestor can help you evaluate your findings and ensure that
you aren’t, say, tracing two same-name people in the same community.
And if your genealogy disagrees with Great-aunt Alice’s, just as this
Jewish proverb advises, you’ll have the evidence you need before you
10. Often a cow does not take after its breed.
of our immigrant ancestors took great care to assimilate into their new
society, doing everything possible to be “American” and even
disassociating themselves from their national origins. Sometimes people
tried to disguise ethnic origins that suffered from prejudice: Decades
ago, for example, people were often reluctant to admit having American
an immigrant found that no one in his new country could pronounce his
name, so he changed it. The name “Toliver,” common in Virginia, is one
example: The Colonial-era immigrant’s Italian surname was actually
Taliaferro. But it was too difficult for Virginians to pronounce, as
the story goes, and it evolved into the English-sounding Toliver. So
pay attention to this Irish proverb and be on the lookout for clues
that might point you in an unexpected direction.
11. There are many ways of killing a pig
other than by choking it with butter.
the Irish are saying here is to get creative. One approach to a brick
wall problem might not work, yet another one will. That’s why
networking with other genealogists is critical. Each person has
different research experience because his family history is different
from yours. Learning from the experts can help you expand your
repertoire of research strategies, too. Two must-read books for solving
brick-wall problems are Marsha Hoffman Rising’s The Family Tree Problem
(Family Tree Books) and Emily Anne Croom’s The
Sleuth Book for Genealogists (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
12. Courtesy that is all on one side cannot last long.
you’ve done substantial research, consider posting your findings online
or in print to help others. Giving back to the genealogy community is
an important aspect of sharing, as the French remind us with this
proverb. Plus, when you make your research available, it might help you
discover others who are working on the same branch of the family.
There’s no better way to bust through a brick wall than making your
research available and reaching as many people as possible.
the Spanish also said that one falsehood will lead to another. Before
you publish your genealogy findings on a Web site or in a book,
proofread your work. Better yet, have another genealogist proofread it
for you, double-checking that dates make sense, generational
connections are sound and spellings are correct. As many have learned
the hard way, an error in a genealogy posted online or in print may be
impossible to correct, and it will be repeated in others’ genealogy
13. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.
English folks who came up with this gem would tell you that sometimes
serendipity, gut instinct and simple logic are your biggest helpers in
breaking through brick walls. Write out your genealogical dilemma as if
you were writing that person’s biography. Are there gaps in the
information? Does everything make sense? Irish immigrant Daniel
“Dinnavin” (Donovan) signed his name to receive land grants in
Allamakee County, Iowa, in the early 1850s. In the late 1840s, Daniel
“Dunivan” received a land grant in bordering Clayton County, from which
Allamakee County was formed. Same man? Perhaps not, because this second
Daniel signed with a mark. Don’t ignore those little nuts.
truth is genealogical breakthroughs rarely happen in a flash of
brilliance. Instead, the dogged, repeated application of these
time-tested proverbs is what will bring you answers. And the results
will be worth it: As the Spanish say, patience begins with tears and
ends with a smile.
that you’ve had some practice, see if you can match each proverb with
its genealogy translation. The answers are below.
A cat with gloves never catches mice (Greek).
Poor men take to the sea, the rich to the mountains (Irish).
Don’t cry “hurrah!” till you are over the ditch (German).
The only truly dead are
those who have been forgotten (Jewish).
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (various).
Comparison is not necessarily proof (French).
7. A little thing can ruin
the whole thing (Norwegian).
Take care that you’re
tracing the right ancestor, not someone with the same name.
Make sure newly
discovered facts and dates fit with what you already know from other
Look for the same information in a variety of
records, rather than relying on just one. The more sources you
can find for Great-grandpa’s birth year, the sounder your conclusion that it was 1881.
Don’t limit yourself by
assuming a record won’t tell you anything new. You never know what’s on
a record until you look.
A significant error in the genealogy you post
online—like inadvertently skipping a generation—may call all your
findings into question. Have another genealogist review your
Your immigrant ancestor likely wasn’t the
firstborn son. Firstborns typically inherited the land and stayed in
the old country (so you might still have relatives there).
g. Don’t neglect female
lines or siblings who never married. They may hold the key to unlocking
information on other relatives.
Answers: 1. d, 2.
f, 3. b, 4. g, 5. c, 6. a, 7. e
From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine