Your family history research is humming along just fine. Then a brick wall stops you cold: You can’t find the record you need. Your great-grandmother’s maiden name eludes you. You don’t know your immigrant ancestor’s birthplace.
Our newest book has Family Tree Magazine experts’ best answers to your toughest genealogy questions. 101 Brick Wall Busters: Solutions to Overcome Your Genealogical Challenges is now available for pre-order.
Solutions for beginning and veteran genealogists cover formulating research strategies; finding occupational, census, military and other records; pinpointing places; organizing your research; doing online genealogy; working around “burned” records and other losses; figuring out kinship; researching your ethnic heritage; and more.
You also can use the book’s exclusive Records Checklist and Brick Wall Worksheet to help you come up with your plan of attack.
In this excerpt from the introduction to 101 Brick Wall Busters, we share nine ways to confront a dead end in your research:
1. Assess the problem. Review your records one by one to re-evaluate what you know and note the information you’re missing. Identify specifically what you want to learn—a birthplace? A maiden name?
2. Do the first thing first. Don’t try to skip steps by, for example, jumping back to your ancestral homeland before you’ve checked every available US record. Have you searched for your ancestor in every census during his life? Have you looked for his birth, marriage and death dates?
3. Create a timeline. Note your ancestor’s life dates, marriages, children’s births, migrations, jobs and so forth. Add wars, epidemics, mass migrations and other major events that occurred during his life. Look at the timeline with an eye for historical records those events might’ve generated (Civil War service papers? A WWI draft registration card?).
4. Identify potential sources. Make a list of sources in which the information you need might appear. For example, if your ancestor was born before the onset of official vital-record keeping, you might find birth information in church records, newspaper announcements, censuses, naturalization papers, and more. Try running a place search of the Family History Library catalog for your ancestor’s county to get a list of microfilmed records associated with that place—some might mention your ancestor.
5. Use search tricks. If you can’t find your ancestor in an online database, seek out search help. Broaden your search to include alternate spellings of the name (try switching the first and last name, too) and a wider range of dates and places. Use wildcards. Browse the records by place.
6. Research sideways. Research your ancestor’s neighbors, friends, in-laws and the people who served as witnesses on his records. The records of these people might mention your family.
7. Toss out your assumptions. Sometimes the unlikeliest scenario is the right one. Begin exploring theories other than what you thought you knew: Perhaps Great-great-grandpa immigrated through a port other than Ellis island. Maybe Great-grandma did get divorced, marry a second (or third) time and have children at a relatively old age.
8. Ask for help. Sometimes, a second set of eyes with a fresh perspective is just the thing. Ask one of your genealogy friends to review the problem and develop some theories or make suggestions.
9. Brush up. A genealogy how-to book will help you understand alternate sources and strategies for overcoming common challenges. Learn about your ancestor’s life, too. Go back to that chronology and find books related to his experiences: Wedding of the Waters, the Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter L. Bernstein, for an ancestor who worked on the Erie Canal, or for your Upstate New York LaRosa line, Family and Community, Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880-1930 by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. You’ll find more potential sources and formulate additional theories about what your ancestor was up to.