Brick Wall Busters: Going to Pieces

Brick Wall Busters: Going to Pieces

Can't find your ancestor's parents? Our expert shows you how to break a big genealogical problem into smaller, solvable slices.

Cousins Debbie Cunningham, Deanna Culpepper and Marti Cagle keep running into obstacles as they try to identify the parents of their ancestor David Tobe Yarbrough. Appropriately, they began by collecting vital (birth, marriage and death) data and records. A family Bible shows David’s birth in Florence, Ala., April 27, 1865; other records give 1866 or 1867 as his birth year. He died March 8, 1938, in Fort Worth, Texas. Debbie requested his death certificate to see his parents’ names, but the informant, David’s daughter, didn’t know their names or birthplaces. Perhaps she’d never met her grandparents. David’s obituary names only his children — no siblings or parents.

As the cousins have learned, genealogy is a giant jigsaw puzzle: You’re always waiting for a clear picture to emerge. But instead of asking “What’s the solution?” they can try “What’s the next question?” That way, larger research questions become smaller, more easily tackled pieces. Here, we’ll start them along the path to assembling their family tree puzzle.

Creating a Chronology

Identifying parents drives much of genealogists’ efforts, but that’s not the first concern to raise. In-depth study of your “focus ancestor” and his siblings, children and even in-laws often provides clues to previous generations. Without siblings’ names, the challenge may be greater, as in David Yarbrough’s case.

The three cousins have found no compiled family tree that includes David. So they’re working with family, county, state and federal records — and usually, these primary sources are more reliable than family trees, anyway. Unfortunately, only the 1920 and 1930 US censuses enumerated David with his children, and he apparently missed earlier censuses. His two brief marriages each ended with the wife’s death, leaving him with preschoolers to raise.

With family traditions and records the cousins gathered, I created a documented chronological profile of David’s life and family to show confirmed facts, oral tradition and ideas for research. This type of timeline lets you see missing information and contradictions to help in planning the next step.

A breakthrough came when one cousin identified David’s young son Brack in the 1910 census, listed as a nephew in the household of William L. Blair. The family believed David’s first wife, Laura, was a Blair, but had found no marriage record. Since our chronology showed the eldest son was born in Hunt County, Texas (near Dallas), we guessed the parents might’ve married there. County records confirmed their 1901 wedding. One cousin did more research in the county and got a copy of an 1895 guardianship record naming Laura with her mother and siblings after her father died.

Looking Into Local Records

The Yarbrough parents and siblings remain a mystery. Family tradition says David came with his family to Texas at age 12, about 1877 to 1879. Since he married in Hunt County, we wondered whether he’d lived there for some years. With access to microfilmed Texas county tax rolls at Houston’s Clayton Library <>, I looked for Hunt County Yarbroughs starting in 1873 and moving forward. David, I learned, paid taxes intermittently from 1888 to 1904. Then, with his second son’s birthplace as a clue, 1 found him paying taxes in Red River County in 1905. By 1908, he was in Fort Worth.

The places where David lived suggest locations for the cousins’ concentrated research, perhaps in microfilmed records on interlibrary loan from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, which has an online list of county holdings <>.

I organized the 1873-to-1905 tax research results for all Yarbroughs into a table. That’l facilitate further study of the other Yarbroughs, as some of them may be related to David. The cousins should follow up with research in land, probate and other county records. They could investigate similar records of surrounding or nearby counties, since David or his family may have lived elsewhere in north Texas before moving to Hunt County.

We may not be able to confirm the family tradition of David’s birth in northwest Alabama’s Lauderdale County, since he was born before birth registration began in that state. But research in marriage records there may identify couples whose wedding dates make them potential candidates for David’s parents — thus, subjects for the cousins’ further research.

Following the Family

David may have been born in Lauderdale County, but that doesn’t mean his parents married there. The cousins could research microfilmed records of neighboring counties, some of which, unfortunately, have suffered courthouse fires and record losses. Since David was in Texas as a young man, and oral tradition says he first arrived as a boy with family, investigating Yarbroughs who stayed in Lauderdale County may eliminate those who probably weren’t his parents but may have been related.

David’s 1920 and 1930 census entries suggest he and both parents were born in Tennessee or Arkansas, but we can’t know whether the census taker’s informant was right. David may have lived in Tennessee and/or Arkansas as a child, before moving to Texas. Since Yarbrough families lived throughout the South, however, and census reports of birthplaces rarely name counties, it’s probably not an efficient use of research time to look for David and his parents in those two states without more clues. (Online census indexes have yielded no strong clues, anyway.)

Many Southern families entered northeast Texas through Arkansas, but without knowing whether David traveled through or ever lived there, research time is better spent first on the known places in David’s life. In this way, David may guide his descendants to the missing pieces of his family puzzle.

Research Plan

  1. Create a timeline for the ancestor to plan your research.
  2. Gather censuses, vital records and obituaries for members of the extended family.
  3. Research in the counties where the ancestor lived, and neigh boring counties as needed.
  4. Investigate “clusters” of relatives and neighbors with whom the ancestor may have associated.


From the January 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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