Trade Secrets

Trade Secrets

Learn how professional genealogists conquer their toughest research challenges. We'll let you in on 12 tried-and-true tactics you can use to defy your own dead ends.

You were happily researching your ancestors, finding them in one record after another. Then just like that, you hit a dead end. You can’t locate anything on that family anymore—it’s as if your forebears disappeared from the face of the earth. You’re stumped, frustrated and unsure where to turn next.

The good news is you’re not alone. You’ve hit what genealogists have come to know as a brick-wall problem, and sooner or later it happens to everybody.

You may be having difficulty finding out whom an ancestor’s parents were, when and where someone was born or died, what a woman’s maiden name was or where an ancestor came from. Part of the problem might be that the records you need no longer exist—they’ve been lost due to theft, misplacement or disasters such as fires or floods—or they were never created in the first place.

Brick walls happen once you’ve searched all the typical existing records for an ancestor or family: censuses, vital records, deeds and so on. I’ve had many beginners come to me for advice, saying they’ve hit a brick wall. My first question is always “Have you searched for this ancestor in all possible censuses?” Almost every time, the answer is no—to which I respond, “Then you can’t be at a brick wall.” Make sure you’ve looked for your ancestors in all the basic genealogical sources before you start tearing your hair out.

But when you do hit a brick wall and you’ve really done all the basics, what next? Professional genealogists, who must bulldoze through brick walls for a living, have learned ways around these seemingly unsolvable problems—secrets you can apply to your own ancestral dead ends. Here are a dozen strategies the pros use to turn roadblocks into research breakthroughs.

1. Keep a positive attitude.

“A brick-wall problem for me is a temporary delay,” says Paula Stuart-Warren, a certified genealogical records specialist and co-author of Your Guide to the Family History Library (Betterway Books). True, it’s frustrating and discouraging to come up empty-handed after going through reels of microfilm and pages of courthouse books, but keeping a positive outlook is important. “Few researchers can solve every brick-wall problem,” says Marsha Hoffman Rising, a certified genealogist and fellow of the American Society of Genealogists (ASG). “But that doesn’t mean I give up.” In genealogy, patience and perseverance definitely pay off.

2. Broaden your search.

Certified genealogist Suzanne McVetty was looking for the death date of Fanny Galuten, who supposedly died in Manhattan when she was about 16 years old, but no one knew when Galuten was born. Making a chronology of the family (see strategy 4), McVetty found a gap in the birth of the family’s children between 1886 and 1891—where she thought Galuten would fit. Next, she searched the death indexes for the years 1902 to 1907, when a 16-year-old Galuten presumably would’ve died. When she didn’t find anyone by that name, she broadened her search to include spelling variations such as Geluten, Goluten, Guluten and Jaulten. Still no luck. Next, McVetty tried broadening the geographic area of her search. Instead of looking only in Manhattan, she searched the indexes for New York City’s other four boroughs: Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Still unsuccessful, she started tracing Galuten’s siblings (see strategy 3). When she obtained the 1910 census for Galuten’s brother, McVetty found Fanny Galuten living in that household. Based on her age in that census, McVetty now had an estimated birth year of 1900, much later than her original guess. So she went back to the death indexes for Manhattan and the Bronx, since those were the most logical places for this family, and searched all spelling variations between 1910 and 1925. Finally, she learned that Fanny Galuten had died in the Bronx in 1914, at the age of 15.

3. Move on to other relatives and neighbors.

Emily Anne Croom, author of The Sleuth Book for Genealogists (Betterway Books), calls this approach “cluster genealogy.” You “study the cluster of relatives (especially children and siblings), friends, neighbors and others with whom your ancestor associated.” If you’re not finding any records on your ancestor, perhaps other relatives or neighbors generated documents that refer to him or will provide clues for new avenues to pursue. Make a list of everyone named in the records of your ancestor, such as witnesses and joint property owners. “Often, I notice individuals who are appearing frequently in the same records as the problem ancestor,” says Rising. “I can then investigate these individuals to see if their records reveal an answer to the problem.”

For a while, Rising was trying to identify the origins of a William Henry who in October 1838 purchased land in St. Clair County, Mo., from the federal land office in Springfield, Mo. Henry wasn’t on the 1840 or 1850 census there, and Rising couldn’t find a deed for the 159 acres he acquired. He didn’t appear in any of the circuit court records. Marriage records for that period haven’t survived. Rising couldn’t locate a probate record, either. If Henry had died in the county, she probably would’ve found records from the sale of his land or an appearance of his presumed heirs. It was more likely that he’d moved away. But why had he gone there in the first place? In the short time he was there, with whom did he associate?

Henry did create records with three men: Ebenezer Gash, who acquired land the same day in an adjoining section, and brothers Pleasant and Henry W. Crow, to whom Henry had assigned his 159 acres. This information came from the federal land records, rather than those at the county level. Gash was listed in the census as a head of household in Marion County, Mo., in 1830; further investigation into his large family showed that he lived near Henry — who’d returned to Marion County by 1840 and died there in 1848. Additional research in Marion County led to Henry’s origin in Buncombe County, NC, which happens to be the birthplace of Gash, as well.

I came to a similar dead end in researching the Irish origins of Delia (Gordon) Norris, who immigrated to America about 1885 and settled in Greenwich, Conn. None of the records I found for her, her husband or her children gave me any clues to her Irish origins, so I turned to Delia’s only known relative in America, her twin sister, Mary.

When I began searching for Mary, I knew only the date and place she’d died and the name of her husband, James Clark. But that was enough to get started. Applying the cluster approach, I looked for any and all records that pertained to Mary, hoping that a document might lead me to her—and her sister Delia’s—origins. I found a ton of records on Mary, her husband and a son. None of the records revealed their home in Ireland, but a newspaper account of Mary’s death did give me another clue: Delia and Mary had another sister, Annie, who came to America and married Richard E. Hanly. I decided to shift my research focus to the Hanlys.

Doing so helped me bust right through that brick wall. When Hanly became a naturalized citizen in 1917, he reported that his wife, Annie, was born in County Leitrim, Ireland. The birth certificate of their first child also lists County Leitrim as Annie’s birthplace. That gave me enough information about the three sisters to write to the heritage center in County Leitrim and request a search of its record holdings. The search provided me with the family’s townland: Ardvarney.

4. Make a chronology.

Charting what you know about your quarry through the years can help solve your research puzzles. Start with the earliest date you have for an ancestor, such as a birth date or year of immigration, and make a chronological list of everything you know about that person and the immediate family. Include information you’ve documented from other sources, plus any speculations. But make sure it’s clear which information is speculative by placing a question mark after the data.

Kathleen W. Hinckley, a certified genealogical records specialist and author of Your Guide to the Federal Census (Betterway Books), says that her “most successful strategy is to prepare a detailed chronological and geographical study of the individual or family. This strategy requires you to reorganize past research and review all previous documentation with fresh eyes, which in itself often produces new ideas. When there is a gap in time without information, you focus on that time period. If it’s unknown when a family migrated from one area to another, you focus on that portion of the project.”

5. Analyze what you’ve gathered, questioning everything.

“I look at all I know and see if it can be confirmed,” says McVetty. “When I’m at a brick wall, I begin by assuming the information I have is correct, but something got recorded wrong, such as the spelling of a name, a wrong date or place.” If that strategy doesn’t work, then “I assume that there is something wrong with the information I have. Was she born when I thought she was? Is her name really Fanny Galuten? Why do I think she died in Manhattan? Then go from there.” In other words, question everything. Don’t assume that what you find in records—even legal documents—is correct. McVetty recommends using the “what if” approach: “Look at all the facts, then say, ‘What if she didn’t die in Manhattan? Where would the next logical place be?’”

6. Look for alternative sources.

If you’re new to genealogy, you might not realize all the different types of records out there for you to research. Don’t get stuck in a genealogical rut, thinking all that’s available is what’s on the Internet or in the usual sources: vital records, censuses, deeds, wills, passenger lists and the like. If you’re researching in the South, chances are good that you’ll hit a “burned county” sooner or later—that is, the courthouse burned and some, if not all, the records went up in smoke. Consider alternative sources such as city directories, tax records, property assessments, estate inventories and settlements, criminal cases, court minutes—the list is endless. Not every type of record exists for every time period or place, of course. But as Patricia Law Hatcher, a certified genealogist and fellow of the ASG, suggests, you need to “sit yourself down in the place where you know your ancestor and family lived and don’t leave until you’ve looked at every word of every record that is connected to the extended family (not just the ancestor), neighbors and associates.”

7. Follow every lead.

Rising believes that “success in overcoming a brick-wall problem comes from assembling as many records as possible and examining each of them carefully for subtle clues. (Obvious ones you’ve presumably already investigated.) Assemble the subtle clues, looking for patterns, repetitions of people and events, and gather the records from those clues.”

For example, professional genealogist Marcia Wyett was looking for the parents of Clara Crowther. All the records she’d gathered said Crowther was born in Kansas, yet Wyett couldn’t find Crowther’s parents in the 1900 federal census Soundex (a census index that groups together similar-sounding names; learn more at <www.familytreemagazine.com/soundex.html>) for Kansas. Crowther was married in Arkansas, and her children were born there, so Wyett next checked the 1900 Soundex for Arkansas. No luck. Wyett then located Crowther in the 1920 federal census, which said her children were born in Oklahoma, not Arkansas. Nothing in any of the other records Wyett had gathered—censuses, vital records, railroad retirement files—indicated that Crowther had ever lived in Oklahoma. Was this a census taker’s error or a new lead? Assuming it was a lead, Wyett checked the 1900 Soundex for Oklahoma. Sure enough, Crowther was there, living with her mother. It turns out her father had died by 1900.

8. Show the problem to another genealogist.

Having someone with a fresh outlook study the problem may help break through your brick wall. Another genealogist may hone in on a detail you’ve overlooked. This is an important reason to attend and network at local genealogical society events. Even professionals do this kind of networking: When they’re stumped, they’ll turn to a colleague or friend for advice. The old adage “two heads are better than one” certainly applies to family tree research.

You might want to consider hiring a professional genealogist for a consultation on your research problem. If so, you’ll need to have all of your research organized and well-documented for the most economical use of your money and the professional’s time. Depending on the extent of the research you’ve already done, it may take a professional only a few hours to review the information and provide you with suggestions to further your research.

9. Study the social history.

Another strategy for breaking through a brick wall is to study social histories of your problem ancestor’s ethnic group, time period and place. Social histories, such as Alice Morse Earle’s Home Life in Colonial Days (Berkshire House Publishers) and Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg’s Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (Free Press), give accounts of everyday people and their everyday lives. These types of books won’t list your ancestors by name, but they will offer insight into the lifestyles and behavioral motivations of people like your ancestors—background knowledge that may affect your research direction. For more on applying social history to your genealogy, see Katherine Scott Sturdevant’s Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History (Betterway Books, out of print).

I learned from social histories on Italian-Americans that it was common for the man to immigrate first and bring his family to America five or 10 years later. Many men had no intention of staying in America; their goal was to earn enough money to go back to Italy and buy land. Dubbed “birds of passage,” they had a high return-migration rate; in other words, they went back and forth between Italy and America.

Once I found my relative Albino DeBartolo on a passenger arrival list for 1905—even though his family didn’t arrive until 1913—I went back to the passenger arrival lists’ index to see if he fit the pattern of a returnee. Sure enough, he did. He made two more trips back and forth to Italy between 1905 and 1913. Had I not broadened my research to social histories and learned the typical migration pattern for this ethnic group, I might have missed these additional records on him.

10. Read case studies.

By studying how others have overcome their research obstacles, you can apply similar techniques or sources to your own research. “Everyone should subscribe to a variety of printed and online genealogical publications, and, in addition, read whatever back issues you can,” advises Stuart-Warren. “A local genealogical society may exchange publications with others from across the country. I’ve found much insight in old issues of genealogical and historical publications that aren’t even from one of my ancestral areas.”

Read genealogical journals such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and The American Genealogist or guidebooks with case studies, such as Croom’s Sleuth Book. A case study could relate to your research if the family in the article is from the same geographical area or of the same ethnic background. From the footnotes or endnotes, you may learn about new record groups and sources—or those you simply hadn’t considered before. Even reading the book reviews can help: I discovered The Five Thomas Harrises of Isle of Wight County, Virginia compiled by John Anderson Brayton (self-published, out of print) while reading book reviews. This book was highly recommended by the reviewer and deals with a topic that every researcher encounters sooner or later: sorting out different men with the same name who are about the same age and living in the same community. Reading a book like this—even if it doesn’t deal with your family—will give you ideas and methods for tackling similar problems.

11. Ignore the problem, and it will go away.

One of the best strategies I’ve found for overcoming brick walls is to ignore the problem, in which case it will probably go away. Put your research on that family or ancestor on hold for at least six months to a year. Don’t think about it. In the meantime, work on other family lines. It’s amazing what you’ll see with fresh eyes when you pull out the information after a long break. You’ll mentally slap your forehead and say, “Why didn’t I notice that before?” You’ll find clues and sometimes outright answers staring you in the face—facts you were blind to while in the heat of the search. Sometimes, it really helps to step away from the problem in order to see it clearly; then go back and try, or retry, the brick-wall strategies.

Plus, your knowledge will have grown in that six to 12 months of abstinence. If you’ve been working on other family lines in the interim—which, of course, you should—your experience from that research may help you with your brick-wall case. You also should be reading constantly and attending genealogical society meetings, seminars, classes and conferences to expand your knowledge.

12. Find the end of the road.

It’s a genealogical fact of life that you might never get your hands on a record that directly answers a brick-wall question. “Instead, you may need to piece together the best possible answer from the evidence you find in your research,” explains Croom. “Gather enough evidence to make a convincing argument and explain any conflicting evidence.”

Granted, some of your research brick walls may never come crumbling down. But you won’t know until you’ve tried different strategies—or a combination of strategies—for breaking through them. I often encounter people who’ve spent 20 years searching for a woman’s maiden name; eventually they do discover it. Solutions to brick-wall problems take time, persistence and the willingness to try different strategies. But whatever you do, don’t give up. Maybe you just need a bigger bulldozer.

Highly Qualified

All the experts quoted in this article have years of genealogical experience and education (that is, trial-and-error research, self-education, classes, seminars and conferences). Many have passed stringent requirements of the Board for Certification of Genealogists <www.bcgcertification.org>. Some are fellows of the American Society of Genealogists (ASG) <www.fasg.org>, an honorary organization limited to 50 members. ASG elects candidates based on their published genealogical scholarship.

How to Get Professional Help

You’ve talked to every relative you can find, sent scads of requests for vital records and estate files, borrowed books on interlibrary loan—but you’re still stuck. You can’t think of a thing more you can do from home, and you’d love to visit your ancestral land, but it just isn’t possible. There must be some resource to help you over this hump, and you want it soon. What to do? Maybe it’s time to call in the big guns and hire a professional genealogist.

Letter Opener

Many libraries will send you a list of researchers-for-hire familiar with their facilities. The Association of Professional Genealogists <www.apgen.org> has an online member directory. The letters after many researchers’ names mean they’ve completed Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) <www.bcgcertification. org> certification programs—designations include CG (certified genealogist), CGRS (certified genealogical records specialist) and CLS (certified lineage specialist). Genealogy instructors and lecturers can add CGI or CGL to their names. Use the BCG Web site to search for certified people by factors such as location and special interest area.

In 1964, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formed the International Association for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists <www.icapgen.org>. Now an independent entity, the group awards an AG (accredited genealogist) certification—see the Web site for researchers who’ve earned it.

Hire Power

Once you’ve found potential pros, e-mail or write each a letter briefly outlining your research problem. Also ask about his:

• fees and expenses (such as mileage, parking and copies)

• education and research experience

• professional affiliations

• articles in journals and magazines

• references

The replies should narrow the field. You may get a polished brochure from one person; a handwritten note on a scrap of paper from another. If the second person’s fees are lower, but his research parallels his communication methods, you’re probably better off with the pricier respondent.

Next, look at everyone’s background and experience. Someone who’s been researching in a location for 20 years likely knows its records better than a new resident. Read articles they’ve written to get an idea of their expertise. The researchers may give other details, such as resources and strategies they’d employ in your case. Or maybe a promising pro is backlogged and can’t get to your family for six months. You’ll have to decide whether to wait or go with someone else.

You also need to decide how important money is. Fees can range widely, say, $15 to $50 per hour, plus expenses. Your impulse might be to use the cheapest researcher, but as your mother always said, you usually get what you pay for. A higher hourly rate doesn’t necessarily mean more money from your pocket—a skilled pro might find facts more quickly, costing you less than someone who’s not as expensive or experienced.

If you choose your researcher from the BCG list, you know she’s gone through an accreditation process. Pick someone at random, and you have a murkier idea of what you’re getting. But even those official-looking initials are no guarantee. Be cautious and call references once you’ve got a short list of researchers. Ask how the person was to work with: Did she return phone calls? Clearly explain her findings? Carefully document sources?

Happy Hours

Professional genealogists usually request a deposit equal to several hours’ cost before beginning work. You’ll feel more secure if you set your researcher on a small task before turning her loose on your entire ancestry. “Trace my ancestors in Morgan County, Ill., as far back as possible” is too vague a goal. What if she spends a lot of time on a line that isn’t that important to you, ignoring the one you’re really interested in? Instead, say “I want to identify the parents of Sarah Ann Carr, who married William Thompson in Morgan County, Ill., on April 1, 1856.”

Authorize work, including time to write a progress report (which can take two to three hours), up to a certain dollar amount—but don’t be chintzy. Genealogy is time-consuming. If you authorize two hours of work, you’re barely giving the researcher enough time to review the material you send. Save time and money by sending pedigree charts, family group sheets, a complete list of sources you’ve consulted and copies of papers with relevant information. You don’t want the researcher to spend hours looking at sources you’ve already searched.

Special Report

When the genealogist has fulfilled your objective or spent the money you allotted, he should send a report summarizing his findings and citing sources he checked. It should include copies or transcriptions of important resources. Negative results don’t necessarily mean he did a bad job. Good professionals work hard, but sometimes records with the information you want don’t exist.

Finally, the researcher may suggest next steps; for example, that you pursue some document he identified or request a death certificate restricted to descendants. You may not be totally happy if the researcher didn’t achieve your objective, but the report will show whether he did a good job. Write to express your concerns if you have a problem with his work. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, and he’s a member of the APG or the BCG, those groups offer arbitration. Contact them for details.

For more on working with professional researchers, see Long-Distance Genealogy by Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer (Betterway Books), from which this advice was adapted.

Case in Point

Discover more secrets of successful genealogists by reading case studies in these journals. Look for them at libraries with genealogical collections.

• The American Genealogist

Box 398 Demorest, GA 30535 <www.americangenealogist.com>

• National Genealogical Society Quarterly

3108 Columbia Pike, Suite 300 Arlington, VA 22204 <ngsgenealogy.org>

• The New England Historical and Genealogical Register

101 Newbury St. Boston, MA 02116 <www.newenglandancestors.org>

From the January 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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