14 Ways to Beat Genealogy Brick Walls

By Lisa Louise Cooke Premium

Unsolved murder cases are never completely closed. Police often will reopen a case to take a fresh look. For example, a TV news show recently featured a murder that occurred in 1996. The file was stamped “cold case” and shelved in 2002, but thanks to new technology, investigators reopened it and solved it in 2013. Technology is changing rapidly, and when you apply it to a cold case, you can earn a big payoff. In this particular case, new scientific tests were available that didn’t exist in 1996. The same evidence that led police nowhere now broke the case wide open.

In genealogy, the value of revisiting cold cases of your hardest-to-find ancestors—aka brick walls—is clear. Consider the records and resources available today that weren’t around last year, last month, or even yesterday. There’s always hope to solve, or at least make progress on, a frigid genealogical case. Use these 14 investigative strategies to build a case file on your research brick walls and generate hot new leads.


1. Get organized.

Keeping your information organized allows you to spend more time on research and less time looking for things, figuring out where you left off and determining what to do next. Before you dust off that old brick wall, create a genealogy cold case file using a three-ring binder. Binders offer portability and stability, and make it easy to see the facts laid out before you. You can grab one and go, easily flipping through your materials without risking the items spilling.

Create tabs in your binder for the following categories: What I Already Know, Supporting Documents, Questions to Answer, Steps Taken, Timelines and History, Interviews, Narratives, and Summary. You can modify these or add more tabs as you see fit along the way. Having tabs like these makes it easy to jump to the information you need and provides a place to make notes along the trail.

In addition to your binder, you’ll need a mobile, digital format for taking notes, clipping web pages, recording
interviews and snapping photos. The free Evernote program and its mobile apps are an ideal solution. Evernote allows you to collect, sync and retrieve notes no matter what internet-connected device you’re using: desktop computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet. You’ll be poised to capture notes every step of the way.

2. Retrieve all pertinent case information.

In genealogy, you start with what you know. The same goes for cold cases. Start by generating fresh versions of all the major reports and charts from your genealogy software on the people connected with your case, such as family group sheets, individual summary reports, pedigree charts and descendant charts. Printed reports and charts make it easier for you to see where the blanks are. Also retrieve all your pertinent files, books and any other documentation you have that’s associated with the genealogy mystery you want to solve.

3. Re-examine the evidence.

Cold case investigators review every piece of evidence and all interviews from the beginning to the end of the file. They keep their eyes peeled for anything that might’ve been overlooked the first time around, and for opportunities to apply new technology to the old case.

To begin reacquainting yourself with the case, re-examine the evidence. Rather than jumping directly into the ancestor in question, start with her descendants. Comb through what you know about her children and grandchildren, retracing how you originally found the brick-wall ancestor. Meticulously read everything you have as if you were new to the case. Re-examine source documents, interviews and anything else remotely related.

Keep notes in your binder on questions that come up as you evaluate the materials and “facts” that need rechecking. You likely will generate new ideas for sources you’ll want to investigate as you identify gaps in your research.
After a thorough review, write down your brick wall dilemma or questions in just a few short sentences. Breaking down your brick wall into manageable questions will help you focus and stay on track. In addition, you’ll enjoy the smaller successes along the way as you fill in the blanks.

Invest substantial time in this step. You may think you’re very familiar with the case, but you may have forgotten certain details over the years. In particular, re-examine your sources. You probably know more now about the case, and genealogy research in general, than you did when you first reviewed these sources. Chances are good that you’ll spot something that now has meaning, but didn’t resonate with you before.

During your review, take this opportunity to identify which so-called “facts” have only one source, and locate at least one more, preferably a primary source. The more sources, the better. Ensure that all sources are cited properly. Double-check that you didn’t make an error in transcribing the information from the source documents into your genealogy database. This is your chance to clean up those errors.

4. Reinterview the witnesses.

Even if your witnesses are no longer living, review their journals, interview transcriptions or recordings, and any other details or records they left behind. To make the most of interviews with living relatives, see the “On Assignment” article in the January/February 2013 Family Tree Magazine.

5. Re-examine the physical evidence.

When cold case detectives reopen a file, they not only revisit their paper file and call in their witnesses for reinterviewing, but they also reexamine the physical evidence. Your case may include physical evidence, too. Way back when, you may have based some of your assumptions about your brick wall on a photograph, family heirloom, artifact or gravestone. Reinspect all physical evidence with a magnifying glass.

But don’t stop there. Forensic scientists use microscopes and alternative light sources to reveal details not obvious to the naked eye. If you have photos where you can’t clearly make out all the details, digitize them at a high resolution and apply an alternative light source with a photo-editing program. Use your computer’s photo-editing software or check out free programs such as Gimp and Picasa that include tools for adjusting brightness, contrast and sharpness. To learn more about applying photo-editing tools to your photos, check out the “Grave Transformations” video.

6. Create a timeline.

As you reacquaint yourself with the facts, it’s the ideal time to add them to a timeline. Your genealogy software might offer a timeline feature, or you can use a free timeline generator website. I like Our Timelines, which provides an easy, free way to generate timelines that also incorporate world history. For a more powerful timeline creator, try TimeLine Maker or Smart Draw. Both sites offer a free trial.

If you have Microsoft Excel, you can create some pretty spiffy timelines for free. Check out the free tutorial complete with screen shots and images showing you how.

7. Map out the bigger picture.

Criminal investigators rely on understanding human behavior. People typically travel the same routes and rarely stray from their usual habits. Therefore, plotting out where crimes occur can be invaluable in determining where a criminal resides or will strike next.

This theory also applies to genealogical cases. By taking the time to plot on a map known ancestor locations and movements, you can see patterns emerge. Download the free mapping program Google Earth and learn how to get started by watching the free “Google Earth for Genealogy” video at

This is also a great time to learn more about the time, place and people surrounding the case. Study local, regional and social histories, newspapers and biographies. Learning about the historical events, geographical boundaries and migration patterns of your ancestor’s time may lead you to look for clues in places you hadn’t considered before. Google Books <> is a great place to start looking for local and regional histories and other historical books, as many old volumes are digitized and available for free.

8. Round up the suspects and identify new witnesses.

At the end of the classic film “Casablanca,” Capt. Louis Renault picks up the phone and declares, “Major Strasser has been shot … round up the usual suspects.” You know who the usual suspects are in your research: the folks you suspect are relatives, and all the others circling them and lurking in the shadows.

All good detectives start by looking at the family first and then broaden the search to include friends and acquaintances. In your genealogy research, look carefully at siblings and neighbors, and then spread out even further by looking into others who share the surname in a given area.

Once you locate a genealogical document with information on an ancestor, it’s easy to fixate on the page and stop using the search index that brought you there. But the search feature remains a valuable tool. When I found my great-grandfather in the small mining town of Gillespie, Ill., in the 1910 census, I went back to the search tool and did a search of all German-born residents living in his neighborhood. I knew he’d recently immigrated and probably knew very little English. These were the people he was most likely associating with. As it turned out, one of those Germans showed up as a witness on his naturalization papers. Another was a key player in enticing him to go to settle in Gillespie upon arrival.

Just like a cold case investigator, continue the search for new witnesses. These are the witnesses to your ancestor’s major life events, such as baptisms, marriages, naturalizations, land purchases and so on. As you review all your source documents, make a list of all witnesses and then search on those witnesses’ backgrounds to see what other connections they might have to your ancestor.

Your ancestors are surrounded by a community, or cluster, of potential leads. Just take a walk in your local cemetery to see an example of this cluster genealogy. In row after row, you’ll find clusters of surnames, and even clusters of people who emigrated from the same countries. When you research in clusters, you create a larger pool from which to draw. This can mean a greater chance of success. Think of each one of those aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and siblings as a wave rippling out from the ancestor you’re trying to find.

Also consider their coworkers, employers, friends, club associates, fellow churchgoers and so on as potential partners in crime. While your ancestor may not have mentioned them, they may have mentioned your ancestor in one of their key documents.

A great lead-generator is the obituaries or other newspaper articles for these so-called partners in crime. Seeing an ancestor named in his lodge buddy’s obituary means he was still alive at that time, and the obituary might mention where he was living or if his spouse accompanied him. These are all leads to help you figure out where and when to look.

9. Write a case report.

A powerful tool that professional genealogists employ is writing a narrative. This step can sound like a time waster—you already have a lot of information in your database and writing it out in paragraph form will take some time. But experienced genealogists know that something important happens when you write a narrative of what you know about an ancestor and the events of his life.

As you write down the story, you notice gaps that you didn’t spot when you were just looking at the data. It’s easy to simply list facts and not realize you’re missing a key piece of the puzzle. But when you attempt to tell the story, it becomes blatantly obvious when something is missing that interferes with your ability to tell the complete story. Writing a narrative on your cold case will generate good questions and ideas that you’ll want to jot down in your binder and pursue.

10. Develop a theory.

Once you’re intimately familiar with the case, it’s time to propose a theory to help you overcome your brick wall. Although you want to let the evidence lead you, it can prove effective to think through what might’ve happened, then try to fill in the blanks.

This strategy paid off as I approached a brick wall on my third-great-grandfather’s parentage. I had a theory about who his father was, but the available records were inconclusive. I developed a theory based on what I knew and then I jumped over my second-great-grandfather and started researching the man I suspected to be his father. A biography of this man in an old county history proved me right, naming my known ancestor as his son, and verifying the names of siblings and cousins that lined up exactly.

11. Look for new evidence.

Detectives know that as time passes forensic technology and availability of digitized records improves. Even if no leads have surfaced in years, new tests likely can be used on the old evidence. Think of how many times you’ve heard on the news (or in the “Cold Case” TV show) that new DNA tests have solved a case.

DNA can play a pivotal role in genealogy as well, helping researchers who possess matching genetic markers to connect and compare trees. If you’ve exhausted traditional methods or are curious about this new technology, consider using DNA for genealogy. See our DNA Crash Course webinar for more genetic genealogy help.

Every day since you set aside your hard-to-find ancestor’s case, new digitized records, family trees and message board postings have come online. Records then under access restrictions may now be available to view. 
If you have blanks for records on the family group sheets or individual summary report printed in step 3, take another stab at finding those records. Conduct new searches on all missing information. Google is a good place to start. Also take a second look at FamilySearch’s digitized records and see what new collections have been added to other records websites you’ve used in the past, or on new sites you’ve never searched before.

After exhausting online resources, it’s critical to move your research offline to libraries and archives. Now is a good time to gather the evidence that so many people neglect to look for such as marriage license applications, voter records, and a variety of non-population census schedules such as agriculture, industry/manufacturing and social statistics schedules.

12. Call in reinforcements.

Once a case is reopened and reviewed, a criminal cold case unit often involves the media for further exposure and to garner additional leads from the public. Genealogists have their own media outlets to pursue, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and online family tree sites. Put out the word using social media and gain access to the genealogy community brain trust.

Also consider holding a “team case review” session. Pull together your genealogist friends for a Google Hangout or a sidebar at your next genealogical society meeting to discuss and analyze the evidence. Or use the free program Skype to video chat with a friend or expert and share your screen for live collaboration. Additionally, call on the experts by emailing reference librarians and archivists with specific requests.

13. Go on a stakeout.

Keep an eye open online by setting up some virtual stakeouts. Set up Google Alerts or Yahoo! Alerts for important searches and let search engines do the searching for you. These sites will automatically search 24/7 for new websites or posts that match your search terms. If a new web page has information that fits your search terms, you’ll receive an email notification with a link to the result.


The popular auction website eBay is another place to sniff out family history goodies. Here, you can find a wide array of family history related items for sale, including photographs, postcards, local history books and even family Bibles. Sign up for a free account and set up saved searches in your My eBay dashboard for instant access to new items as they’re listed.

14. Post wanted posters.

There are times when you need to proactively generate new leads, and the internet makes it easier than ever to get the word out on a brick wall you are trying to bust. Genealogy message boards are probably the oldest form of online bulletin boards where you can post your family history queries. Try’s Message Boards to look for clues and then post your own messages by surname or topic.

Posting your family tree online is another way to get wide exposure in the online genealogy community. Turn to, WikiTree, MyHeritage or other online family tree sites to post your tree and search other trees.

If you really want to be found, you need Google to find you. The best way to take the reins is to start your own family history blog. Google’s free Blogger is a snap to use. Check out my free four-part series on how to create a genealogy blog at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Be sure to create keyword-rich blog posts that are easy for Google to find. Add a few website links, photos and videos, and Google will bring your page even farther up the results list when genealogists search for people who also appear in your family tree.

By following the lead of detectives and investigators, you can heat up your cold case and discover clues to locate a hard-to-find ancestor—and perhaps even stamp one or two of your genealogy cold cases “SOLVED.”
Tip: Genealogy websites add millions of records each year, so check sites you’ve already searched for new records of your ancestors.

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From the May/June 2014 Family Tree Magazine 

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