Exploring the Genealogically Improbable

By Diane Haddad

Sometimes to break a genealogy brick wall, you have to break a rule by considering an improbable ancestral scenario. Unusual circumstances did occasionally occur.

That’s the idea behind this week’s “Best of” entry—one of contributing editor David A. Fryxells’ 31 brick wall-busting tips from the October 2004 Family Tree Magazine.

As Sherlock Holmes liked to lecture Dr. Watson, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So consider even the most unlikely possibilities when confronting your brick walls: Could there have been two men by the same name in the county at that time? Might your third-great-grandfather have married his cousin? Maybe your great-grandmother remarried in between censuses, thus changing her name.

Admitting to the improbable—but not impossible—is how I finally broke through the brick wall of my frustrating Ekstroms. I had found Olof Ekstrom’s widow, Mary A., in an 1892 Rock Island and Moline, Ill., city directory. She matched my great-great-grandmother Anna Maja Pehrsdotter, who’d married Olof back in Sweden—Anna Maja easily could have been flipped and Americanized to Mary A.

I also found her, already a widow, in an 1885 city directory. But where was she—or Olof, for that matter—in the 1880 census, if she’d emigrated in 1873, as Swedish records indicated? The only Mary in the census who seemed to fit was married to a Bernard Vankirkhoon (actually Van Kirkhove, I later learned), a Belgian gent! Looking closer, I saw that the household included several children named not Vankirkhoon, but Ekstrom—with roughly the right first names and ages.

I kept going back to that census page. It didn’t fit any of my assumptions, but it did fit the facts, if I looked at them in a completely different way:

• What if Olof had died soon after immigrating and never made it to Illinois—where I couldn’t find any record of his death?

• What if Anna Maja, now Mary A., had then married this Belgian guy?

• And what if the Belgian also had died—between 1880 and that 1885 city directory—and Mary decided to return to her previous married name?

• What if the 1880 Olof Ekstrom in the Vankirkhoon household was the same person as the Oliver Eckstrom I’d found at the same address as the widow Ekstrom in the 1892 city directory—making him my great-great-uncle?

Once I was willing to consider this alternate explanation, I soon found obituaries, passenger manifests and loads of other records that matched the scenario. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place. All I had to do, if you will, was try looking at the picture upside-down.

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