Friday, May 14, 2021

Top 10 Ways to Break Down Your Genealogy Brick Wall

The Internet loves Top 10 lists, and the number one topic in genealogy is how to break down your brick walls. So, the challenge is obvious to me. And, I've certainly learned a lot of creative ways to find that impossible mystery relative that seems to have spawned from the ether. This page is my attempt to capture the best tips I've learned that hard way over the years, and to have them all in one place to remind myself of the things to try!

  1. Create a Timeline: Building up a timeline for a person is Cousin Detective 101. A timeline gives you a context to double-check the progression of facts and evidence, which if incorrect and non-sensical can perhaps point out why you are a facing a brick wall that isn't the right brick wall. 
  2. Go Sideways: You may never find the parents of a particular person due to an absence of available records, but you may be able to find the parents of their siblings.  Go sideways.  
    • One awesome trick is to search immigration records for your brick wall listed as the contact person. Those that list them might be cousins or siblings!
  3. Ask Your Oldest Relatives: I know this seems obvious, but ask your older relatives about stuff as you run into issues.  While they may be completely useless at telling you important family history proactively, often they can be extremely helpful if asked a specific question.  
  4. Write Letters: This is old school. Find the current town government that your relatives came from and write a letter with as many details as you can.  Use DeepL or Google Translate to write the letter in their language. 
  5. Create a Map: Finding the exact right town is super important.  Creating a map of all the known relative's places of birth, marriages, and deaths can help you see cluster patterns and give you a hint that you are not looking in the right place.   I outlined some of the trick I used to find the right town in my post, The Case of the Springfield Dilemma.  
  6. Use All the Sites: For some reason, I always seem to forget to search FamilySearch.  I'm sure there are those of you who forget to search MyHeritage. Or Ancestry...  Often we get stuck in routines, and fail to do the same search in all the places.  
  7. Go to a Family History Center: There are many many records that have been digitized from the vast microfilm holdings that are only viewable at a Family History Center in person.  Many are not indexed, but if you are paging through the right set of records you will strike gold. 
  8. Ask Facebook: Taking the time to write up the exact question you are looking to solve is amazingly helpful.  Just the act of writing it up and explaining it to a stranger can help you discover flaws in your logic and trigger thoughts of where to look. Then, post it to Facebook in one of the many genealogy groups and you might even get an answer!
  9. Read Newspapers: Again, this is likely just my problem, but I always seem to forget about and I'm always pleasantly surprised at the vast wealth of information that can be found there.  Yes, there are many other newspaper sites, but that's the one I'm already paying for every month! 
  10. Collaborate: Researching by yourself certainly has its benefits. Nobody questions your crazy assumptions and wild guesses. However, to build a real tree with verified and peer-reviewed evidence requires collaboration.  It has enormous benefits that vastly out-weigh the downsides of having to make corrections to your tree once proved wrong. is the largest collaborative site out there, and as has been said, "if you aren't doing genealogy on Geni you are just wasting your time.
Since I'm really writing this list for myself, this is a reminder to my future self that each and every one of these items should be linked to a much longer post that details the entire backstory of how I learned that particular lesson the hard way and any smaller exacting detailed instructions that are necessary to really take full advantage of the tip. 

And one last thing.   DNA testing is certainly an important method to break down brick walls in the genealogy world. You just don't know for such which walls will tumble, so test as many different cousins, siblings, and parents as you have available in your tree.