Friday, March 2, 2012

Brick Walls - a lack of forward motion

On the third episode of Who Do You Think You Are, one of the first genealogy terms Blair Underwood learned was "brick wall." In African American research, this usually means any research after the 1870 census may be difficult. This is because slaves were not listed by name in the US Census taken before the Civil War (1861-1865). But this does not mean that your research has come to a complete stand still. (For more information on African American research I recommend Also, has the 1850/1860 slave schedules.)

Blair Underwood chose to use DNA testing to deal with his brick wall. DNA is still relatively new to the world of genealogy and relies on individuals entering their information in databases. It can also be expensive. If you have a limited genealogy piggy bank, I would suggest that you try other brick wall solutions. 

Just as slaves disappeared in the pre-Civil War census, most women and children disappear in the census taken before 1850. In fact a lot of information is missing from these records. Another genealogical headache that stops forward motion in your research is the courthouse fire. And then there is the problem that many of our ancestors just plain took off and left for greener pastures. Or gold! But there are solutions. The trick is to keep a positive attitude and an open mind.

It may take a while before you finally admit there is a problem with your research. Just remember the number one rule of genealogy -- doing the same thing over and over with the same result is . . . .well, not good! When you reach this point it is a good idea to make sure all of you data is accurate. Sometimes you have heard something so many times that it begins to be true (in your mind, only). And other times there is that one little fact that you keep ignoring that could be the one clue you need to get moving again. The fact that I kept ignoring was my mother telling me her family was Pennsylvania Dutch. Couldn't possibly be true! Didn't fit with my image of that part of the family! Now I am taking another look at that piece of information and Pennsylvania has become a new place to research.

If everything looks good with your research then it is time to take another route out of town. The best way to do this is to put yourself in your ancestors' shoes. What were their lives like? Did they live in the city or on a farm? Did they have sisters and brothers? Where did they go to church, to school? What ethnic or military organizations might they have belonged to? Remember your ancestor did not live in a vacuum. My husband has an ancestor who lived in a cave in the 1790"s in Kentucky. We found him!!

Your ancestor and his siblings had a lot of the same background information, however there is one thing that could be different. Mom or Dad. Many women died in childbirth and their husbands remarried. Always compare birth dates and marriage records in order to check for a step-mother on the census form. Many times the husband married his wife's sister, so check death certificates to see if both wives had the same parents. Once you have brothers, sisters, and cousins you will have other records to check for missing information. Also, remember that life on the frontier was dangerous and many wives remarried after losing their husbands. 

Ancestors have a tendency to disappear into thin air. When this happens you need to look at history and weather. Both can change people's lives. Losing everything due to war or weather could be an excuse to move. Fear of war could have been a reason to leave the old country for the hope of a better life elsewhere. Actually the hope of a better life is a major reason a lot of our ancestors moved, period. I am a firm believer in making a timeline for an ancestor who is causing problems. And also remember a lot of our ancestors went west during the Gold Rush. Some came back home and others started a brand new life. The latter will be the rascals in your family!

There are so many more options available to the family detective today as more and more old records are brought up out of dusty courthouse sub-basements. Although some courthouses burned destroying valuable records,  other records have been found to recreate our ancestors lives. Pension records for the Revolutionary War veterans can also be a wealth of information. 

Compiled local histories can be a great source of clues. Just remember that these books depend on information submitted by family members. Sometimes the information is accurate and sometimes it is embellished to make the family look good! But it is always a good place to start and hopefully the book with your family in it is indexed!!

Last, but not least, our ancestors paid taxes and if you can't find one year, there is always the next. Ya gotta love those tax records!

The most important thing to remember when faced with a brick wall is to be patient and have an open, inquisitive mind. Our ancestors had real lives that extended beyond their birth, marriage, and death certificates. Blair Underwood had a lot of help and a certain amount of DNA luck. This might not happen for you, but you will have a lot of fun looking and maybe even be amazed at what you find.

Remember to watch Reba McEntire, March 2, 2012, on Who Do You Think You Are, 8/7 Central.

1 comment:

  1. Two of our ancestors disappeared - and showed up later with a new wife and one even had kids... those were weird finds.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)