The 13 Reasons You Can’t Break Down Your Brick Walls

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The 13 Reasons You Can’t Break Down Your Brick Walls


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Searching for and locating records about our ancestors is seldom a simple process. Of course, we all have those easy-to-find individuals that seem to appear in every single record at just the right time — but many of us spend most of our time searching for those elusive members of our tree that appear to have avoided being recorded on purpose.

If you’ve hit a brick wall in your research, check our list of 13 common reasons why people fail to find the genealogy data they’re looking for. These are not the only reasons a person might hit a brick wall, but in the vast majority of cases one or more of these observations apply. If you feel that something on the list describes your research, take the time to address it and you might find that you tear down your family history obstacle once and for all.

13 Reasons You Can’t Break Down Your Brick Walls

1. You’re Searching Too Specifically

If you’re looking for an ancestor by their name as you know it, you’re missing out. As family historians, we often hear that it is very common for names to be misspelled on old records, or incorrectly transcribed when placed online, but many don’t realize that this is the rule, not the exception, in many cases. Flexibility is key to making breakthroughs.

If you’re searching for an ancestor and continuously coming up short you may need to stop looking for them by their full name. Think outside of the box — search by surname only, or by first or middle name only…and use locations or birth, marriage or death dates to narrow down results instead. Loosen up your searches to include a wide variety of possible spellings and date possibilities and add keywords to narrow down results. Omit names completely and search only dates, locations or keywords. Do what you can to make sure you are getting a wider look at the records in a collection you are searching. And if searches don’t work, and you are relatively sure that your ancestor does exist in a record collection, browse instead of searching. It is time-consuming but worth the investment.

2. You’re Searching in All the Wrong Places

Have you taken the time to truly educate yourself about what records are available to you in the location and date range your ancestor lived in? If the answer is no, then stop what you are doing and find this information now. Each piece of data you need can only be found from a limited amount of possible sources and these sources vary from place to place and decade to decade. Know what the sources are for your research needs.

Genealogical and historical societies, county websites and regional guides (such as those from the USGenWeb or WorldGenWeb) are a great place to start for this kind of data. And don’t forget to educate yourself about a collection to make sure it covers the exact location and date range your ancestor lived in before searching. Many collections are incomplete and are missing data for certain years, counties, towns etc. Don’t waste time on irrelevant ones.

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3. You’re Not Making Use of the Data You Have

Can’t locate a record or piece of data no matter how many times you search for it? Then you might be isolating your searches from the data you’ve already collected. It is very important to know your ancestors as well as you can when trying to grow your tree. Create a clearer picture of your ancestors’ lives by sitting down and organizing every single piece of data that you do have. Forget about looking for new information for a minute and focus only on the records you have collected.

Open a notebook and scour the sources that relate to your ancestor of focus. Write down every piece of information you can drum up about them — name variations, locations, dates, family members, neighbors, occupations, church affiliations, travel, immigration etc…. This data is going to be crucial in your search. Once you have compiled a clear list of all data available, use it to arm yourself with new knowledge. Get to know what record collections are available to you based on the exact locations, affiliations and dates you recorded. Use it to complete more creative or refined searches or to connect with new research resources. Always think of your tree as an interconnected web of data and build off of what you have.

4. You Haven’t Collected Enough Data

If you are were reading the last tip and thinking what data? you may need to spend some more time building out each ancestor. One of the biggest reasons family historians cannot locate a piece of data they are in need of is because they are trying to find something that they are not prepared to find. It is not uncommon for someone to find a new individual, or set of parents, in their tree and to immediately set out trying to find the next generation back. While it might be incredibly tempting to grow your tree in this way, it often poses some serious obstacles.

When we first encounter a new person or family group we usually have only minimal information about them — often from just one or two records. Having limited data means that locating the next generation back can be nearly impossible. To find elusive ancestors we often need to take advantage of every bit of data we have, so if you’re trying to expand the number of individuals in your tree and are stuck, take some more time to fill out the individuals you already know about. Get as much data as you can and then use that data to create a clearer picture of your ancestors’ life — one that will help you reveal new generations.

5. You’re Looking For the Person You’re Looking For

What does that mean?…isn’t that the whole point…finding information about a person by looking for the person?!

The answer is…usually. But when we come up empty handed again and again for a certain piece of information about an ancestor we need to stop looking for that person and start looking around them instead. We need to search for the people who made up their lives.

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Need to find the parents of an ancestor and can’t locate them? Stop looking for the parents and start looking for siblings, aunts, uncles, neighbors etc — eventually you’ll turn up the parents mentioned somewhere. Need a death date but coming up short? Don’t look for a death record for your individual…look for the records of their family. The person could have been mentioned on a marriage certificate for a child long after they died, in an obituary for a spouse for instance. Can’t find your ancestors in the census? Look for their neighbors from past census years instead. Whatever data it is you’re seeking…consider who else in the family might be able to reveal it.

6. You’re Only Looking in Searchable Record Collections

If you’re only searching for your ancestors than you’re missing more than you’re finding. There are many, many collections online that contain browsable only data. Don’t be afraid of these collections — it may be years and years before the data is ever transcribed and made searchable so tackle them now. Read this article for help finding a huge wealth of these records, or look for collections from sources relevant to your local area of research online.

7. You’re Looking in the Wrong Location – Literally

It’s always a good idea to search for ancestors in record collections specific to the location they lived in. But it can be incredibly easy to accidentally search in the wrong spot. Boundaries shifted quite often throughout history so it is important to educate yourself about where your ancestor was actually residing during their time period. Know the town or city and county name as it existed during your ancestor’s life so that you can search for collections correctly. Don’t make assumptions. Find help for this on local historical websites or check out this very useful historical map tool from the Newberry Library.

8. You’re Only Searching General Collections

Are you looking for your ancestors by typing their names into a general search box on a website? If so, then you’re likely missing out on the best results. When we search a huge site, like FamilySearch or Ancestry, it needs to sift through millions of potential results — even if we are using proper filtering. The site does its best to return what we’re looking for but the records we need are more often than not buried by the mass of data available. To avoid this, take the time to search record collections of interest individually. Both Ancestry and FamilySearch have pages where you can find a collection by interest and, often, each available database has its own special search boxes to help you take advantage of that collection’s data. Other genealogy sites with multiple databases offer similar catalogs, so search them out before you begin your hunt.

9. You’re Not Using Enough Genealogy Sites

Have you boxed yourself in when it comes to genealogy searches? Are you searching the same sites over and over again for results and still hitting a brick wall? If so, it’s time to build your genealogy site toolbox. Check out our tool doGenealogy for help locating free sites or visit our list of 50 Free Genealogy Sites to Search Today.

10. You’re Not Power Searching

New information can be uncovered on nearly every genealogy website by searching more effectively. Whether it’s by using an advanced search form, a set of Boolean operators to expand or refine searches, or by using Google’s search to investigate a single site — power searches are key to uncovering new records. The computers that hold the data you’re sifting through have a language all their own, and learning how to speak it will allow you to dig up data in whole new ways.

Read our article about Google Search Tricks for Genealogy for help with better genealogy searches in the world’s largest search engine or consider taking our Genealogy Course which covers more advanced search tricks — including specific search tactics for popular sites and how to utilize Google and its powerful tools to search any website to find what you need.

11. You’re Only Searching Online

Many family historians know that online research can offer them a huge wealth of information about their ancestors — but when it comes to offline research many get scared. Unless you’re a seasoned researcher you might not even know where to begin. But by limiting yourself in this way will create many brick walls in your research. A huge amount of records are not online yet….and may not be for decades.

So, if you’re looking for ancestors locally, take some time to connect with a local historical society, genealogy group or library about what records they hold and what those records contain. There are many volunteers and employees at these locations that are eager to help.

If you’re researching ancestors who lived in locations far from your current home (as many of us are) then take advantage of a Family History Center in your area to access a wealth of US and global records, search for websites that may allow you to order record searches and actual documents remotely (many historical societies, libraries and local government offices do this) or take advantage of the services of a remote researcher — such as with the free Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness service or via paid connections on a site like Ancestor Cloud.

12. You Haven’t Asked for Help

Many family historians try to do research alone. They don’t have family members who are interested in their work and they don’t know who to connect with to get help. By not connecting with other researchers you limit yourself and what you can find. Don’t be afraid to join an online group, forum or local club for support, inspiration and specific research help. Don’t be afraid to take a course or ask an expert. It’s fun and may provide the breakthrough you’re looking for.

13. You’re Giving Up Too Quickly

If you’ve hit a brick wall you’ve probably spent a lot of time searching for a specific ancestor or record. You’ve likely searched again and again and again for the same data…but you keep coming up short. Eventually you’ll be tempted give up. You’ll be tempted to assume that the data simply does not exist or that the task is impossible.

While it is a good idea not to use up all of your energy on one person, it can be a big mistake to assume that you’ve exhausted all of your possibilities. Of course, there’s always a chance that your ancestor did simply drop out of the records and is actually impossible to find — but, the truth is, that is very unusual.

Most people can be found somewhere, in some record, somehow. Use the tips above and get creative. Expand your efforts, ask for help and don’t give up — you will break through that brick wall if you just keep at it.

Need more help breaking down brick walls? Consider taking our online genealogy course which has dozens of step-by-step guides, hands on lessons, helpful discussions and a private group to help you grow your tree. 

Image: [“John Bour”[?] – barefooted, shabbily dressed man, sitting on crates, in front of brick wall, with arm around a cat, holding a bottle of Raleigh Rye whiskey] Library of Congress

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6 Comments
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  • Alexandra Florimonte
    January 15, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    We have a brick wall relative who is well-documented once he arrived (immigrated) and married, in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. Family tradition had that he was an aide-de-camp to Lafayette and was French nobility. Turns out that he probably DID come over with Lafayette, and I have actually found documentation that he was a French Huguenot who came over at the time of the American Revolution and where he first settled. But, the other part of the documentation has been wishfully drawn up by other researchers, connecting him to a minor noble house in France. This part, I have not been able to crack. But, some of the Huguenots with Lafayette came in through the Caribbean first, so I’m off to try the ships’ passenger lists there!!
    I’m excited to revisit the census “neighbors” more thoroughly to see if I can find clues.
    And, you are right about browsing. Recently, I have browsed over 700 pages of Ships’ passenger lists, entries found in family bibles, two books about the Huguenots in Pennsylvania, and records of one Reverend’s 30-40 years of traipsing around the Pennsylvania-Virgina hills baptizing and marrying people. It has been fascinating and I’ve found some family data!! Thanks for this article!!

  • Eugene R. Cordell
    June 5, 2016 at 9:25 am

    I believe my brick wll to be that these people were Squaters and never owned proberty in Stokes Co., NC., so many people did not learned how to read or spell there name, and never paid taxes where they lived, before they moved to Indiana in the 1850’s and were in the census records, since our last name has so many different spellings since 1833 in NC. from Caudol to Cordle, to Cordel, and we have taken the name to be Cordell now since my great grandfather was born in 1851, in Shelby Co., In., and his father has never been located. My grand father said he heard that we were Pennsylvania Dutch

  • RK English
    June 2, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Our brick wall cropped up when we got back to the second half of the 19th century when we found three generations of John and Mary Smith’s – one of the most common names in the English language – who married… Wait for it… Either a John or Mary Smith! Our notes were so confusing that my mom and I finally threw in the towel!

  • Mark
    May 22, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    The War of 1812 displaced some of the records that I need! Both in New York and in Ontario(Upper Canada).

  • Sherrie
    May 21, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    My great grandmother never revealed who the father of my grandmother or her twin sister was. Birth certificate lists father as ES. How do I solve that missing relative?

  • Steve Fleckenstein
    May 17, 2016 at 4:59 am

    Thoughts on my personal brick walls. A great great grandfather with a death certificate listing mother as unknown and fathers first name assumed to be gr gr grandfathers middle name based naming conventions of the time. One set of Danish work permit papers list his home town as Hermsdorf, but at the time there were 30 different locations using that name in Prussia. His wife’s death certificate also filled out with bogus mother and father. Was able to trace it back to valid family names with lots of outstanding help from Familysearch Facebook group that specialized in Scandinavia. Another one, wife’s adopted grandfather, all legal documents for adoption lost in NJ courthouse fire 50 plus years ago. Another one, one Danish Family line off and on uses as surname or middle name of Lovenbalck, which initial online searches trace back Danish Royalty in 1200’s, but detail searches reveal long standing questionable use of the name on an ancestors tombstone that may or may not prove valid and has been in question for hundreds of years. Another one. Brick walls built by ancestors perhaps to protect children from the truth… were mom and dad really married or was it just a fling or is uncle “Fred” the real father. Another one, records lost due to war or natural disasters over the years and no longer available.

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