How I Finally Broke Down a 10-Year-Old Brick Wall in 10 Minutes

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I’ve been doing family history research for 20 years and, like everyone, I’ve encountered a few brick walls. Although I have been successful in breaking most of those down using solid research techniques, one or two remain. One in particular has haunted me for more than a decade – the parents of one of my 3rd great grandparents. Unable to locate this information I have had to leave this branch of my tree undeveloped.

After years of research I have collected a good deal of information on this family, but several details of my 3rd great grandfather’s life have eluded me. Because he was Romanichal and he and his family traveled widely around the U.S. after immigrating from England, I have faced increased difficulty locating certain documents I needed. My inability to locate this information has left me in the dark about this important part of my family’s history, and I had honestly begun to wonder if the record I needed existed at all.

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That’s why, when I took it upon myself to understand the updated Discoveries tool from MyHeritage (which can be accessed for 14 days free by signing up here). I wasn’t overly hopeful about the potential results. I had not used MyHeritage extensively before and expected, at best, to spend a large amount of time learning this new system and, at worst, to uncover only repeats of the records I had already added to my tree.

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However, it took less than 10 minutes from the time I uploaded my family tree to make a discovery that allowed me to solve this family mystery and for all. The “record match” button on this ancestor’s profile page (which uses the MyHeritage Discoveries tool) pulled up his death certificate – a record I have been unable to locate in the past and that provided critical information about my 3rd great grandfather’s life and death, including his parents’ names.

Within an hour, I had discovered several more fascinating records that I had not seen in the past. Talk about productive research. Honestly, I am always extremely cautious when utilizing these types of matching algorithms, but when used correctly and with careful verification they can be a huge help.

The process of finding this information was a lot simpler than I expected. Below, I have outlined how I went about it and how you can take advantage of a MyHeritage free trial to explore this helpful research tool without upfront cost. The free trial does require a credit card to sign up, but since the subscription price for MyHeritage is so reasonable you might find that it is worth it to you. You can also cancel, of course, before you are charged.

First, we should discuss briefly what the Discoveries tool is. If you are familiar with Ancestry’s “Hints” feature, you could compare it to that – a feature that automatically searches for records related to people in your family tree to save you time and help you overcome research hurdles.

However, it became clear to me very quickly that the MyHeritage Discoveries tool was quite different, both in the way that it searched for records and the way it delivers them. This is a good thing, because it means new records are revealed even if you’ve done years of research. MyHeritage pulls records from many collections Ancestry does not and they are a great compliment to eachother.

If You’d Like to Give This Tool a Try, Here’s How to Do It

Step 1 – Gain Access to MyHeritage’s Family Tree and Records

To give the MyHeritage Discoveries a try there are just a few simple steps you need to follow. First, head over to this link and sign up for the 14 day free trial period (the link will open in a new tab or window so you can keep this how-to open.)

This will give you access to everything MyHeritage has to offer, including a downloadable and online family tree, 7.2 billion records and all of their tools. MyHeritage is a paid subscription site, but their monthly fees are very reasonable when compared to some other leading services. So, if you decide to keep using the service after 14 days we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the price.

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Get two full weeks of free access to more than 18 billion genealogy records right now. You’ll also gain access to the MyHeritage discoveries tool that locates information about your ancestors automatically when you upload or create a tree. What will you discover about your family’s past?

Once you have completed sign up, you should be automatically taken to your new “family site” – as they call it. If you are not sent directly there simply visit the MyHeritage site and login or follow the link they send you in email. Of course, if you already have a MyHeritage complete subscription, there is no need to complete this step.

Step 2 – Upload Your Family Tree

MyHeritage makes it very easy to upload a current tree to your site. If you do not already have a tree developed, or prefer to manually enter just some information into their system, then you can build a tree from scratch as well.

To upload your tree you will need a GEDCOM file. This is the standard file format for family tree information transfer. We downloaded ours from Ancestry for this purpose, but you can export a GEDCOM from any family tree program. This is generally found under File > Export.

On Ancestry, this option can be found by selecting Trees from the menu in a family tree, selecting Manage Trees, clicking on Manage Tree under the tree you want to export and looking for the green Export button in the right sidebar. We have an article dedicated to how to do this here if you would like a walk though.

Please note that exporting a GEDCOM does not export records as well. But it does export citations for all of your sources.

Once you have a GEDCOM file on your computer, look for the Family Tree rollover in the MyHeritage menu. Roll over it and select Import GEDCOM.

You will be taken to a screen where you can upload your GEDCOM file. When the upload is complete (this takes less than a couple of minutes in most cases) you will be given a message telling you that your tree is processing. An email will be sent when it is ready. For us, this happened almost immediately. Follow the email link to your family tree or find it by rolling over Family Tree in the menu again and selecting Manage Trees. Select your new tree to see how it looks.

Step 4 – Set Your Privacy Level

This is a good time to set your privacy level for your new tree. Click on your name in the upper right hand corner and select Privacy. Then look through the privacy options presented. Here you can control access to who sees your tree, whether you want to allow MyHeritage to share your tree in their searchable trees collection and other options.

You can choose to select the Smart Matches box under “Content” to see Smart Match Discoveries, which come from other people’s trees (different from Record Discoveries) but you do not need to allow inclusion of your tree in “MyHeritage historical search engines” if you do not feel comfortable with others having access to your family tree information via search.

Step 4 – Make Some New Discoveries

Once you review your tree to make sure it looks accurate and set your privacy level you can jump right into Discoveries. To do this simply roll over Discoveries in the menu bar.

You will see that you have three options, the first is Matches by People. This will show you a list of discoveries by individuals in your tree. The second option, Matches by Source sorts these discoveries by the source they come from – such as the 1910 US Census.

The third option, Instant Discoveries, is not something we will be covering here since it would require an article by itself – but it is a tool that allows you to add family tree data to your own tree in batches. We caution you to be very careful with features that allow you to copy and paste information from other trees without very carefully examining each added person and detail. You can read more about why we think this is something to be very cautious with here. This advice also applies to adding records to your tree before you are sure that they are an accurate addition.

We found the Matches by People to be most intuitive. Click on this option. You will now be presented with a number of new discoveries, sorted by individual. You can choose to view all matches, or just Record or Smart Matches. Smart Matches will match you with other family trees, Record Matches will match you with records from the MyHeritage (and partner) collections. Here’s what it looks like.

You can also search for a specific person using the provided search function.

Once you have found an ancestor that you would like to review, simply select “Review Matches” and you will be brought to a screen where you can review all matches and choose which ones to delete or review. When you review a match you will be brought to a page where you can review the information with any transcribed information and the original record displayed in full. I really like how the actual record is presented here for review before you are asked to add it, or information from it, to your tree.

You can click on a record to view it full size and can easily download it to your computer, which is always recommended. Use the arrow button on top to download to your computer.

If you decide that this information should be added to your individual, simply Confirm Match and you will be taken to a page where you can “extract” information from this record directly to your tree while adding the record and citation.

I did find that many of the Discoveries came from otherwise free sources on the internet, such as FamilySearch Trees and the US Census. One of my major discoveries after I uploaded my tree was the record shown above for Joseph Mayo, another 3rd great grandfather. This record actually came from the Chronicling American collection which we have covered extensively here.

It is a free collection and, had I ever looked in this database specifically for Joseph I may have discovered it on my own. However, we all know that one of the greatest challenges of family history research is time. Although I have used Chronicling America many times with great success, I do not have the time to search for every single one of my research targets there. MyHeritage’s Discoveries engine did some of the work for me – connecting me with a record I had no idea existed. In this way the Discoveries tool acts a powerful search partner for free and paid resources.

So what about the record that broke down my brick wall…

As mentioned, you can also view these record discoveries directly from the profile page of any person in your tree, a very convenient feature. It was in this way that I discovered the record that broke down by decade old brick wall – a 1912 Saint Louis, Missouri Certificate of Death that never came up in my research before. It was contained in the Missouri Death Certificates collection 1910-1960.

Of course, if I had known that my grandfather lived in Missouri I would have sought out this collection earlier and searched for his death (it is also available online through the Missouri Digital Heritage site)  – but I did not. He traveled so often, and I had so little information about him and his spouse, that this location did not occur to me. But, despite my lack of information on my ancestor, MyHeritage turned up this important record.

This illustrates the importance of having access to great tools in addition to great collections if you want to solve your own family mysteries. In this case, it was the Discoveries tool that helped me make this breakthrough. Although the record itself can be found online for free, who knows how long it would have been before I discovered it on my own.

If you’re ready to give these Discoveries a try for yourself you can sign up for a 14 day free trial here.

By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor

31 thoughts on “How I Finally Broke Down a 10-Year-Old Brick Wall in 10 Minutes”

  1. Cheryl B Hubbard

    I am a member of My Heritage already, so your suggestions about breaking down a wall for my 3rd great-grandfather (my situation is similar to what you described) won’t help me.

    In general, I like My Heritage’s features including the Discoveries. However, there is one drawback that I think readers should be aware of. When a “Discovery” comes up, you only see information about the main relative, not about all the other ones that accompany the main relative (there are usually several others. When you add the Discovery, it’s add all the relatives or none). Though I always look over what information there is and I do NOT add a Discovery if something important doesn’t match, even then I frequently find issues with the other relatives later on–duplicates, mistakes, dates that don’t make sense (like a child being born to a mother who is 70). Once they are all on my tree, the only thing I can do is go through each new one, check the information, then delete or edit, which can be tedious.

    Remember that Discoveries, just like family trees that you add or copy from any other source, are not infallible.

  2. Again, I’m 4 years late! Was just wishing for a German speaker two days ago. Germany is always interesting/occasionally frustrating because it seems the lines are drawn and redrawn so often. But it’s fun for this research nerd :0)
    I loved FamilySearch for so long, but there’s no oversight there at all, a lot of wonderful people who did this before the internet existed, all the things that make it possible for people like me to do a lot of this from home have left. It’s heartbreaking to lose those older people. So I spend more time at Ancestry and Wiki Tree. I’ve no idea how I’ll pay for it when the gift of a year subscription my Dad gave me for Christmas, to build trees, but mostly to work as quickly as possible saving memories for my precious Mom. She was dx’d with Alzheimer’s in her 60s. Every time I find something about her Grandfather at Ancestry, my heart just sings. So I’m trying to do as much as I can as fast as I can, while still reading every Census, I love the City Directories too. Great documents there.
    Every one of you who is generous, who shares photos and your time …. you may not know it now, but you’re a blessing. You’re also helping to save history! That’s a pretty cool legacy.

  3. Remember that GEDCOM also will not move your photos and sources. You’ll still need to go back and add those in.
    I’ve ended up doing all of it manually, and I have a few thousand people at Ancestry (I’m always asked what computer program I use 🙂 Pretty much the “I’m disabled with time on my hands and I type very fast” program). It helps me remember when I write it, and on shared trees, people aren’t following me to correct bad info about a shared ancestor.
    I thought I finally found a question I wasn’t four years too late to respond to. Maybe this will help someone though – the part about making sure you’ve moved/copied (we should say that, “moved a copy” also, as I’m sure you -Tara – are not alone in asking about this) your photos and sources to the newer site. I hope it all went really well!

  4. I took a discounted one year subscription to My Heritage (a 50% discount offered at an expo, which I had to fight for). I never got around to using the Discoveries function because I found their site very difficult to work with. I developed a whole page of questions and objections, but found their customer service via phone or e-mail to be atrocious, either not getting a response or only 4-5 days later. For example, I found their tree layout to be unwieldy compared to Ancestry, which also offers much better customer service. I’m glad you cautioned the use of Instant Discoveries, which are an absolute disaster. Smart Matches to me were “dumb matches” providing mostly uncorroborated information from member family trees. I found out that one person I supposedly matched up with was nothing but a name collector; I never could find out where we were related.

    After that one year elapsed, I decided to try again because of their supposedly superior German records, but cancelled when I could not get a response from them. Based on your article, I’m tempted to try again, but would only want to do that for the 14 day free trial.

    I don’t know if you can answer this: since I already have my tree on their site and have been a previous subscriber, would I still qualify for the 14 day free trial?

  5. Jacqueline Burch

    Yes, it is still available on Ancestry. You would be downloading the Gedcom file of your tree, it doesn’t remove the tree from your Ancestry account, it merely downloads a copy of the tree, which you can then upload or transfer as you see fit.

  6. If I export my tree from Ancestry to My Heritage, it’s still on Ancestry right? I want to use multiple sites, but don’t wan to lose all the info on my Ancestry tree.

  7. Shauna Wolff Reston

    I do have a subscription to My Heritage and have really under used it. One area that has
    amazed me are the number of German ancestors I have found. A whole slew of generations on my
    maternal great grandmother’s side.
    I did upload my Gedcom from Ancestry and as I recall, the photos did not upload. One question I
    would like answered: I have add a good number of new family members to my Ancestry tree and would like to
    find a simple way to add them to the My Heritage Tree. Is there a way to do this? Thank you!

  8. Yes, it took a just short time for the discoveries to start showing initially after the tree upload. Also, make sure your settings are marked to allow matches, as described in the article. Enjoy!

  9. I did this and had no matches. Does it take time for it to come up with matches? I have a large and extensive family tree.



  10. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for the great question. The record was a 1912 death certificate from Missouri and is part of the Missouri Death Certificate collection. I have updated the article to make his more clear.

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