Saturday, April 3, 2021

Ten Tips and Tricks for Breaking Down Brick Walls

Hello again, everyone! For our first post of 2021, I decided to reach out to the Genealogy! Just Ask! community on Facebook and ask what topics they would like to see covered. One of the most requested topics was "tips for solving brick walls," and to be honest I was a little hesitant to take it on. It's been covered in other blogs, and by some that are much more experienced than me. But then I remembered the reasoning behind one of my tips: sometimes, all you need is a fresh set of eyes! I hope that this list will help someone send a wrecking ball right through their brick wall.

01. Reevaluate what you already have.

This might seem self-explanatory, but don't underestimate the power of taking another look at the records that you already have. In a previous blog post, I wrote about how I made the mistake of taking another researcher's work as fact; but when I took another look at the records, I found that I had the wrong parents attached to my great-great-grandmother. Sometimes a fresh perspective can help you find the details that you might have missed before. 

02. Check for related spellings of both first and last names.

If you have had little success using databases to find records pertaining to a specific ancestor, try searching for a different spelling. For instance, it took me a long time to find a death record for my great-great-grandfather because his last name was listed as "Kissinger" instead of "Kessinger." If you're not sure which spelling might have been used, most databases have an option to search for an "exact match" or to search for "exact and related" matches. 

03. Look for people with the same last name located in the same area in census records.

Even today, families tend to stay in the same general geographic areas. Searching census records for people of the same last name in the same location can give you a clue as to who possible relatives might be. I used this trick to find the parents of my 5th-great-grandmother, and was able to confirm my findings with genetic genealogy research (you can read about it at this post). My favorite site for this kind of search is Family Search, as you can search by name, location, and relation to another person.

04. Look for clues in the names of your ancestor's children.

Naming children after family members is a practice that many still use today, but a century ago it was very much the norm. For instance: if your brick wall ancestor has a child with an unusual name - particularly one that sounds more like a surname - there is a good chance that it is the maiden name of a mother or grandmother. For instance, my ancestors, Joseph Chew and Ruth Larkin, had a son named Larkin Chew.

People of Scotch-Irish descent had a specific pattern for naming their children that followed their family trees. The usual path of this pattern was:

The first son was named after the father’s father.
The second son after the mother’s father.
The third son after the father.
The first daughter after the mother’s mother.
The second daughter after the father’s mother.
The third daughter after the mother.

There are many examples of this pattern being followed in my own family tree. It is a good place to start when searching for the parents of a Scotch-Irish brick wall ancestor.

05. Use the triangulation method.

Sometimes you may not find a document that comes out and says "the parents of John Doe are James and Jane Doe," but you might be able to find pieces of information on several documents that make a compelling case for James and Jane being John Doe's parents. 

Here is an example from my own tree (more detailed information at this Find a Grave profile):

01.  In the 1850 Federal Census Josiah Moore, age 26, and his family are shown living next door to Joseph Moore, age 55, and his family. Joseph Moore's spouse, referred to as "H. Moore," lists her birthplace as Vermont.

02. In the 1900 Federal Census Josiah Moore is found living in Kanawha Co., WV with his second wife, Rebecca, and their children; he lists his mother's birthplace as "Vermont."

03.  In the book Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County, West Virginia by William Thomas Price, published in 1901, the author states that "Joseph Moore was a soldier in the war of 1812. During his service he met and married Hannah Cady ....Their family consisted of five daughters and three sons: Hannah, Sarah, Matilda, Margaret, Abigail, Daniel, Joseph, and Henry Harrison."

From these three sources, we can deduce that (1) Joseph Moore and Hannah Cady had a son that Historical Sketches lists as "Joseph," which is no doubt meant to be "Josiah"; (2) Josiah Moore at one time lived next door to Joseph and "H." Moore, who was from Vermont; (3) Josiah Moore stated in a later census record that his mother's birthplace was Vermont. Although none of these documents (nor any others, unfortunately) actually come out and say that Joseph and Hannah are Josiah's parents, the other information provided on these records proves beyond reasonable doubt that Josiah was their son.

06. Pension records can be a wealth of information.

For veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil wars especially, pension records can provide a wealth of information that might otherwise not have been recorded. Birth, marriage, and death records prior to 1900 were spotty to say the least, and were often the victims of floods and fires. 

The following is an excerpt from a previous blog post that I wrote regarding this topic:

"On several occasions between 1776 and 1867, Congress enacted legislation that allowed veterans, their widows, and their orphaned children to apply for government pensions in exchange for their (or their relative's) service during the Revolutionary War. Each act after 1776 expanded on the benefits received by the veterans and their families.

In order to establish that the people applying for the pensions truly were entitled to the pension benefits, they had to appear in court and give testimony about such details as when and where they served in the continental army, which company they were in, and who commanded it. Widows and children of the veterans had to provide additional information, such as the date and location of their marriage, the date and location of their spouse's death, and the date and location of their own births. Occasionally they would be required to bring witnesses to attest to these facts, and to provide additional evidence that they were who they said they were."

The Revolutionary War pension record of my 4th-great-grandfather, John Wright, told us in which company he served, his marriage date, the maiden name of his wife, his wife's father's name, the places of residence for John and his wife at the time of their marriage, John's date of death, his wife's date of death, the fact that his wife had a sister who married a Humphries, the fact that they had a son who died in the War of 1812, and the names and places of residence for all of their surviving children and their spouses. This kind of information would ordinarily take dozens of records to compile, if it even existed at all; but because John was entitled to a pension, it was all compiled into one place.

07. Branch out to people associated with your brick wall ancestor.

As mentioned above in the section on the triangulation method, you might not always find a record that comes out and says that "John Doe is the son of James and Jane Doe." However, you might know from a census record or an obituary that John Doe had a sister named Janet Doe, and Janet Doe might have a death record that lists the names of her parents. Branching out to people that you know were associated with your brick wall ancestor might just provide you with the wrecking ball you've been looking for.

08. Reach out to other researchers.

Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is all that is needed to bust through a brick wall. I searched for the parents of my 3rd-great-grandmother for many years with no luck, and at one point even came up with a crazy theory about why I could never find her family. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that I would never know for sure, when a fellow researcher happened across the crazy theory blog post when searching for information about someone connected to my 3rd-great-grandmother. She had some knowledge about and experience with the geographical area that my ancestor was from, and because of that was able to have the mystery solved within an hour or so. I had tears in my eyes as I wrote a follow-up post explaining the fellow researcher's findings, and how every other pieces of information I had about my ancestor then fell seamlessly into place.

09. Get off the internet.

The databases and family trees of fellow researchers that can be found online are an amazing resource, but you can't always find everything that you're looking for on the internet. For every record collection that has been uploaded an indexed, there are a dozen record collections that still only exist in print in the archive room of a tiny little county courthouse somewhere. Go out and search these courthouse archives, genealogy societies, and cemeteries in person, and you might very well find a land deed or a transcript of a court case that gives you the information that you are looking for.

10. DNA doesn't lie.

If all paper records have failed you, DNA might not. If you know the last name of your brick wall and they are within 5-6 generations, there is a good chance that you can use the family trees of your DNA matches to at least point you in the right direction. For example: if your brick wall's name is John Doe and he is your 3rd-great-grandfather, search your match's trees for the last name of "Doe." If you come up with a dozen matches that all descend from various children of Jacob Doe, who is the correct age and in the correct location to be John Doe's father, there is a good chance that Jacob is John's father. You may even be able to find a will or another document that lists John Doe as a son of Jacob. 

I have notes from a presentation that I gave a couple years ago that goes into a little bit more detail about this process, which you can view at this post.

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This concludes my list of ten tips and tricks for breaking down brick walls! Please let me know if any of these tips work for you, and please feel free to let me know about any other trips or tricks that you have found to be effective.

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