Ever wonder how you got stuck with such a difficult family tree to climb? You can barely get your research off the ground, let alone reach the highest branches. Meanwhile, it seems other genealogists are tracing their roots back to the Middle Ages!
Don't worry: All family historians get research block sooner or later. And you don't have to be biologically blessed to break through it. Take a hint from these five winners of our Brick-Wall Busters Contest. They came up with creative solutions to some of the most common genealogical conundrums—and their methods are remarkably easy to employ. Give your research a boost by adopting these habits of highly successful family historians.
1. Don't miss the mark.
I had no record of my grandfather's birthplace in Poland. One day I was cleaning out my mother's dresser drawer and going through her stamp collection, when I came across an envelope with a canceled stamp from Poland. It was from a relative of my grandfather, with whom he'd corresponded in the early 1900s. The town in Poland, Brzozow, was clearly printed on the postmark—much easier for me to decipher than Polish script.
2. Map it out.
The US Geological Survey's highly detailed topographical maps cover small areas and label creeks, family cemeteries, tiny rural churches and more. They're available in many libraries, or you can view and order them online. Many libraries also have a comprehensive index to the names on these maps, the Omni Gazetteer of the United States of America. In it, I found a list of 41 Jordan cemeteries across the country.
3. Get on target.
Copy and enlarge a map with your town of interest in the center. Using the distance scale, draw concentric circles at regular intervals, such as 10 miles, from that town—you'll end up with what looks like a target. Then make an alphabetized list of town names appearing within each pair of rings. When you're working with records, you can refer to your list and determine if a strange-sounding location might be in proximity to your area of interest. For example, it was only after doing this exercise for Tolpuddle, Dorset, England, that I realized Dewlish (about which I'd received e-mails) was actually just down the road.
4. Reach out to other researchers.
I believe in leaving my name, surnames I'm researching and contact information (email address, mailing address and phone number) every place I can think of. I left my genealogy card on a laundry bulletin board in the small town where my great-grandmother lived, and got four phone calls with information about her.
—Jana Jordan Shaw
5. Start a letter-writing campaign.
I was getting nowhere on my search for my mother's father's family. I found Mom's old address book and started searching for family members. I put together an introductory newsletter with contact information, an explanation of what I was doing and a request for help. I was amazed at the replies—emails, letters, photos, family information and names of more relatives to send the newsletter to. Now I do a newsletter about four times a year, and still get new information and meet new relatives. It's been a wonderful experience that's helped fill in a lot of my blanks.
Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada