Super Secrets of Successful Genealogists
9/27/2009
Beat your brick walls and defeat your dead ends with these strategies that professional genealogists use to solve their toughest challenges.

 

You were happily researching your ancestors in one record after another. Then all of a sudden, boom! You hit a dead end. You can't find anything more—it's as if they disappeared from the face of the earth. You're frustrated and unsure where to turn.

You've hit what genealogists call a "brick-wall" problem, and sooner or later it happens to everybody.

Maybe you can't find out who an ancestor's parents were, when someone immigrated, what a woman's maiden name was or where an ancestor came from. Maybe the records you need have been lost, or maybe they were never created in the first place.

Brick walls happen once you've searched all of the typical records for an ancestor: census, vital records, deeds, probate, military and so on. I've had many beginners tell me they've hit a brick wall. My first question is "Have you searched for this ancestor in all possible censuses?" Almost every time, the answer will be "No." To which I respond, "Then you can't be at a brick wall."

Make sure you've looked for your ancestors in all of the basic genealogical sources before you start tearing your hair out.

When you do hit a brick wall and you've done all the basics, what next? Professional genealogists, who bulldoze through brick walls for a living, have learned ways around these problems—secrets you can apply to your own ancestral dead ends. Here are a few of them:

  • Analyze what you've gathered, questioning everything.
    "I look at all I know and see if it can be confirmed," says one pro. "When I'm at a brick wall, I begin by assuming the information I have is correct, but something got recorded wrong, such as the spelling of a name, a wrong date or place." If that strategy doesn't work, then "I assume that there is something wrong with the information I have. Was she born when I thought she was? Is her name really Fanny? Why do I think she died in Manhattan? Then go from there."


    In other words, question everything. Don't assume that what you find in records—even legal documents—is correct. McVetty recommends using the "what if" approach: "Look at all the facts, then say, 'What if she didn't die in Manhattan? Where would the next logical place be?'"

  • Look for alternative sources.
    If you're new to genealogy, you may not realize all the different records out there. Don't get stuck by thinking all that's available is what's online or in the usual sources: vital records, censuses, deeds, wills, passenger lists and the like.

    Especially if you're researching in the South, chances are good you'll eventually hit a "burned county": A courthouse fire burned and some or all the records. Consider alternative sources such as city directories, tax records, property assessments, estate inventories and settlements, criminal cases, court minutes, coroner's files, commitment papers, newspaper items, business and employment records—the list is endless.

    Not every type of record exists for every era or place. But as Patricia Law Hatcher, a certified genealogist and fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, suggests, you need to "sit yourself down in the place where you know your ancestor and family lived and don't leave until you've looked at every word of every record that is connected to the extended family (not just the ancestor), neighbors and associates."

  • Study social history.
    Study social histories of your problem ancestor's ethnic group, time period and place. Social histories, such as Alice Morse Earle's Home Life in Colonial Days (Berkshire House Publishers) or Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg's Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (Free Press), give accounts of everyday people and their lives. These books won't list your ancestors by name, but they will give you clues and insight into people like your ancestors and what motivated them to make certain choices—which may affect your research direction. 

    For example, I learned from social histories on Italian-Americans that it was common for a man to immigrate and bring his family to America five or 10 years later. Dubbed "birds of passage," many of these men originally had no intention of staying in America; their goal was to earn enough money to buy land in Italy. 

    Once I found Albino DeBartolo on a passenger arrival list for 1905, even though his family didn't arrive until 1913, I went back to the passenger arrival lists to see if he fit the pattern of a returnee. Sure enough, he did. He made two more trips back and forth to Italy between 1905 and 1913.

    Had I not broadened my research to social histories and learned the typical migration pattern for this ethnic group, I might have missed these additional records. For more on how social history assists specifically in immigrant research, see my book A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant and Ethnic Ancestors (Betterway Books).