I see family historians stumbling over the same two metaphorical genealogy brick walls time and time again. In this article learn about the most common genealogy brick walls and learn how to solve them using real life examples.
Table of Contents
A LACK OF DATA
These brick walls in your research are caused by not being able to find the information you need, either in order to go further back in time or to fill in a gap in your research. The records you normally use simply don’t exist, the page where you’d expect to find your ancestor is missing, damaged or illegible.
Infamous examples of missing or damaged records include the WWI Burnt Collection and the great number of Irish records destroyed during the Civil War.
Disasters such as floods, fires, war, political or religious turmoil can all affect the regular recording of data. Many parish records have gaps around the time of the English Civil War.
Alternatively, the records you need might still exist but the site where they’re held is currently closed. Or, you might know what information you need but be unaware of the type of record that could contain the necessary data.
TOO MUCH DATA
Have you ever found that, despite having facts about your ancestor(s), there are too many possible records relating to them and you can’t narrow down the data?
For example, my 4x Great-Grandmother Elizabeth Williams was born in Dyserth, Flintshire (or Denbighshire), Wales and her father was John Williams. Both are extremely common names in Wales and it took a DNA test to enable me to determine which Williams was mine!
Screen shot with my markings in colour from GRO Index of Births for Elizabeth Williams born 1843 (+/- 2 yrs) in St Asaph registration district.
Sadly a solution to these genealogy brick wall problems can’t always be guaranteed. However, it’s important not to give up hope and to regularly revisit old ‘brick walls’ that have held you up in the past.
Looking at a problem with fresh eyes, or in light of a new record release, can help to break down the problem. Here are some examples of how I’ve solved (or tried to solve!) my own genealogy brick walls.
GENEALOGY BRICK WALL: CASE STUDY ONE
Case study one looks at a real life example of genealogy brick walls caused by a lack of data.
My Great-Grandfather was known as Sam Pithers. His son, my Grandad, had told me that Sam was born on 7 July 1901. You’d think finding his birth registration would be easy: Pithers is an unusual name and I knew Sam’s exact date of birth.
The Wrong Name – No one had thought to tell me that ‘Sam’ wasn’t my Great-Grandfather’s real name. I spent days looking on the GRO indexes for a Sam or Samuel Pithers with assorted name variations but couldn’t find his birth, marriage or death.
I went back to my Grandad and explained my problem and was informed that Sam was a nickname and that my Great-Grandfather’s real name was George William Pithers.
The ‘William’ part of his name was hotly debated,too. Apparently Sam’s own mother stated he’d never had a middle name but Sam insisted he did!
My Great-Grandparents, Annie Louisa Pithers (nee Higgs) and the elusive George William Pithers AKA Sam.
A Second Attempt
When that glorious brown envelope arrived it confirmed that Bill’s fathers name was the same as the father’s name on Sam’s marriage certificate, George William Pithers. I had solved the genealogy brick wall – although I still hadn’t got my direct ancestors certificate.
Sam was born in July and his birth should have been registered within weeks of his birth, otherwise his mother would have received a fine.
Finally I have my Great-Grandfather’s birth certificate. I solved the genealogy brick wall.
GENEALOGY BRICK WALL: CASE STUDY TWO
In this genealogy brick wall case study, we explore cases caused by too much data.
I’ve often found genealogy brick walls caused by too much data harder to break down than those caused by a lack of data. However, one method to tackle the problem of ‘too much info’ is to look at what ‘can’ be done rather than focusing on wading through hundreds of names trying to eliminate one at a time.
Wherever possible, look at your ancestors, siblings, any brothers and sisters in law, your ancestors’ spouses (whether a blood relation or not), their friends (marriage witnesses) and neighbours. This approach is often referred to as FAN resarch (Friends, Associates, Neighbours).
After all, real genealogy isn’t just about going as far back in time as possible but about really getting to know your ancestors.
Keeping a detailed record of your searches and workings is essential. It’s easy to forget exactly which records you’ve looked at, not to mention all of the search variations you may have performed. See this article on research logs for more help.
Defining a problem and the steps that you have taken towards solving it will help you to focus on the issue you are seeking to resolve. Genealogy problem-solving involves careful, logical steps to disprove or prove information.
Recording your problem and your workings will enable you to revisit genealogy brick walls as and when new data arises – or when you get a new idea, or simply learn about a source you never knew existed.
Below is a sample of a log I created whilst searching for one of my ancestors. The log is saved in Microsoft Word in a folder relating to the line in question. It spans four pages in total and I have others that are much longer. In addition I have more ‘scrappy’ notes saved in Evernote. Find a system that works for you.
If at first you don't succeed...have you thought of DNA?
Two of my Welsh genealogy brick walls were solved by asking my mother to take a DNA test. Even then I still had to complete several spreadsheets and meticiuoulsy research and rule out several ‘Elizabeth Williams’. Read more about DNA analysis here.
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