Revive Your Genealogy Dead Ends Using Sources

There is nothing more frustrating than hitting genealogy dead ends. No one likes being stuck, and those brick walls can sometimes feel taller than our (family) trees.

Whilst all genealogy dead ends are different, reviewing your sources is a great way of breaking through brick walls.

3 Areas to review for genealogy dead ends

In this article we’ll look at each of the above source areas that I have identified as necessary to nail, in order to build a flourishing family tree. Getting to grips with your sources will help you break through that genealogy dead end and get back to growing your family history!

Sources Can Clear Genealogy Dead Ends

The most common reasons for genealogy dead ends are not being able to find your ancestor in a source or not being able to find the source you need. So lets take a closer look at this aspect of tracing your family history.


Have you considered the context of your record? Not just it’s purpose but the historical context around it’s creation.

Optical Illusion illustrating the need for context in order to see clearly and break through genealogy dead ends
Think of context as being like an optical illusion. If you have the context you can see clearly and therefore break through a genealogy dead end.

Example of how this can help you bust through genealogy dead ends: 

A record created during a time of high illiteracy may not have been filled out by your ancestor. They may have asked a more literate son to help or a neighbour. They may have filled it out themselves but made errors because their literacy was poor. So, have you checked all spelling possibilities? Have you considered the evidence is faulty, because it was completed by someone who didn’t know all the facts?

A record was required and not completing it (e.g. a birth registration) would lead to a fine. Compliance was high. Therefore, it is worth spending extra time searching this source – even if it means looking at unindexed versions.

A record was desired but non-compliance was not punished in any way. Is there an alternative source worth pursuing?


Have you analysed the sources that you have found thoroughly enough? Have you extracted all the information possible? Or would re-visiting them help to break through your genealogy dead ends.

Example of how this can help you bust through genealogy dead ends:

An example of this is expanding your analysis to take into account the names of people mentioned that do not appear to be part of your own family tree. Such as witnesses to marriages or neighbours on a census. Can tracing these people help to lead you to your own family?

Organisation, Purpose and Relationship

How are the sources organised? Could it be that you’re missing a record held at a different level within the archival structure that might help you?

What was the source used for? Why was it created? Are there any alternatives that were created for similar reasons? Are there any other reasons for recording that information? If so, where might those records be held? What is the relationship between the records?

Organised files representing how organisation can break genealogy dead ends

Example of how this can help you bust through genealogy dead ends:

You cannot find your ancestors baptism record. Understanding that two copies of baptisms were created – the parish register (PR) and the bishops transcripts (BT), means you now have two places to double check. It’s possible your ancestor was accidently left off a PR and added on to the BT’s or that they were originally recorded on the PR but accidently not copied across to the BT! Have you checked both?


Sources should be looked at in conjunction with each other in order to build up a pattern of possibilities.

Example of how this can help you bust through genealogy dead ends:

You have your ancestors birth certificate and it states that he was born in 1850. However, some of the census puts his birth as 1849. Which is correct? You need to cross-reference with other data and you need to go back and look at the context of the birth source. Were a few weeks added on to his birth age in order for the family to avoid a late registration fee? Or was he claiming he was born after his parents marriage, whereas in reality he was born before? If so – is there other information within which he’s using his mother’s surname.

How To Cite

If you haven’t recorded your sources accurately then you may not be able to go back and find them again. Make sure you’re not ‘remembering’ what a source said, it’s so easy to forget something or get muddled. Make sure you cite everything correctly so you can find it again!

Recording your sources to tackle genealogy dead ends

We often have to review sources multiple times in order to extract every clue from them. Citing sources can also help you to look for clues about the record itself.

Example of how this can help you bust through genealogy dead ends:

I find a Master Mariners certificate on Ancestry and I note that the original record is held at The National Archives (TNA).

This location offers me another place to visit in order to get the context, organisation, purpose etc for this record.

Archives also usually hold online guides on different records that they hold. Reading the TNA guide on mariners might help me identify new searches that I can perform or a different way of reviewing my existing finds.

Perform A Source Audit

Take this article and use it as a checklist. Perform a check of all the elements we’ve covered and review your sources. Let me know how you get on and where you’ll be searching next!

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