28 March 2011
Brick walls are an inevitable part of any research
I have come to realize that any family tree research will have a brick wall, or two, or even fifty when it comes to research. Sometimes, that brick wall is in the form of a person actually preventing you from getting information on a family. Other times it is in the form of the lack of information at your fingertips.
Overcoming some brick walls can sometimes take months if not years of research. Sometimes the brick wall crumbles with a simple search through a database or some records, other times a brick wall will remain stubbornly in place for years to come, particularly if the ancestor with the brick wall has a very common name like Thomas Smith or John Fielding.
Here are some helpful hints for overcoming some brick walls:
Network, network, network!!
Any great genealogist will tell you that the best way to break down a brick wall is networking. Sharing what you have and asking for help often helps break down brick walls.
Be willing to share what you have with others. A great help to me, though one I have not used in a bit, are genealogical message boards, such as Ancestry.com, and MyHeritage offer great ways to get in touch with others who may be researching the same lines as you, or who may be able to offer advice on who to contact in regards to information.
Mailing lists are another great way to connect and network with people who may be able to help you with a genealogical brick walls. For instance, if you are researching a family line in California but live in New York and can't get to a courthouse to search for a record, you can join a mailing list where volunteers might be able to do it for you for free. (Likewise, it's always nice to offer to do look ups in your own area to help someone across the country or even in another part of the state). Also, mailing lists, like forums, offer advice and websites that you may have overlooked when searching for info. Some of my best breakthroughs came from posts I made on mailing lists. See http://www.cyndislist.com/ for more information on mailing lists and to help determine what one is best for you.
Sharing information you find regularly with relatives often helps as well, for they can often catch a mistake or something new might spark a memory of some random cousin or distant relative that they may have forgotten years ago. Sometimes, sharing what you have online on sites such as Rootsweb.com (which has the option to clean anyone living off of your family tree) in the form of even the bare bones research, helps others compare and connect to you and break through those brick walls you have.
Education still pays
Every family is different. Every genealogy is different. Because the world is made up of different religions and cultures and languages, sometimes researching can be difficult.
It pays to educate yourself about the different areas and times that your ancestors lived in. For example, part of my husband's family emigrated from Poland when it was divided into partitions by Austria, Russia and Prussia. His family happened to live in Galicia, which was ruled by Austria at the time of their immigration to America. Therefore, half of the documents that the family has in regards to their immigration list Austria as their country of origin. This lead part of the family to believe that they were Austrian instead of Polish. Had the research into the country and its history not been done, some brick walls may never have come down. Another instance is the fact that my father's family lived on the north side of Pittsburgh before it was the grand city it is today. Back then, it was called Temperanceville and then Allegheny City before it was incorporated into Pittsburgh in the early 20th century. Not knowing this, in my early research days I looked for records from Pittsburgh when I did research, and was at a loss when I could not come up with any information. It wasn't until I sat down and read the history of Pittsburgh that it dawned on me to find out where my family had lived, and I was able to break down a brick wall to find several generations of family members and numerous distant cousins willing to help me research, as well as different ideas on where to look for sources.
It also pays to educate yourself on the different sources out there that are readily available for you to use. From censuses to public records, to databases and family history books, there is a plethora of sources readily available for use. The trouble is, they can be a formidable challenge to use if you do not know where to look. Take the time to learn how to use materials and what kinds of materials are out there to use. A great way to find info if you are internet savvy is to use lists like http://www.cyndislist.com/ (it's one of my favorites, if you can't tell) to find info on resources. Google.com is another awesome way to look up resources, if you know how to word it right. If not, books like
Make it a point to learn not only about your family bu where they live. Make it a point to learn about different research materials out there. Never stop trying to learn!
Patience is a virtue, even in genealogy
Sometimes it can take years to break down a brick wall. I hunted for the parents of my great-grandmother for ten years before I finally found them on a census form where she was listed under a misspelled name. Sometimes the sources aren't easily accessible for you to research, sometimes your ancestor moved and you don't know where or why. Learn to be patient. Keep in mind that the best genealogists often spend a lifetime researching their family trees.
Reanalyze your data
This is where sourcing comes in handy (from my last blog entry). Often you will hit brick walls that can easily be overcome just by looking over the data you have collected again. Sometimes a fact that you overlooked the first time you saw the info will jump out at you, or a piece of research that you filed away because it didn't pertain to your research at the time will be vital now. Go through the sources again with a fresh mind. A letter a cousin sent years ago to led me to find a crucial piece of info recently on a branch I have been working on. Going through data helps you to have stronger research, as well as helps to paint a bigger picture of just who your ancestors are.
With these steps, most of those brick walls will come apart. Below are some books I have found useful in my genealogy quest.