Whether you have been tracing your family for 30+ years, like me, or longer or shorter, you are going to hit a brick wall at some point, and many over time. So, how do you get passed them? I won’t lie, some are impossible to get passed, but you might be able to get around instead.
Sometimes if you look at different records, you might be able to get passed them. Or a worst-case scenario is you have to ignore it a few months, or years, then see what ‘new’ papers have come to light. Before doing that though follow these simple idea’s.
Re-examine all Your Information
The first step in overcoming a family tree brick wall is to re-evaluate all your information that got you to this point.
It might seem a waste of time going backwards, but that is most likely where the answer is, and you can look at your ancestor from a broader, more rounded, point of view.
You may have the information you require in your records. It may be something you thought irrelevant months, or years ago, but it may be the clue you are now needing. Did you find someone on the census you did not know and could not fit into your tree? Maybe that’s your man (or woman).
Did you find someone with a similar name in the BMD’s you ignored, but kept a record of him? That person could solve your family tree brick wall. Check for clues in what you have found and look at your family you have seen so far.
Also, check for any mistakes you made the first time around. Make sure you have proved everything yourself and not taken someone else’s tree and presumed it was correct. Make sure you have sources for all facts, especially the ones on which you are relying.
Question everything you think you know about the person you are looking for, remembering if you have an essential piece of information, whether you came across it by hearsay, assumptions or proven facts, it could still be incorrect. Try to test it again.
Mistakes can happen whether you have a certificate or your grandmother’s memory. Recheck everything with different documents or look at the original material if you only looked at the transcript before. Double check everything, spellings, dates, ages and places.
Use Genealogy Search Websites.
The next thing to do is broaden your search. Locate all possible records regarding the person you are searching. Make sure you have at least:
Birth certificate or baptism record
Marriage certificate or marriage or banns church records
Death certificate or burial record
Every census record they were on, including 1841. Remember, even though the 1841 transcript doesn’t show the family on it, you can look at the original to find parents, wife or children.
If you are lucky, you may discover census going back to 1801 when they began. They were done locally, so they are harder to find, and the information on them is sparse, but you may find a nugget if you are lucky. Try GenUK for pre-1841 census’ in the area you need.
Once you have as much information as possible, double check and cross check all your data, especially name and of birth.
Next try visiting libraries and archives in the area your ancestor came from, you might find things there you never found online.
Make a record of all your sources. You may find new things in books, online resources or a relative. For books make a note of the title and author, page number and library you found it in and what you found.
With online resources make a note of website address and the name of resource and the information, and for a relative make a summary of who said it and exactly what was said; this will ensure you do not forget in the future.
Try looking into if he moved away by searching further afield in census and BMD records. Try passenger lists to see if the person, or family, emigrated. Look at military records to see if he became a soldier or sailor. Look at occupational records if he had an apprenticed occupation.
Check parish records to see if he was mentioned. Check my blog Family genealogy records before 1837 by clicking here. Remember; this is not the end, just a change. You will have to try different ways to find them.
The further back in time you go, the more likely you will begin to encounter name variations. These are best being logged as they are. Once you go beyond 1850, the name could change several times.
Due to the levels of literacy, it is possible your ancestor could not spell his name and was relying on the enumerator to spell it. Many people couldn’t even recognise their name once it was written down so wouldn’t notice a spelling mistake, so variations in spellings were the norm.
Also, many people chose to change their name to Anglicise it, preferred their middle name to their first name, preferred to use a nickname or even changed their name to start over.
If children were named after parents, which was a common naming practice, the parents might call the child by their middle name to stop the confusion.
If you are having difficulty with locating someone try name variations spell names phonetically.
Put different vowels in or use obvious spelling mistakes. Use nicknames, Jack for John etc., and middle names.
Remember Age variations Were Sometimes Done on Purpose
Just the same that a name you have may be slightly different in the records, ages can also be a source of difficulty.
Your ancestor may have deliberately altered their age at some time for many reasons. Maybe they needed to be older to enlist in the army, or to get a job, or perhaps they were marrying someone much older (or younger) and wanted to make their partner look closer in age. Misinformation stated in one record had a habit of creating a knock-on effect, making the job of locating them much harder.
Also, age may be different from what you would expect through no fault of their own. It was not uncommon for a person to be unaware of their date of birth, and with birthdays not being celebrated as they are today, people did lose count of how old they were. The age at death is always a source of possible error due to it being dependent on information specified on behalf of the deceased.
If possible always double-check ages, collating all available certificates and matches on all censuses. With this information, you should be able to pin down an accurate year of birth and contribute to locating a person throughout their life.
Collateral Lines Maybe the Answer
If you have tried all of the above suggestions and still not got any closer to breaking down your brick wall, don’t give up.
Remember, it is not an end to your family tree, and that the next step you take in your research may very well lead you to the answer.
Researching the other lines within your family tree; the siblings of ancestors and broader family is not only an equally valid and vital part of your family history but also an excellent way of finding errors on your direct line. Collateral kin, as these ancestors are known, may be the key to unlocking the secrets of your more immediate relatives.
While collateral kin may seem remote, or perhaps irrelevant when viewed from a modern vantage point, there would have been a time when their ties to your ancestors were much closer.
The siblings of grandparents, or their cousins, might appear too distantly related to have a bearing but that is not the case. Research these lines, and find their certificates and other records may well lead you back to your direct line, from a new and exciting angle.
Perhaps the elusive ancestor you have been unable to trace was staying with them on the night of the census, maybe they were mentioned in a will, appear as a witness on a death certificate or even married within the family. Marriages between cousins were not unusual.
Researching collateral family will provide you with a broader understanding of your family history and help to put it into the background from when it came. It will also allow you to uncover many relatives that you were unaware of, some of whom you may wish to meet. The UK electoral registers records can help find people who are still alive.
Social History Might Explain why
The history of your family is intimately linked to the past of the time, and place in which they lived. Part of the enjoyment of genealogy is learning how your family lived, and the differences in their world. Events of their day would have had a noticeable effect on their day to day lives, perhaps causing them to move, change jobs or even cause their death.
Knowing that a deceased male ancestor was of fighting age in WW1 1914, for example, would naturally lead you to check for his death in the World War One records. Between 1914-1915 an estimated 250,000 British teenage boys enlisted while underage; 120,000 of them died. Their death records will show them as being older than they were, due to their having changed their age when signing up.
The industrial revolution led to marked changes in employment, as well as a large-scale movement of people. You may have an ancestor’s dates of birth and death but what do you know about their life? Why did they live where they did, who did they move with, or did they move towards someone? These are useful questions when looking to trace a lost ancestor.
Researching an area at the time when your ancestors lived there is a vital factor in the finding of them. You may find them reported in local newspapers, or maybe in legal documents relating to land, property or the local government. It will also supplement your understanding of where your family have come from and tie you to an area you had never previously noticed.
Other Researchers and Genealogy Brick Walls
While researching, you may have found new relatives or got back in touch with others, and it is always worth asking all relatives for help. Find out what they know. They may have photographs, stories or even their research to share.
It is also an idea to share your findings with your relatives, particularly any who you initially spoke when you started your family tree. Something or someone that you have discovered in your family history research may spark a memory they had previously overlooked. They may have heard something about the elusive family member which may have seemed trivial to them but could be of enormous value in narrowing down places and ages.
With the prevalence of genealogy resources and message boards on the internet, it is now become conceivable to contact others who may have researched branches of your family. While this can be of use, it is always essential to recheck for yourself, as using someone else’s research should be a guide rather than taking it as fact.
DNA and Breaking Down Brick Walls
You can try DNA testing to see if it links you to people you have never known were in your tree. By comparing trees, you may find your elusive ancestor. A child of their parents with a different name perhaps. It might just be that they have someone with a different name you do not have one your tree and when looking into the person, you find he’s your man (or woman!)
- Re-examine everything; every small error in your research can create a knock-on effect. An incorrect date, or name, could be the cause.
- Don’t limit yourself to just the birth, marriage, death and census records. There arebillions more resources. Try them all until you find them!
- Be wary of name variations, particularly as you begin to go further back in time.
- Expect differences in spelling and remember a person’s name can be spelt different several times during their lifetime.
- Remember that people’s ages may also vary, they may have been generous with the truth, or simply not known their exact date, or even year, of birth.
- Research collateral lines – investigating more distant branches of the family could lead you to solve the problems in your direct line.
- Discover more about the history of the area and period in which your ancestors lived: understanding exactly how they lived is critical.
- Continue to ask for help from your family, and the new relatives that you uncover with your research. Share your family tree online.