5 Ways to Demolish a Brick WallDecember 19th, 2014
A quick reminder – on Fridays from 10am-noon at Curtis Library you can generally find a volunteer in the Curtis Genealogy Room. These wonderful folks are there to help beginner genealogists start their research and to assist more advanced genealogists in answering specific questions. They love having specific projects to sink their teeth into so please stop by.
Today’s subject – brick walls in your genealogy research. Anyone who has done genealogy for any length of time has run into the frustrating situation of finding one ancestor that you just can’t get past in your research.
I’ve decided to make 2015 the year that I finally get past the brick wall in my family research so I’m in the process of collecting as many ways of doing that as possible. I thought I would share the five tools that have proved most helpful to me so far – I hope they work for you.
1. Be willing to research the “old way”. The “old way” means turning off your computer and instead walk through a cemetery to find dates on tombstones. It means going through dusty old records to find a will. It’s how genealogists did most of their research before computers and if you are willing to do this, it’s amazing what you can find. People who put information into computers make mistakes. Sometimes, the only way you can work through those mistakes is by looking at an original historical record yourself.
2. Try cluster genealogy research. When you hit a brick wall with a specific family or individual, try researching the “cluster” of people around your mystery individual. That means digging into the lives of siblings, cousins, neighbors, or other community members. Often, what you learn about them can lead you to more information about your mystery person.
3. Go through all of the information you do have one more time. This idea seems pretty simple but it does work. Pull out every single piece of information that you have collected about your mystery person and re-read it. You’ve probably learned a lot since you started your research and it is possible that a fact that made no sense when you started suddenly enlightens you in a whole new way. Or, you may discover a piece of information that you totally missed the first time around.
4. Apply Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor (or the principle of parsimony) is a problem-solving principle. Basically, it says that the simplest answer is usually correct. When you find yourself creating elaborate stories about why you can’t find an ancestor in the census where you are pretty sure he should be, apply Occam’s Razor. Is it more likely that your ancestor moved to Tahiti during a census year and that’s why you can’t find him, or that his named just got misspelled by the census taker?
5. Ask for help. Genealogists are a very friendly, helpful bunch. Some of them have been doing genealogy for years and are happy to get a new problem to research. Find websites or Facebook pages focused on your area of interest and then post questions. A wonderful genealogist in Ontario researched one whole branch of my family for me because she had books in her personal library with the information I needed. Just jump in and ask your questions and when you have the chance to do the same for someone else, pay it forward!
That’s it for this week. I’ll let you know how I do this year in taking down that brick wall. I can feel it in my bones (that’s a little genealogy joke…) that this is my year for finding my g-g-g-grandfather! Wish me luck!