Discover your inside story with AncestryDNA®

October 6, 2010

Brick Wall Ancestor? Go AROUND or OVER!

We've all encountered it. The infamous brick wall where you are absolutely bogged down researching an ancestor. You can't find any records. You don't know where to look next. You're completely stuck!

When this happens, what do you do? Don't waste energy trying to force your way through, go AROUND or OVER that wall!

The first thing you need to do is step away. Set the problem aside for a few days, weeks or even months. Then look at it with fresh eyes. Analyse what you have leading up to the brick wall moment. Think  outside the box and come up with creative alternatives to the path you were following.

Let me give you an example of two brickwalls concerning one ancestor - William Massey.

Brick Wall #1: My hubby did not know where in Ireland his 3rd great grandfather William Massey came from. He searched for several years and found many records and documents but nothing gave him the county or town of origin.

William is buried in St Mary's Ontario and we've been to the cemetery and seen his tombstone. We have his death certificate. No obituary was found. It suddenly occured to hubby that the cemetery where William is buried is a new one, built several years after William's death. That meant William had been buried in the old cemetery and his remains moved along with others when the new one was built.

So hubby found the records of the move from the old to the new cemetery and there it was - the notation from the ORIGINAL cemetery burial records that William Massey was from Wicklow Ireland. Brick Wall #1 solved by thinking about the records already found and coming up with an alternate research plan.

Brick Wall #2: Hubby now had a county of origin in Ireland, but how to find a more precise location such as a Town or City? He struggled with this brick wall for many years. Nothing he found gave him more detailed information. The brick wall seemed insurmountable. So hubby did everything you are not supposed to do in genealogy!

He began a study of every single Massey name in Wicklow Ireland. He carefully compiled data (massive amounts of it!) on all Masseys living in that county before 1830. This took years. On a hunch he honed in on similar first names (naming patterns) found in his Massey branch. This took him to a smaller geographic location within Wicklow - Delgany.

He was treading now on dangerous genealogy ground! He needed to be careful to not make any assumptions based simply on finding similar names. He was careful to look for proof of his hunch - he would not even call it a working theory, it was always just his hunch or best guess. He looked for supporting proof.

Even when he found that one branch of the Massey line with those similar first names had left Delgany for Ontario at about the same time as his William Massey, he didn't declare the two lines related. He just kept it as another bit of fodder that strengthened his hunch, and his resolve to keep hunting!

Then he connected with two other researchers, both with proven descent from the Delgany Masseys. After a few years of sharing their research findings with each other, my husband decided it was time to take another step. He took a DNA test from and asked one of the women to have her uncle take the same test. Their Massey ancestor left Delgany for Ontario around the same time his Massey ancestor arrived in Canada and hubby was convinced they shared a common ancestor - but needed proof.

The results were conclusive. My husband and his contact's uncle shared a common ancestor. And thus Brick Wall #2 was solved.

Overcoming these brick walls took patience (it took my husband almost 20 years), hard work, creative thinking and being careful to not leap to conclusions without proof.

So my advice is: don't try to bust through a brick wall with sheer power. Step back, take a break and think about the situation then go AROUND or OVER that seemingly insurmountable hindrance to your genealogy!


Carol said...

Excellent post and fabulous examples!!!

Barbara Poole said...

I'm thinking I'd like to borrow your husband to do some research for me. Nice article, and thank you.