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Tearing Down Genealogical Brick Walls

Updated on January 19, 2016

What Is A Brick Wall?

In genealogy, a brick wall is when you cannot get past a certain point in your family line because all information seems to end at one person. For example, my biggest brick wall is my great grandfather; he was an absent father, and so all my grandfather knows about him is his name and approximate age. Because his name is rather common, finding any information about him has proven extremely difficult. Over the years, however, I have succeeded in tearing down many other brick walls. Here's a bit of advice on tearing down your own.

Joseph may have always remained a mystery if I had only looked for "Harding's".
Joseph may have always remained a mystery if I had only looked for "Harding's".

Think Outside the Box

We've all been there -- you've typed the same name, date of birth or death, and spouse name into every search engine you can think of. You've looked them up on Google, on FamilySearch, on census records, and in graveyards. You know your information is right, but they have somehow eluded any and all records. How is this possible?

I've had to learn the hard way that just because your information is right, that doesn't mean it's right elsewhere. Census takers often didn't ask the spelling of a name, they wrote it down as they heard it. One of my brick walls came down instantly when I realized that my 3xgreat-grandfather had been recorded in the census as Joseph Hardin. His actual surname was Harding. If you think outside the box a little by trying out alternate spellings or allowing an extra couple of years before and after their date of birth, you may just find them!

Post Early, Post Often

A lot of the information I've received has come from the unlikeliest of places. When I'm really stuck, I'll start posting the same query on every forum I can find. Facebook groups, genealogical forums, forums for a certain surname or city. The more places you post, the better your chances of getting a response.

Often, however, posts will get lost amongst everyone else's, so go back to the same forums every few months and post again. This will increase your visibility, making it more likely that someone will read it.

This picture got my grandmother talking!
This picture got my grandmother talking!

Jog Memories

We all have undoubtedly asked our relatives the basic questions: who was this person's parents, where were these people from, etc. I know I've harassed my family many times over the years to give me more information! Eventually, though, they believe they've told you everything they know. What I've discovered is that most of them know a lot more than they think they do, and you just have to get them talking for it to start pouring out.

I recently attended a family reunion for the Layton/Stalker side of my family. I have researched this line a great deal, and thought I had all of the information I was ever going to get. I was okay with that -- I actually had a great deal of information on that line, so I didn't really have any big questions. The only people that had remained mysteries were my 2xgreat-grandparents on the Layton side. I had asked about them several times, and no one seemed to know anything. I had never even seen a picture of them, despite having pictures of both of their parents. When we were looking through old photos at the reunion, we found a couple that no one could identify. We asked my grandmother, the eldest of all our living relatives, if she knew. She did, and proceeded to tell us everything about her grandfather and his second wife, Mr. and Mrs. Layton. I had asked her about them before, but she didn't say much. Simply asking her to identify a picture, however, had brought back all sorts of memories for her, and she not only told me about her grandfather, but also what little she could recall about her grandmother, and the story of how he met his second wife. There are several ways to jog a person's memory -- show them pictures, ask them different questions, ask them to confirm a story someone else told you. If you can get them talking, you will find they know a lot more than they let on to!

Have Patience

It's tempting to get frustrated and just give up on a certain line that seems to go nowhere. Don't. I had completely given up on one of my lines when, four years after I had posted about them on GenForum, a very distant relative contacted me with information that took me right back to the 1600s! You never know when or by whom your queries will be seen, so don't give up. Keep asking, keep searching and have patience.


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    KellyVial 6 years ago

    Voted up for this hub! Great information. I have been researching for several years now and I'm still stumbling around; only recently did I start my own genealogy blog with my research and after posting queries as you have, both on GenForum and Ancestry, I have come across a couple cousins I never knew existed. It is very interesting to find out they are researching the same ancestral lines that I am. It definitely helps especially when you have ancestors that have migrated from another country! Thanks for keeping me on top of things with this article ;)

  • moonlake profile image

    moonlake 6 years ago from America

    Loved your hub lots of good information. I have been doing genealogy for awhile now. My best hint came from my Aunt she said her great grandparents were Martin and Cassandra. That was when I knew for sure my cousin had our genealogy completely wrong. Gave you a up vote.