Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ten Things to Try When you Hit a Genealogical Brickwall

Every month on the 10th day I publish a blog post with a top ten list…

The proverbial genealogical brickwall is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to your discovering the identity or parentage of an ancestor on your family tree.  Sometimes, with just a few new ideas or hints, the answer will suddenly become apparent, and you can “smash” your brickwall.  Other times, unfortunately, you will run into a dearth of written records and must admit defeat.

Here are the top ten ideas I have used to smash brickwall genealogical problems.  You may have other ideas, and some new strategies I haven’t thought of, so please feel free to leave your “smashing tool” ideas in the comments or email me at

Let’s break a few brickwalls today!

1.) Get it in writing.  This is one of the most effective ways I have found to see the holes and gaps in my research.  Usually I write a “Surname Saturday” post every week for this blog.  By taking the time to write up a short sketch on an immigrant ancestor, I can immediately see discrepancies in dates, missing parents, poor sources, and missing citations.  By cleaning up the data, storylines, citations, checking new sources that might be available (books and newly published articles), I often find answers to my own questions.  More than a handful of times I have “smashed” a brickwall while getting a “Surname Saturday” post ready for publication. 

2.)  Share your written sketch (complete with all your citations) with other people.  Pass it around to members of your genealogy club. Email it to a genealogy colleague.  Post it online.  Blog about it.  Sometimes you have stared at your problem for so long you can no longer see what you are lacking in evidence.  Or someone else may know of an archive or source you haven’t thought about yet.  Don’t forget that sharing includes DNA and surname study projects.  You never know what you will uncover unless you share are willing to share.

3.)  Revisit the latest research.  I usually write about New England ancestors, so I double check books like Martin Hollick’s New Englanders in the 1600s for the latest published research.  This book only covers research up to 2010, so my next step is to go online or to my bookshelves to see what has been published since that date in my favorite journals.  Learn how to use PERSI for searching scholarly journals.   I double also check the online card catalogs at NEHGS, FamilySearch, Allen Country Public Library, the state libraries, historical societies, and other places for new books. Query your favorite archivists and librarian by email or pick up the phone. Use all these clues and articles to look for the original records which may have additional information you need to break down your brickwall. 

4.)  Visit the hometown of the problem ancestor, if at all possible, or take a virtual trip by email and perusing the internet.   Is there a historical society nearby?  A public library with a special collections department in genealogy or local history?  Ask the librarian to tell you what is available that you may have missed.  There may be resources unknown to you that could unlock clues about your family.  A local person might also know name variations or spelling variations you haven’t considered.

5.)  Since most of my brickwall ancestors are women, finding a maiden name can often be the biggest clue to finding her identity and parentage.  Court records can be invaluable here, especially in cases of divorce, deeds, guardianship, name changes, and citizenship.  Sometimes newspaper marriage announcements, obituaries or social pages may name a woman’s maiden name that is missing in vital records.  You can find articles, book, classes and webinars designed to help you find maiden names.

6.) Extended family such as siblings, in-laws, cousins, second marriages (and third and fourth marriages) and other distant relatives are often ignored by some genealogists, but learning more about these relatives can often help you understand your ancestry.  Intermarriages between cousins is more common than you think, especially the further you go back in time.  When you hit a brickwall, try working sideways on the family tree for clues.  Finding the vital records on all the siblings might yield a mother’s maiden name, or a cousin’s record could name a common ancestor that is new to you.

7.)  Who were the neighbors and friends of your brickwall ancestor?  Did you look for relatives living nearby on census records, maps, directories and tax records? A little investigating might prove that the neighbors with different surnames might actually be sisters, female relatives or other cousins.  Business associates, business partners, guardians, recipients of letters and gifts might also prove to be close or distant relatives. It can be well worth the time to investigate these friends, neighbors and their family trees.

8.)  Join a Facebook group for the surname, geographic location, religion or ethnic group of your brickwall ancestor.  This doesn’t mean you post a query and wait, but joining a group and frequently reading comments will keep you up-to-date on the latest research and discoveries that might help you.  Get friendly with the members of the group.  Some of the Mayflower groups I belong to have some of the most renowned authors for Pilgrim research frequently answering questions.  The “Explore Congregational Church History”  Facebook group has some wonderful ministers and theologians who are expert on the early Puritan church.  You never know who is on Facebook!

9.)  Hire an expert.  Many people think that hiring a professional genealogist is a big, expensive project.  However, you can hire a genealogist to do a lookup, visit an archive, or to work on a small, specific genealogical problem like your brickwall ancestor.   It doesn’t have to be a major expense,  because you can have a professional give you an estimate for the project ahead of time.  If you are seriously stuck, this is a good option to get you jump started.  There are online membership directories for professional genealogists at the Board for Certification of Genealogists or the Association of Professional Genealogists to help you find a specialist.  

10.)   Relax. Be willing to wait.  New resources become available all the time. Look at all the lost records that are found every year in archives and libraries.  More items are digitized and indexed every day. If you can’t solve your brickwall today, put it aside and revisit the problem next year.  Later you will be refreshed, and can look at your problem with "new eyes".   After a waiting period, run through all the new resources, articles and books that were published during the interim, and recheck your queries online.  I’ve had queries answered months, years and in one case, decades later!


Other strategies for brickwall ancestors include keeping a good research log (don’t keep searching in the same old places - keep track of your goals!), continuing your genealogy education (there is always something new to learn) and staying organized (document as your finds as well as your failures) .

What are some of your brickwall strategies?  Please leave a comment below!

This blog post was written as a story as part of The August 2016 Genealogy Blog Potluck Picnic! 


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Ten Things to Try When you Hit a Genealogical Brickwall", Nutfield Genealogy, posted August 10, 2016, (  accessed [access date]). 


  1. Heather, your top 10 list is a gem. I completely agree with #1. Just organizing what I know to make it comprehensible for readers forces me to look more closely and double-check every detail. Thanks for this informative post!

  2. A combined timeline with your problem person(s) and known associates may point up something not checked for the problem person, or prompt verification that a record does or does not exist. For example, the 1798 Direct Tax records do not survive for NY, but the 1820 US Census manufacturers' schedules might be found.

  3. My favorites on your list are #1 and #4 - on site visits are the most fun. Excellent suggestions.

  4. I've been doing a lot of #8 recently! You are spot on in saying that it's not just posting a query and waiting, but becoming friendly with the members of the group. You also never know when you can be of help to someone while waiting for your query to be answered.

  5. Too true. Too often people give up but they haven't even sat down and done the pen-portrait you speak about in #1. People can ignore the extended family - At Their Peril (#6). Oh there was an aunt in Buffalo? That shouldn't have been ignored!

  6. I <3 #7! Thank you for sharing these great resources, and for participating in the August Genealogy Blog Party!

  7. I like especially #10. It's important to relax sometimes when you are searching so hard and nothing comes up on a particular ancestor. Taking a break can be the best thing because like you said new resources become available all the time. Also, if you take a break and then come back at a later time, you'll often look at things from a different perspective. This can lead to a breakthrough.

  8. Great advice. Lately I've been doing more work with my cousins - I've even found a couple of distant cousins through my research and we're now working on some of our lines. So exciting :)

  9. I like the relax and be willing to wait, Heather. Several of my most amazing finds were by accident after many (20+) years of looking. I always enjoy reading your articles.

  10. I like especially your first point. I too find that writing the results of my research in a draft form early on in the process, let's me see "holes", ' gaps in information, a failure to record every detail, dates not tallying etc and this tactic works for me. It took me over 10 years to break down my brick wall, but patience was eventually rewarded - see my Picnic Post this month.