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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Towards a rational definition of brick walls in genealogy

In two of my previous posts, I have discussed aspects of the situation commonly referred to by genealogists as hitting a "brick wall." See Records you may not even know exist and A return to the "brick wall" issue. It occurs to me that the term is really so vague as to be useless and as I pointed out, the concept of being unable to continue with research is a fallacy. If there are no more records, then that is not a brick wall situation, it is an end of the line. To illustrate my point about the nature of the brick wall concept, I refer to an article from 19 October 2007 written for the Ancestry Daily News by George G. Morgan. The article is intended to explain a method of building a research plan once brick wall issue had been resolved. Quoting from the article,
You may remember my column in the 3 September 2007 Ancestry Weekly Journal titled The Joys of Genealogical Collaboration! (Or, Brisco Holder is Found). It was there that I was able to proclaim that my great-uncle, Brisco Washington Holder, had at last been found. Through help from one the listeners to our The Genealogy Guys Podcast, Brisco's death certificate was located in Missouri. He had died in the City of St. Louis on 17 May 1949, and not in "the mid-1920s," as the family stories were told. Great-uncle Brisco had been my outstanding brick wall for almost twenty years, and it was the mystery of his fate that has prevented my writing a book about that Holder family story.
It is noteworthy that in this example, the "mystery of his fate" had been the brick wall for twenty years. Assuming the twenty year figure to be accurate, this means that Mr. Morgan had begun his search for his uncle's death date and place in approximately 1987. An examination of the article Mr. Morgan cites gives this definition of a "brick wall."
Sometimes, if you’re like me, you take the information provided by the only resources you have–family stories and traditions–and run with them. After a while, though, you begin to think that someone threw you a curve ball, perhaps inadvertently or perhaps not. You reexamine everything you have and then try to make some sense of it. When it doesn’t make any more sense than it did before, this is called a BRICK WALL!
Obviously, no one realizes that they are hitting a brick wall until some considerable time has passed and the desired information is not available. But there are some other characteristics of Mr. Morgan's search that are significant. First, he was looking for a person who was a known historical figure, his great-uncle. Second, he was looking during a time period when records should have been available to document the event. Third, he was looking for information which, apparently, was vital to the continuation of his research on this particular family.

Given those parameters, it turns out that he was looking in both the wrong time frame and in the wrong places for the desired information. The information he was looking for was found in the Missouri State Archives. The records were transferred to the Missouri State Archives in 2004. The Website explains,
House Bill 1634 (2004) made changes to RSMo 193.225 and 193.245 (4), the Missouri statutes that govern the reproduction of vital records and the information contained in them. The legislation, effective August 28, 2004, states that death records over fifty years old will be transferred to the Missouri State Archives and copies of death records over fifty years old may be disclosed upon request.
From the dates on the Missouri Website, it is apparent that the digitized copies of the death certificates only became available in 2007, shortly before the information was found and transmitted to Mr. Morgan. From the Website, as a side note, I searched for Brisco Holder and found the copy of the death certificate in a few seconds.

A couple of observations are indicated, at the time Mr. Morgan began his search, the records were not readily available. They did exist but did not appear in a convenient form until the year the specific record was found. Even though the record exited, the researcher did not have any indication that he should look in Missouri or even look during the time period during which the record was found.

Now, what then is a brick wall? Perhaps, it is easier to say what it is not. It is not a situation where the records do not exist at all. For example, a commoner born in the 1300s in England or a foundling where no records exist of either the mother or the father. This type of situation should not be considered to be a brick wall, usually no amount of further research will extend the line. (However, I will address the problem of foundlings in a future post).

A brick wall should be considered to be a situation where the individual lived in a time and place where the records should and probably do exist. Most commonly, the situation of brick wall arises when the researcher is looking in either the wrong place or searching during the wrong time period, or both. Sometimes the condition arises when the search is for the wrong name. What does Mr. Morgan's experience teach us? That as time goes by, more and more records are becoming generally rather than specifically available. As those records become available, it is important to extend our searches for the brick wall people to the newly available records. In real brick walls timing is everything. Keep searching.

More later.


  1. Hi James,

    Thank you for discussing my quest for Brisco. His story has many gaps in time periods and I'm still searching. However, at least I know when and where he died. I also placed a gravestone there because it was the right thing to do.

    There's more to the story, and I've submitted an article to Ancestry Magazine for later this year about him.

    George G. Morgan

  2. James -

    This has been a fascinating discussion so far. I agree with you that most genealogists (usually beginners) do not quite understand the concept of brickwalls. Most people consider a brickwall that point where they cannot locate "any" information to solve their problem. Usually this is due to (1) not conducting a "reasonably exhaustive" search, or (2) ignorance of the records that DO exist for a certain time or place. The case of Brisco is a gray area in terms of its definition of a "true" brickwall. I will not claim to be completely familiar with the full case (though I do look forward to reading George's forthcoming article), but from the information provided I would not classify the search for Brisco's death certificate a brickwall per se, because a search in the right place/time period would have produced the record. The circumstances that led to this record being located was that the Missouri State Archives (1) gained possession of the death certificate, (2) indexed the death certificates, and (3) put the index online. These circumstances changed the convenience of access, which led to the record being located, but could not a more exhaustive search have turned the record up prior to this ease of access? Sure, it may have taken sitting down with the death certificates in a major city and going through them month by month, but it could have been done.

    (George, by no means am I knocking your research methods - I would not have likely done that either.) But does this qualify as a BRICKWALL, simply because ease of access to the correct records was lacking?