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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

There are always more records

From time to time I talk to people about their so-called "brick wall" problem ancestors. My conversation usually ends with another blog post on the subject.  I intentionally refer to the brick wall problems as "so-called" because I don't buy into the whole idea of a brick wall in research. A brick wall implies that there is something on the other side of the brick wall and that you can find out what is there only by going around, under, over or through the wall. Simply put, in 99.9% (or some other extremely high percentage of the cases) I reject the concept of some barrier to finding a person. Here is my line of reasoning.

Either records exist or they do not exist. If the records do not exist then there is no "brick wall" there are simply no records. The trick is knowing when there are no records. Not too long ago I posted about burial permits. Those are records required by the cemetery, either from the cemetery itself or from the state or county, allowing a dead body to be buried. These records can be extremely valuable in finding people and their relatives. I suspect that this type of record is fairly common but only very infrequently used in genealogy. The records could be stored at the cemetery, with the city, county or even state records or be stashed in a basement or back room. They are closely related to the permits to transport a body used when the body of the person to be buried is located in a different state or county from the location of the cemetery. There are also records concerning the purchase of grave sites and the purchase of grave markers. Without going into even more detail, my experience tells me that nearly all of the brick wall situations are really lack of information about the availability of records. Another example, I found out recently that some of the local cemetery records are in the city library's special collections. The records do not appear in the city library catalog, but they are there none the less.

The search for a relative should be turned into a search for records. Now, you are going to tell me that I am wrong. The court house burned or whatever and despite all of our combined family efforts we cannot find Uncle Fred's marriage record or whatever. The inability to find one classification of records is not, by definition, a brick wall. In my opinion, for what it is worth, the term "brick wall" if it has any value at all, should be reserved for those situation where records should exist to identify an individual but do not seem to exist. At the risk of being repetitious, what I am saying is that I believe only a very, very small number of these situations, where there are no records, actually exist. My examples of a relatively unknown and unused type of record is a case in point. There are whole classes of possible genealogically valuable records that are either not mentioned or hardly ever mentioned in the genealogical literature, including the heavy tomes of research helps.

The anecdotal evidence to support my position is overwhelming. Almost every breaking down a brick wall story I have ever heard involves finding a missing or unknown record. The key here is that the unknown source was there all along. What was missing was the knowledge of the existence of the source, not the source itself. In addition, many times when I tell a brick wall person where to find additional records, they aren't interested. In one recent case, a friend was trying to find a remote ancestor who was stationed at a Western U.S. fort in the 1800s. After doing some research, I found that the particular records in question were very likely in the National Archives. The National Archive's catalog listed the type of record needed during the years in question. But my friend didn't want to make the effort to look at the National Archive records that I specifically told him to search. He would much rather go on claiming that he had reached a brick wall.

What if my friend searches the muster rolls and other military records and finds no evidence of his ancestor? One possibility is that the individual was never really in the military at all. He may have been fabricating a military past. What if he was in the Army but lied about where he was stationed? There are a lot more possibilities that simply giving up and claiming brick wall-hood. How do you really know that there are no more records? If you really do run out of places to look, you have done a lot more looking that I have seen anyone accomplish in my lifetime.

Here is a short list of places frequently overlooked in addition to the burial records:

Mortuary records - If you have buried someone, think about all the documents you had to fill out. A lot of these records have been preserved by the mortuaries even after the original establishment went out of business.

Poor house and insane asylum records
Tax rolls
Railroad records both passengers and employees
Fraternal organization records
Union records
Guild records
Utility connection records
Irrigation records
Animal brand records
Victualling records for new settlements
Animal auction records
Hospital records
Private record collections now held in repositories

You get the idea.


  1. Excellent post, I always enjoy reading what you have to say. Can I ask a "legal" question here -- my g-grandfather died at the Butler Hospital for the Insane in Providence in 1926. I have his death cert which gives a cause of death as Myelogenous Leukemia and Bronchial Pneumonia. The hospital is still operating (they altered the name!) ... if I walk in, ask for the records department, and ask if I can have access to his records, if they exist, is there any chance they might help me? I assume the legal part of this is only against me - or do I have a legal right to see that, if it exists? Thanks for any thoughts you might have on this. thanks

    1. There is no legal or privacy issue with records that old. Any lack of cooperation at this point would be a practical problem or a lack of understanding of the law on the part of the hospital. Since the records are "private" rather than public or governmental, access to the records would be entirely up to the institution involved. It rarely hurts to ask. If you are refused then be sure to pursue exactly why they think the records cannot be released this many years after the person's death.

    2. OK. I'll give it a try. Thanks so much for your perspective on this. And for the RootsTech reports which I'm just catching up on.