Note: (You may skip this first paragraph if you have read the previous parts) This is a series of posts that reflect the classes I have taught about breaking down brick walls in genealogy at the Mesa FamilySearch Library. My next series of classes on this subject is scheduled for August, 2013 beginning on August 8 and continuing on Thursday and Friday mornings for the rest of the month. For more specific information see the Mesa FamilySearch Library Schedule of Classes. These posts are not necessarily class notes, but rather reflections on the subject matter covered in the classes. Also note, that I have discussed some of these subjects before, but I am repeating some things for emphasis and because I need to prepare for the classes.
When you start looking for an ancestor; where do you start to look first? If you are like most of the researchers in the United States, you likely begin by looking for your ancestors in the U.S. Census records. Well, suppose I suggest a different way of doing research? By no means do I suggest that you do not use the U.S. Census records (or any other census records from a U.S. state or records kept in any other country) because they may answer the first questions about finding someone in historical records. There are three things you need to know to identify a person; a name, a date and a place. Names can vary and change at a whim and people have even been known to mis-spell even their own names. Dates are usually vague. People have been known to lie about their age, women for a variety of reasons and men for different, but just as effective, reasons. A woman may have gotten married at age sixteen or even fourteen and wanted to appear older. Or she may have gotten married late in life and wanted to subtract a few years. Men may have wanted to join the military or its opposite: avoid the draft. People have all sorts of reasons, in addition to poor memories, to give inaccurate dates.
Where does that leave us as genealogical researchers? The most important fact of all is the place where an event occurred. There is only one unique place on the earth for each physical event (although one of my great-grandparents managed to be buried three times in three different cemeteries, but that is another story). Identifying a place far outweighs the name or the date in importance. The research to identify a place needs to be very, very, specific.
What happens if you ignore this rule? Nothing. Oh, that's what I mean, nothing happens, you don't find your ancestors. The reason is simple, all genealogical records originate in the jurisdiction of the place where the event occurred. Jurisdictions are like individual pancakes. They stack up. There are genealogically important records that are only maintained on a national (or even international) level. Likewise each lesser jurisdiction has its own records. For example, in Arizona, death and birth records are presently maintained on a state (or district or provence or whatever) basis (that wasn't always true and only happened quite recently, since mandatory records of births and deaths date only from about 1906). Some records are only kept at the county, township (where there are townships), municipal or town or village level. So, the first step is identify the location, that is, a very specific location, not something vague like Ohio or North Carolina, and then begin to search for specific records generated at each level of jurisdiction that existed at the time of the event. Saying your ancestor was born (or married or whatever) in Kentucky is not very helpful unless you are ready to search every single record source in ever single jurisdiction in both Kentucky and, depending on the time period, Virginia. That means every one of Kentucky's 120 counties and every one of Virginia's 95 counties and 30 independent cities including all their historical previous iterations.
So you had better know your history and geography if you want to keep finding ancestors. Oh, and by the way, it also a good idea to be conversant in finding and reading maps. Most importantly, researchers need to sort out the political, religious and social boundaries that govern where records are kept. If you ancestor was a Protestant in England, the records of his or her life may have been kept somewhere besides the Church of England, but for some Protestants, their records reside in the Church of England because they went to the Church to get married even though they were Protestants. Not knowing this kind of fact, simplified as it may be, can create an issue with finding the records.
I can say with almost complete certainty that the vast majority of brick wall situations in genealogy are caused by looking in the wrong place. In a significant number of cases, in a place that did not exist at the time of the supposed event. Jumping into a research project to find Great Uncle Rodney, is hopeless if what you have to go on is that he came from New York or where ever. To begin your search, you must begin at a specifically identified place. Let me say that again, you must begin at a specifically identified place. No ifs, ands or buts. If you don't have a specific place for Great Uncle Rodney, you have to start by gathering further information for the first person most closely related whose event location you can identify with certainty.
Back to the so-called brick wall. In fact, the wall isn't made of brick at all. It is made of ignorance of the place and the history of the time. To understand this, researchers must differentiate between an end of line and a "brick wall." An end-of-line event occurs whenever there cease to be records to support further research. This can happen in the first generation with an illegitimate child when the mother refuses to disclose the father or doesn't know the father. There are a few things a researcher can do to extend the line to the father, but this is usually not the case. Another example of an end-of-line is a foundling, left on the doorstep of a church or other institution. There may or may not be any way to find the parents, but if not, it is an end-of-line. A third example is the ancestor that simply disappears. Fathers did desert their families and change their names. These things happen and may create an end-of-line. Any time the records fail, either sooner or later, there is a possibility of an end of line, usually this occurs sometime in the mid-1500s in Europe or earlier or later depending on the country.
In any end-of-line situation, there is always a very slim chance that additional research will finally yield results. But with brick wall situations, it is almost certain that additional research at the right time and right place will yield additional information about the individual or the family. The problem is assuming that there are no records or not knowing about the records, when, in fact, there are records if you knew they existed. I can say with assurance that it is virtually impossible for one person to "search all the records" that might or can be found. Over the years, I have had dozens of people come to me with the statement that they have searched every conceivable record over periods of many, many years, and I have always been able to suggest additional records that remain unsearched. I do not make that statement lightly. I do not claim to find the lost relative, but I am more than reasonably sure that there are always records that have not been searched, most of the time records whose existence is entirely unknown to the researcher or researchers and most commonly, as I have already indicated, because the search has been made in the wrong place.
Sometimes when I am asked about a brick wall situation, I do not know the identity of the records, but I do know that additional records do and must exist. For example, when was the last time you searched the records for livestock brands? I have found livestock branding records in early New England town records, they are not just a wild West phenomena.
Remember, this class series I am teaching about breaking down brick walls, in this session, goes on for 16 hours of class. So this series could go on for a very long time.