Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Analyzing Brick Walls -- a genealogical myth or reality?

Whenever I talk to a genealogical researcher who complains about being unable to find information about an ancestor in the United States, I sometimes ask an  impertinent question, "How did you like the New York Public Library?" Most of the time this question receives a blank stare. No one has yet to say something, like, "I spent several days there and could not find anything." Why would I ask such a question? Simple, the New York Public Library has one of the largest, if not the largest collections of genealogically related records of any library in the United States. I am fully aware of the claims of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and have been there many, many times, but even with the Family History Library's huge collection, they do not have everything.

The reason for the question about the library is that almost all of the complaints I hear about dead ends or as we call them "brick walls" come from people who really haven't begun to exhaust their research possibilities. I use the example of the New York Public Library for exactly that reason. I am also aware that almost every blogger in the entire world has written about this topic at some time or another. I quick look on Google with an advanced search for the exact phrase of "brick wall" and including the word genealogy returned more than 2 million results. So why would I want to add to the pile with my two cents worth? Probably because so many of my conversations with patrons at the Mesa Regional Family History Center and else where start out with this question.

Let me give my definition of a "brick wall." I consider a brick wall to be a researching situation where records should exist and a person should have been recorded, but for whatever reason is not found and records are not easily located. This rules out the end-of-line situations where you can no longer find records back in the 1500s or so. 

My impertinent question about the New York Public Library is really rather important. The main point is that researchers have a tendency to focus on one person or one family, one place or one type of record and don't realize that the type of record is sometimes irrelevant to where information about the family may end up being found. The real question is whether or not some kind of written record is likely to be found at all? Genealogical research is not so much a matter of procedure, it is more a matter of recreating history. Finding all of the information about a place and time that will allow you to reasonably locate your family in that space and time.

I am perfectly aware that there are hundreds (thousands) of very competent researchers out there in genealogy land who know all sorts of things about history, geography and records, but I don't seem to run into them very often. I am also aware that the people I need to talk to are probably not reading blogs, especially this one. I have also looked at a lot of lists of "solutions" for overcoming brick walls. Here are a few examples:

Overcoming “Brick Wall” Problems, ProGenealogists by Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA
Brick Wall Strategies for Dead-End Family Trees Genealogy by Kimberly Powell
50 Best Genealogy Brick Wall Solutions GenealogyInTime
Brick Wall Ancestor? Go AROUND or OVER! Olive Tree Genealogy Blog, Lorine McGinnis Schulze

But let me say a few things that may not have been said before. First, all of the so-called solutions to brick wall questions revolve around the issue of extending research. A good example is the one from Lorine in her blog cited above about her husband's research efforts and that example is from Ireland which is a classic place for losing people. There is a vast difference in time and place between Ireland in the early 1800s and any place in the United States.

Focusing on the time frame, there are very few real brick walls in the 20th Century United States. There is the occasional man who leaves his family and disappears, but most 20th Century problems are solved by expanding the research. There are usually more records than anyone has even tried to find.

19th Century United States records are still mostly available. Problems in the 19th Century usually revolve around looking in the wrong place or trying to find an immigrant's origins.

18th Century? More record problems but a lot more immigrant problems. Once you get back to the 1600s (17th Century) things start to get interesting. There may or may not be any records. You may actually reach an end-of-line which, as I said above, is not the same as a brick wall. Slaves and indentured servants sometimes left no records of their origin. Before the 1600s records of individuals start to disappear and you may have to learn a new language or culture to make any headway.

But you say, what if my family came from Zaire or Zimbabwe? Well, that is another story. I don't consider research like that to be a "brick wall" situation. There may or may not be records. I any case finding your ancestor may require you to learn a lot about local history and geography, probably a lot more than you thought you wanted to know. Unfortunately, when I begin to explain to researchers with their own personal brick wall that they need to start reading local history and study geography, they usually find a reason to talk to someone else.


  1. Thanks for the food for thought.

    I think we need a clearer terminology. You seem to be suggesting that a "brick wall" is one that we could dismantle piece by piece by finding more resources and expanding our research.

    So what should we call something we cannot get past? Your example of the family back to the 1500s where there just are not records available is a good example.

  2. Your comments about people turning away when you suggest additional work seems to be a common thread among people who help seekers at any research center. Val Greenwood tells such a story early in "The Researcher's Guide to American Geneallogy." the seeker isn question didn't "have time for that."!
    I help at the small library mainted by the local genealogical society and local historical society; as a common holding. I have been lucky in that the people who come to our library are seachers and researchers, rather than seekers of the easy answer. This week I was able to suggest PERSI as a tool our searcher could use to find her family in the journal publications she was asking about. She thanked me. As I said, I was lucky.

  3. I would echo Randy's question of "...what should we call something we cannot get past?" Maybe there is room for some of us in the middle who are not exactly the people who don't want to do the additional research but also don't have the resources (and currently time) to visit the NY public library...although it's now on my list ;-)

    It's taken me ten years of admittedly sporadic searching to track down some of my late 19th/early 20th century ancestors who moved west. And my maternal biological grandmother is still hiding somewhere - possibly behind a married name I haven't yet found. Maybe they weren't really brick walls - but certainly they were (and are) hiding in some very creative places.

  4. What do you say to the researcher that has tried everything? It is a dead end, not a brick wall. P.S. I've been to the NYC Public Library!