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

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Brick Walls -- Myth or reality?

I hear the term "brick wall" used frequently in my contacts with other genealogical researchers. But I am certain that, in most cases, the term is used inappropriately and has lost any real meaning. I find that what is called a brick wall is often no more than a bump in the road. So how do we get out of this "brick wall" mentality?

Before starting into a discussion of methods or lists of ways to break through brick walls, it is probably a good idea to set down rules to determine if such a situation actually exists. The question to ask is, what are the ultimate limits of genealogy?

If you fail to find your ancestor after a half hour online search, have you "hit a brick wall" or merely have no real research plan for finding ancestors? Yes, I do hear the term used in that context.

Fundamentally, as genealogists, we have to recognize two competing situations; first, that there are physical and temporal limits to the availability of source documentation and second, that there are an overwhelming number of source records most of which you aren't going to know about.

It is the dichotomy between an abundance of records and the physical and temporal limits accessing those records that give us the concept of brick walls. In fact, the contradictory record situation creates the opportunity for extended research beyond the superficial half hour search online. For example, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants has been in existence since 1897 and its members and other have spent thousands of hours and probably large sums of money searching for genealogical information about the 102 Mayflower passengers. Despite that concentrated effort, most of the Mayflower passengers' parents, birth dates and other historical information has defied identification. There are some absolute limits to the availability of records. On the other hand, persistent effort by the Society and others has produced relatively recent breakthroughs in identifying the spouses of the Mayflower passengers and their some of their previously unknown ancestors.

If I were to draw a graph showing a timeline from the present, back into the past, the slope of the graph would show a steady decline in the number and availability of written records going into the past from which genealogical data can be obtained. The slope of the graph would vary according to any particular geographic location, but essentially, there comes a time in the past when any further searching for records in any particular location turns into archeology rather than history.

But when is there really a lack of records and when is the situation, instead, merely a lack of knowledge of existing records or a failure to adequately search the existing records? That is the question.

There are particular circumstances, such as foundlings, adoption, births out of wedlock and other circumstances that may limit the availability of records in any particular case, but usually I hear brick wall complaints about ancestors that otherwise lived during time periods when written records are still available. I have found, through experience, that most, far more than half, of all the so-called brick walls I have been told about are really a failure to search all of the available records or a problem of searching in the wrong place. I was recently shown a brick wall, which I may have mentioned previously, where the date for the ancestor's birth turned out to be well before either the town or county listed had been settled or formed. This kind of occurrence makes me believe that the person is not using the term brick wall in any accurate way. If my brief research shows that both the town and county being searched did not exist at the time, then what have the other researchers been looking for all this time?

My Mayflower ancestors could accurately be considered a brick wall situation. All of the years of searching records in England and Holland have yet to produce parentage or birth dates for either Francis Cooke or Richard Warren. But do we have to go to that extent? Doesn't declaring a brick wall take something less that a hundred years of research?

But what is the effect of declaring some research situation a "brick wall." Isn't that in a sense a defeatist attitude? Perhaps not, if we seek help and acknowledge our need to go to someone with more experience and resources.

But my point here is that most of those situations that have been presented to me are not really end-of-line issues. Perhaps a better way of looking at these situations is an opportunity to learn more about the family we are looking for.


  1. Jim:
    I couldn't agree with you more. I really have never like the term "brick wall" because there is an assumption that there's little hope.

    I have, for example, an abundance of one kind of unsolved problem: likely relatives for whom I cannot make a link. I prefer to call them "floaters." I cannot add them to my tree yet because I cannot say with certainly how they are related. I think of them as floating just beyond reach. With the right tools, methods, or resources I just might be able to reach them.

  2. Can you recommend a place to seek advice on breaking through brickwalls of the more recent (19th century) variety?

    I have a "brickwall" for which I've gathered some interesting evidence, but the evidence suggests a possible unmarried, interracial relationship between a white female from a fairly well-off, well-known family and a seemingly poor black male in 1870's rural Georgia. Anything is possible, of course, but this seems unlikely considering the social conditions of the time. Also, the children are always described as white, never mulatto. There are a few other unexplained oddities, too.

    I'd like to get a clearer view out what happened in this family, but I don't know the best way to proceed. I've thought about hiring a professional...