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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What I have learned about brick walls in genealogy

[Some how this post got prematurely published. Sorry about that. Here is the complete and really published version]

This could be an ongoing, periodic series since I keep learning new things all the time. About a year or so ago, I taught a series of classes, five days a week, for a month. The entire series was about breaking down brick walls. Since then, I have given a number of classes and at least one webinar on the same subject. Each time I get the opportunity to discuss this issue with a class of students, I get new insights into the main reasons genealogists cannot seem to extend their pedigrees past a certain person. Even though I have written about this topic previously, I think it is time to review some of the important points. I also realize that many, many genealogists have presented classes on this topic, written blog posts and even books on this particular topic, but it doesn't hurt to have my non-conformist point of view on the subject.

I like to begin the discussion about brick walls with a few definitions. I think the term "brick wall" is an unfortunate choice of terms. It gives the impression that there is some maleficent sort-of force out there preventing the researcher from finding the ancestor. In fact, most commonly, the failure is on the part of the researcher's inability to find sources for information that will continue the research. But this would mean the researcher would need to take ownership of the problem and not blame circumstances. In defining a "brick wall" situation it important to realize that an end-of-line is not a brick way. One example of an end-of-line issue is when a woman has an out-of-wedlock baby and never reveals who fathered the child. Another end-of-line situation is when there is a foundling left on the doorstep of a hospital or church or in a dumpster, like they seem to do in Phoenix occasionally. Yet another instance is when there is no further hope of finding records of the family line, such as when the line has been extended into the 1500s or 1400s. Absent some verifiable connection to a proven royal family line, there is little hope of finding more information about a local, unremarkable person.

Concerning the availability of records over time; if I were going to graph the number of genealogically useful records available at any given time, beginning with the present and extending into the past, I would see a curved line that would start very high and decrease slowly like a standard parabolic curve. Beginning about 500 years or so in the past, there would be fewer and fewer records kept about ordinary (not royal) people as individuals. So, whether you like the idea or not, genealogy as we know it, has it limits and around 1550 A.D. is the limit.

Now let's go a little bit further in the definition of a brick wall. Failure to find any one type of record is not a "brick wall" at all. For example, if I am unable to find a birth record, there are two or more possibilities; either no such record exists or I still haven't found it. This brings up another rule, the absence of a record does not prove that event did not occur (I sometime phrase this somewhat differently). What this means is that if you are looking for "proof" or specific information about a specific event, there is no guarantee that a specific record exists documenting that specific event.

I claim that if any one of the following conditions is present, then the likelihood of a "brick wall" is very slim indeed. The conditions are as follows:
  • The person lived within the past 500 years.
  • The person had living descendants
  • The person lived all or most of his or her life in the United States
What I am saying is that I take my rule that there is always another source very seriously. For example, I am in the process of compiling a list of online digital newspaper websites. Every time I look for more information about websites, I find more websites. Think about this for a minute. I am confining my search to what is on the Internet. Now think of all the records that are still locked up in paper. Can anyone really, seriously claim to have looked everywhere?

But what about one classic "brick wall" situation, having multiple people with the same name and of approximately the same age in the save general geographic area? Isn't that one of the hardest "brick wall" issues to solve? Well, yes and no. The proper approach in this situation is to do the "in depth" research on each of the individuals until you can separate them out and rule out those who could not be your ancestor.

If you are always thinking in terms of finding a specific individual in a specific place at a specific time, you are likely to be frustrated in your research. The real way of approaching genealogical research is to think in terms of finding records, documents and sources. Most of your effort should be expended in pursuit of documentation and finding the records that exist. Searching the records you find is the natural extension, but searching for names and dates only leads to frustration and the belief in brick walls.

Let me give one short example. Let's suppose I am looking for my ancestor and want to find a marriage record. The ancestor was supposedly married in Apache County, Arizona in 1930. I go to and begin using its very effective search engine to find a marriage record. I search again and again using a variety of search techniques without results. Why? If I had gone to the Card Catalog, I would have learned fairly quickly that does not have any records at all for Apache County, Arizona. This is what I mean, we need to look for the records first and then the people. In this same example, if I look at's Historical Record Collections, I will find a lot of marriage records for Arizona and specifically Apache County. Look for the records then look for the people.

This will be continued.

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