Best Ways to Break Through a Genealogical Brick Wall

Best Ways to Break Through a Genealogical Brick Wall

Sometimes a genealogical search hits a brick wall   the metaphorical kind, at least. You can't find any new information, or you fail to spot the link between two crucial pieces of your family history. To break down a genealogy brick wall, exercise some creativity and step outside the box for a few days with these simple strategies.

Inspect the Backs of Photographs

Memories fade, but the backs of framed photographs often remain as clear as the day they were first printed. People often write critical information on the backs of photographs, such as the names of the people depicted or the date on which the picture was taken. Visit relatives' homes and ask to pull photos out of frames to see if the backs yield new clues.

Check for Military Service

You have probably already scoured numerous military records for your ancestors, but what about those who were not legally old enough to serve? Even as recently as World War II, teenagers altered their birth dates to make themselves eligible. If any of your ancestors lived through a conflict in their teens, look for military information under their names, but avoid their true birth dates.

Read Wedding and Funeral Guest Books

At events like weddings and funerals, guests usually sign a book that the family keeps. Guest books also appear at christenings, baptisms and other major affairs. Ask your relatives for copies of these books, then scour the pages for familiar names and dates.

Check Maiden Names, Middle Names and Suffixes

Even outside marriage, names sometimes change over time. Some adults decide to use their middle names instead of their first names, then use the middle name legally. Others add or drop suffixes such as Jr., Sr. or II. Some people even change how they spell their names to suit modern conventions or out of preference. Try different combinations of names to produce more results in your search.

Visit Cemeteries

If you know that one of your ancestors is buried in a particular cemetery, visit the site to explore the surrounding graves. Many times, multiple members of a family wind up in the same final resting place. If the cemetery is tied to a particular church or other religious institution, visit it. Ask about any old records the clergy might have kept.

Consider Illegitimate Children

Historically, social attitudes toward illegitimate children often inspired young mothers to give away their children, either to strangers or to relatives who would raise the child as their own. Consequently, these children prove difficult to trace. When you hit a brick wall in your genealogy, consider searching for children raised by relatives or close friends.

Change Places of Birth

Immigrants do not always reveal their true place of birth. For example, strained foreign relations might encourage immigrants to deny their birthplace for fear of suffering ridicule and persecution. Eliminating the birthplace from your search or trying local birthplaces might reveal a new chapter in your genealogy efforts.

Pursue Welfare Records

While schools, churches and other institutions might sometimes have dropped the ball concerning records, state and national welfare agencies typically kept detailed books because they relied on public funding. Poorhouses, also called workhouses, and other welfare agencies might offer a new wealth of information concerning less wealthy ancestors.

Peruse Newspapers and Criminal Records

Nobody wants to think that a criminal resides in his or her family history. However, newspaper accounts of crimes, as well as official criminal records (such as those concerning stints in prison), might help you break through the brick wall. Robberies, violent crimes and other offenses frequently earned a mention in the local paper. Additionally, jails and prisons kept excellent records because they relied on government funding, much as they do now.

Search for Remarriages

In decades past, a widow without an independent source of income was forced to remarry quickly after the death of her husband. If you notice the death of a male ancestor in your family tree, investigate his widow's subsequent marriages. Her name would change at that point, and the new union might even have produced more children.

Tracing the faded and sometimes nonexistent lines between entries in your family tree might seem almost impossible at times. However, by approaching the problem from a new perspective, you gain fresh insights and new kernels of information that might put you back on the right track.

More Top Stories