Come in like a Wrecking Ball: 10 Strategies to Break through your Brick Wall

Christy The Modern Genealogist

Brick wall with a large hole in the middle

Here I am now. In my favorite spot, under a heating blanket, researching from the comfort of my home. Not many years ago when I was in college I had to physically get off the couch and drive to a local church on the weekends in order to do family research. Family history research has advanced leaps and BOUNDS just in the last decade. You feel like you have everything at your fingertips to find everything. But what happens when you hit a “brick wall”? You know what I mean. You researched all the records you can find on a major research site and there is NOTHING left. You are stuck behind a brick wall and there is that one ancestor you don’t have enough information to get past them to further generations. What do you do? Listen to my 10 Strategies and come smashing into that brick wall like Myley Cyrus on a wrecking ball.

1. DNA is your Best Friend

DNA is a total game changer. It is undoubtedly my #1 tip. You literally have a list of distant cousins you share ancestors with. I cannot tell you how many times I have messaged a distant cousin and found a wealth of information they knew, pictures they had, or other suggestions of people to talk to. Maybe you cannot find information about a great- grandmother, but guess what? Her sister was the “family information keeper” and handed down her stories and items to her descendants who are now a DNA match to you! Talk to
them!

By the way, did you know your DNA matches often have a family tree you can look at and compare? You can look at their tree and see if they have information you don’t have. (But don’t assume their tree is correct, so again, talk to them!)

2. Google, Google Books, and Newspapers

This might seem obvious but try googling them! If you put a name in between quotations like “Billy Thompson”, it will only search for that exact name without separating the first and last name. Add in a location like “Spokane” and maybe a spouse name and see what you get. Play around with it.

Google Books is another feature in the top right of Google. If you add in names and locations and dates it will search for your ancestors in publications. I always find more than I expected such as articles about my grandfather’s insurance company or my great-
grandfather’s changes he made to the Los Angeles School System.

Newspapers.com is a great resource to find your ancestors in newspaper articles. Obituaries, marriage announcements, sales, crimes, town gossip, you name it and I have found it. You can do a free trial but the subscription might be worth it if you have a lot of people to research.

3. In-Depth Research your Ancestor’s Sibling

So you’ve tried researching your ancestor’s name over and over and over and you just can’t find his/her parent’s names. Have you tried doing the same fervent effort using his/her sibling’s name? We don’t like to admit it but sometimes our brother or sister got more attention,
won more awards, or became more of a legend. That’s unfortunate for us. But when doing family history research, that’s very fortunate for us! Looking at your ancestor’s siblings you might find a sibling that has more records and detail which can lead you to the information you
need!

4. Facebook Groups

You are NOT alone! Do you know there is a genealogy Facebook group for nearly all places around the world? Just type in the City, State, County or area and the word “Genealogy” and see what groups you find! “Azores Genealogy” for example. I guarantee there will be SUCH helpful people that have done lots of work in those areas. Some of my favorite (more generic) groups are “The Genealogy Squad” & “Genealogical Translations”. You might even try finding a facebook group for just a city! When I couldn’t find my family that came from Kolaczyce, Poland I just found a Facebook group the town created! Guess what? I found someone living in the city that helped me tremendously.

5. Family Search Wiki

Genealogists have assembled pages that give you a wealth of websites you can try and use for specific areas of the world called Wiki pages. These pages are geared towards finding records that are not available yet on the major research sites. Give it a try!

6. Hire someone (especially from another country)

Not all records are digitized. This means there are records in an old parish in the middle of rural town Poland that has a 200 year old book with your ancestors name on it and it’s not online. I know this, because I found out. Guess what I did? I got the name of a man from a Facebook Group that would go to the local parishes and go find the records and take pictures for me. Amazing, right? Keep in mind, you will need to pay him/her. Be careful who you hire and make sure they are trustworthy they know what they are doing and they will do the work. Not all parishes, churches and archives will allow research to be done.

7. Consider Border Changes

Please realize that some cities in “Austria” could have been part of Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Germany, and the list goes on. This goes with other cities in other countries as well. So when you are researching an ancestor that you just know was born in “Austria”, welp… it actually could’ve been Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia). Look up the history of borders in the time and place you are researching.

8. Try Alternative Name and Spelling

It’s not a surprise that many immigrants changed their names to assimilate to the culture of the country they moved to. It’s also not a surprise that record takers weren’t always super accurate. My ancestor went from Teicher, to Taicher, to Teecher. Another ancestor went from Leszczynski to Lesser. Don’t ignore all records that don’t totally match what you are looking for. Compare there information such as other family member names, dates and etc to try and find the right records even though the names don’t match. Some names have an
American equivalent too. For example in Poland the name “Wojciech” is “Adalbert” in America but Adalbert sometimes went by “Albert” or “George”. Would you guess that Wojciech Kowalski is the same person named “George Wolk”? (Kowalski was shorted to Wolk for some
in my family) Sheesh!

9. Contact a Local Genealogical Society

Genealogists are sometimes that nicest and most helpful people on the planet. They WANT you to learn about your family and eager to assist. See if there is a genealogical society in the area you ancestor lived in. They might know the history of the area, prominent family
names, particular buildings, and etc. They can also sometimes help you with land deeds and older maps, also!

10. Honestly, give it time…

Sometimes when you are exhausted and frustrated you just need to take a step back. Try researching someone else for a while. New records will become available later that help you. As you research other branches you will learn new tools, new ideas, and have fresh eyes when you come back to your brick wall.

About the Author

Christy Walton is a Genealogist of 20 years, Genetic Genealogist, licensed educator and former High School World and U.S. History teacher. 

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