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Overcoming Brick Walls in Family History Research

Updated: Jan 17

The Kilted Ancestors prompt for December 2023 in line with the Annual Genealogy Challenges & Triumphs topic was in relation to Brick Walls.

Researching your Family Tree can set you on an interesting journey, it connects us with our past & provides us a legacy that can be passed down to future generations.  However, most of us at one point or another will hit that inevitable brick wall in our research.   Yes, this can be frustrating but with some patience & perseverance it is possible to knock down those brick walls!

Let’s take a look at some effective ways to overcome them: -

Document Everything!   Ensure you have checked the most important sources out there!  These include Birth, Marriage & Death Certificates, Census Returns, Church Registers, Military Records & any Immigration records.   From each of these extracts every point including dates, places, names, occupations, witnesses etc & add them into whichever software program you might use.  You just never know when that small snippet of information might be required to confirm or deny something!

Seek Secondary Sources! There are times when the key to breaking down that brick wall isn’t within primary sources but in secondary ones.  Local Histories, Newspapers, oral histories may give us that snippet of information that could point you to a new primary source to explore.

Don’t ignore extended family! Don’t just look at your direct Ancestors, research their children & their families, cousins, Aunts & Uncles etc.  You just never know who was staying with whom on the night of the Census or who might have registered a child’s birth.  Often clues are hidden among their stories just waiting to be uncovered.

Join a Family History or Local History Society.  Connecting with fellow Genealogists or local historians can be beneficial.  Mingling with other members is a great way to find out what others are researching, if they have uncovered similar brick walls or perhaps, they know of someone who can assist you with you search.

Take a Break before Revisiting your Brick Walls.  As they say sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees…. if your brick wall if frustrating you, take a break!  Leave things for a bit then revisit them, it is always good to look at things afresh.  Who knows what additional records might have become available since you last looked at it!

Experiment with Wildcard Searches.   Online websites often give us the opportunity to play with spellings & date ranges.  Play about with things…. if you family moved from Scotland to the US could their accent have meant that their name was misheard?   Try saying it in their accent before writing that spelling down & trying it.  I have tried this technique with Irish Research & it has worked on a couple of occasions!

Don’t assume everything is online!  I have heard it predicted that only about 12-13% of Genealogy records are actually online!  That being the case that record that could solve your brick wall could be sitting in an Archive just waiting to be discovered.   Look at Local & National Archives as well as Local Studies Centres to see what they hold.   This could include Poor Law Records, Trade Records, Directories etc.

Understand the Collection you are searching!  It is important to understand the record set you are researching.  Is it complete? Are a lot of names spelt wrongly? Does the content vary between places?  A good example of this is the Scottish Old Parish Records, they are by no means complete!!!  Without understanding this people assume that because their relative John Smith was born about 1720 in the Borders then the only entry that they can find in the Highlands about the same time must be him…. Never Assume!   That would be quite a journey during this time period!  Look at other records for the Borders that are not online to see if you can find out more about him & his family.  Start with what you know for sure & work from that!

Consult Experts.  If by the end of your search you feel that you have tried everything & are still unable to break down that brick wall then seek some assistance!  Hiring a Professional Genealogist who can understand records & access them on your behalf might be the only remaining option open to you.   If you are struggling with your research then why not claim a Free Consultation with Treehouse Genealogy.

Yes, Brick Walls can be frustrating….but remember that they are also a pivotal part of your research journey & one you will learn from!


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