Have a brickwall? Some hints for solving …

Many genealogists are on Twitter and recently a new twitter chat has started called ANZAncestryTime  As you might assume, this is for those of us in Australia and New Zealand, but we have had others from around the world join us in our two chats that have been run so far. We also have a website relating to the chat.

This week, the topic was

jernastyle / Pixabay


Here are the questions and some of the replies that might help you in solving brickwalls in your family history.

Q1 Do you have any Brickwall Ancestors?

Virtually everyone on the chat could mention at least one ancestor who is a brickwall from parents through to ggggrandparents. Many were Irish brickwalls, or not being able to find how the ancestor got to Australia/New Zealand. Others were relating to illegitimacy in generations or incorrect paper trail or oral histories. Changes of name to get away from a situation or bigamous marriages.

But Fran @travelgenee said

I don’t usually think of any ancestors as brick walls. Just that I have not got around to exhausting the research possibilities yet.

Then Sandra @Samellco21 said

All my ancestors are from Prussia, Germany Poland so they all feel like brick walls at times

Mandy @sciencegirl_NZ said

I have one major brick wall that I’ve not been able to push through for 20 years. An ancestor born around 1750, perhaps in USA/Canada/Scotland/Ireland. Possibly John/Jean/Johann. McLean or possibly McNeil. I’ve run down so many possibilities.

Jane @chapja said

Yes a number of brick walls largely because of lack of available documentary evidence … gradually making some headway drawing on DNA evidence

Q2 What are some of the causes of Brickwalls in family history?

  • Bad research habits probably do not help. Going down rabbit holes, not using a research log, not planning the research – from Fran
  • Duplication of names in an area, making it hard to distinguish who you are looking for. Lack of records. Brick-wall is too far back for DNA to be useful – Fiona @fiona_memories
  • Poor handwriting leading to not so good indexing – Shauna @HicksShauna
  • Researcher inadequacy – I have it in full measure – Jill @geniaus
  • In my cases it’s either names missing from records, or common names in a big city – Alona @LoneTester
  • Getting locked into a thought process and not jumping the wall. Records which cease at a relatively early stage – Pauleen @cassmob
  • Not being able to verify if records actually relate to your person, incorrect oral history leading down the wrong trail(s) – Sue @tasteach
  • Thinking you have the correct person but you don’t. 2 people with the same name and birth date. Also illegitimacy and deciphering handwriting – Sandra
  • We do need to beware of falling into the name and place trap as if there might only have been one person possible. Good tip! – Pauleen
  • Lack of record availability, mistranscription,  lies. Some records just got destroyed years ago or have deteriorated – Hilary @Genemeet
  • sometimes unexpected behaviour gives you a brickwall that isn’t really there as you don’t have the substantive evidence to verify families moving across countries or the globe – and then you find they did – Ruth @ruthjots
  • My brickwall is gg grandfather, Conrad Deihl arrived NZ c1842. Of German origins. Where to start? No clues on any BDMs – Catherine @CathyClarke77
  • There are even a few ancestors I believe are taking steps to hide from me – I find the record but the key section is illegible or is missing completely – Dara @DaraMcgivern

There was quite a bit of discussion about rabbit holes – information that leads you astray. But often these can help with the social history of the area where your brickwall might live, or lead you to maps and perhaps employment opportunities in the town giving clues as to why someone may have left the area.

But Fran said

Problem with the rabbit holes for me is that I find something interesting in my Ipad and are not all set up to document and source. Then I can’t find it later.

Then a great discussion from this comment by Maggie @iwikiwichick

My ancestors’ complete disregard for their descendants… They could have left me more hints. That’s all I’m sayin’.

Jill then mentioned

We need to seek help to overcome our inadequacies – learn, learn, learn.

Q3 What strategies do you use to break down Brickwalls?

  • Put them aside for another day when I can look at them with a fresh eye. Revisit, revisit, revisit – Jill
  • Timelines to see what is missing and whether some record could actually fit in the timeline – Sue
  • Timelines… lots of timelines showing the interactions between multiple family members as they may give clues to your brick-walls. I even wrote a guide to creating them – Fiona
  • Still waiting to knock down those brickwalls. But patience and coffee are both a necessity – Alona
  • Planning, for me is probably the best way to actually advance my research. Problem is that it is so enjoyable to do random google searches to see what you can find – Fran
  • Increasingly sharing the problem amongst expert colleagues as used to be putting into a drawer for years… – Ruth
  • Checking out lateral lines to gain more clues eg witnesses at marriages of siblings – Sue
  • Researching siblings can often open up a lead to knocking down a brickwall – Jennifer @Jennifer_Jones0
  • My main strategy now is genetic genealogy, and the more matches I identify the more successful the strategy becomes. So, I’m making some progress on my mother’s line, but my Dad’s, where no known cousins will test, is falling behind – Dara
  • Leave it and come back later when new records become available online – Hilary
  • Also making sure that you have checked every piece of documentation that you have or could have.. ie buy the birth certificates of siblings etc. Look for potential wider family in the area. Who else was on the ship from the area/country – Fiona
  • Try thinking outside the box how would it have sounded given any local accent – Hilary
  • Searching across states, looking at all branches/descendants of the family, DNA testing. Using Grenham’s surname distribution maps for Ireland – Pauleen
  • Process of elimination, tracking all possibilities, thinking laterally, looking at the wider community (FAN network) – Maggie (Family, Associates, Neighbours =FAN)
  • Making a surname variant list can help and when you find a newspaper article check how the OCR-ing has transcribed the typed name, to add to your variant list – Fiona
  • Recheck regularly the information you already have. I always seem to miss some little vital detail. Also researching extended family and neighbours can help – Sandra
  • With DNA matches for brickwall person, make connections to them via email, Facebook, blog etc and work together, your brickwall might be a known person to them – Sue
  • Writing a blog post about the brick wall can help and others make useful suggestions too – Shauna
  • Trove has been a major source of info helping me to trace ancestors movements within Australia – Jo @jobee_71
  • Providing a solid base for building backwards by building across and forwards to connect DNA matches and include collateral lines – Jane
  • Think who is the best person to do a DNA test to help with your research – Hilary
  • Test all the senior citizens in your family before it’s too late – Jill
  • DNA has helped me confirm my Aus and NZ connections when used in conjunction with traditional research methods – Sylvia @Historylady2013

Final word from Jill on this question

Strut your stuff – don’t hide your ancestors in the closet – make them visible so cousins can find you

Q4 Has DNA ever helped you to knock down Brickwalls?

  • Without DNA we probably would have never found Stephen’s father. Descendants in USA helped us track back to Ireland and locate the family member that migrated to NZ – Fran
  • DNA has found new cousins and reunited lost ones. It has proved my aboriginal line – Jill
  • Lots of connections made using DNA and disproving paper trails and oral history on my dad’s side, on mum’s side DNA=paper trail – Sue
  • DNA helped me find out who my g grandfather was – Sharn @SharnWhite
  • Yes. I now know who my paternal grandfather was. No more missing branch – Sandra
  • Not as yet but hope to reveal more about a GG Grandfather – an English line of my family with few known relations – Ruth
  • My mother has a DNA match to a bunch of siblings whose family is limited to Wexford, and it’s a decent match, not down to tiny fragments. But the documents run out and we haven’t yet made the link despite years of trying – Pauleen
  • Not so much a brick wall, but it proved a relationship that some people certainly questioned – Alona
  • DNA has helped identify an ancestor’s missing siblings. Hoping it will identify some wayward fathers (and a mother) – Maggie
  • Yes, led me to the right Andrew Thomson in Lanarkshire. Now if I could just work out if he died in Australia or went back to Scotland (or let’s face it, just about anywhere else in the world) – Fiona
  • Not at all but that’s my fault. I really haven’t done anything with my DNA results. Also my family won’t get tested as they’re suspicious of DNA, even the younger ones – Jennifer
  • Just last month I confirmed the maiden name of my GGG-grandmother through DNA matches, and an Australian marriage and death cert. – Dara
  • Yes DNA has helped me too. I’ve broken through a couple of big walls by combining with paper trail – Sally @SallyBloomfiel7

A few hints about DNA tools to use

My favourite DNA tools are clusters, and chromosome mapping to see who matches who – Seonaid @genebrarian

I build my DNA matches trees on my computer. I mark each link so I can see who goes back to whom. Make sure the trees are correct – Margaret @MargLBailey

I like creating those quick and dirty trees using DNA matches and their trees, then using Jonny Perl’s WATO tool to hypothesize where dad fits – Sue

We need to start a campaign so everyone who did an Ancestry DNA test uploads to a site that will allow to do our chromosome mapping – so powerful – Jill

I’m using DNA tools like DNA painter and Ancestry’s colour coding to help knock down brick walls – Sharn

Not done enough testing yet but hoping to get 2 uncles to do Y DNA to help with missing father and uncertainty – Hilary

my new DNA match helped me find an error today – Hilary

The last five minutes of the chat related to a lot of tips about brickwalls

  • I found a missing ancestor through a google book search – Sharn
  • My tip is never give up – keep reviewing it every so often – Shauna
  • Local histories often contain information about families – Sharn
  • Chill. Don’t get too worked up. Put them aside for another day – there is plenty more research you can do – Jill
  • Persevere, keep records of research, think around the brickwall, get tested for DNA, connect with other relatives – Sue
  • Blogging is a great way to find information when people contact you. And social media – Sharn
  • Ask the hard question? We all talk about how great interviewing collecting from older relatives. Once they are comfortable then ask the hard questions. You will be surprised how much they will spill the beans – Fran
  • Don’t forget you can always share your Brick Wall with BrickWallBusters on Brick Wall Hour @BWBHour run by @DanielGenealogy

Final word is from Carmel @crgalvin

Don’t become a brick wall for your descendants, write, film and record.

Readers: What are some of your hints for breaking down brickwalls?

5 thoughts on “Have a brickwall? Some hints for solving …

  1. Sue, What a wonderful post from the #ANZAncestryTime Twitter session last night. Such a great way to capture what happened in the frantic hour. Fran

  2. Hi Sue the interesting topics you find to cover- well done. I have been playing a game of snakes and ladders on my brick wall. I had a name Thomas, DOB 1866, occupation Telegraphist, what more could you want? By finding a ship that sailed one year earlier than expected I now have three possibilities: he went to America, he fought in a war Or he got lost in Australia 1897 as reported in the Police Gazette for that year. I will find him… Regards to All Marg
    PS Found my inspiration for sideways thoughts in a semi-fictional historic novel about early Australian settlers and their misadventures.

    • Hi Marg,
      Love the way you can always relate to the topic I am writing about. Those brickwalls, though, can come tumbling down very quickly when that one snippet of info appears.

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