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?

DNA downunder

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay


I have just spent three days in Sydney at the first DNA downunder conference. Blaine T Bettinger, Louise Coakley and many other presenters showed us better ways to use and analyse our DNA.

They also ran single day events in many capital cities in Australia (not Hobart).

The conference was held at the Castle Hill RSL club – a lot bigger than the one at Sorell I am used to.

Some topics I listened and took notes from were:


  • Understanding and interpreting your ethnicity results
  • What do Australians think about DNA testing?
  • Using autosomal DNA for 18th and 19th century mysteries
  • Evaluating a genealogical conclusion including DNA
  • Latest advances in third party tools for autosomal DNA
  • Are you doing everything to identify your DNA matches?


  • Ethical and legal considerations for DNA evidence
  • Great great DNA
  • Shared matches and genetic networks
  • Advanced third party tools
  • Practical tips for working with speculative trees


  • Stories behind the segments
  • DNA and the aftermath of uncovered family secrets
  • Phasing and mapping your DNA
  • Limitations of cousin matching
  • The Helen Marley story – case study
  • Panel – DNA: A look at the future

As you can see from my programme, there was little time to synthesize everything we were learning. But my takeaways from the conference were:

  1. check those shared matches and make use of the coloured dots in Ancestry
  2. use chromosome browsers in MyHeritage and FTDNA to find those shared and triangulated matches
  3. use tools like DNA Painter to map your segments – keep records of who you have already painted
  4. join DNA facebook groups to get help
  5. test all those close relatives – but explain the ethics and legal side of testing to them first

Here are some DNA Facebook groups that could be handy: Remember to answer the questions when asking to join

Blaine also has his own YouTube channel and presentations for Legacy Family Tree with some great videos on both of them related to DNA and tools at the different testing companies.

Many thanks to Alan and Anthea Phillips and Alona Tester from Gould Genealogy and Unlock the Past for organizing such a great conference.

Readers: For those who might have attended the conference (one day or three day), what was your best takeaway?

Update DNA results

At the beginning of 2019, I decided to start tracking how many new DNA matches I received over a 6 month period. So here are the results.

In January on Ancestry – 4th cousins or closer

  • I had 228 : June 269 – an increase of 41
  • Mum had 295 : June 347 – an increase of 52
  • Philip had 209: June 237 – an increase of 28
  • Dad had 187: June 210 – an increase of 23

In January on My Heritage – total matches

  • I had 3472: June 4157 – an increase of 685
  • Mum had 3990: June 4860 – an increase of 870
  • Philip had 3555: June 4239 – an increase of 684
  • Dad had 3508: June 4243 – an increase of 735

In January on FTDNA – total matches

  • I had 241: June 259 – an increase of 18
  • Mum had 283: June 303 – an increase of 20
  • Philip had 202: June 219 – an increase of 17
  • Dad had 198: June 220 – an increase of 22

I really like using Ancestry as it quickly tells me if I have common ancestors.

  • Sue 50 common ancestors – 4 unsure links – these are generally 5th-8th cousins
  • Mum 52 common ancestors – 7 unsure links as these are mainly back in the 1700s or early 1800s before formal registration and censuses
  • Philip 48 common ancestors – 5 unsure links when using thrulines and other clues
  • Dad 11 common ancestors of which 4 are kits I manage – Dad is definitely the problem person when it comes to DNA and the paper trail not matching.

When I know where a match is on my tree, I star them on Ancestry

I am lucky to have nearly 10000 people on a database on my home computer, so can quickly work out if a person is a match or not by using their online tree and my database.

  • Sue 66 stars
  • Mum 69 stars
  • Philip 65 stars
  • Dad 13 stars

I am doing quite well with messages sent through Ancestry – probably getting replies on 1 out of every 3 sent. I do check when the last time the match was on the website and will more likely message those who have been on in the last few months.

Ancestry now allows you to colour code for family lines or any other purpose you might need. When I star a match, I also use the notes section to put in how that person matches my mother or father eg Sue – Phyl – Hannah – George – John and Ann Davey nee Dixon This means I can see the most recent common ancestor at a glance (MRCA). That allows me to colour code very quickly eg Davey Dixon line

Readers: How are you going with working out matches using your DNA results? Are you using the new tools from each testing company? Which tools are you finding the most useful?


DNA connections and record keeping

I look after 7 DNA kits from Ancestry and all are uploaded to Family Tree DNA, My Heritage DNA and GEDmatch DNA. How do I keep a record of my matches, chromosomes and common information?

I have a spreadsheet on my google drive  which synchronizes across all my devices. This means whether I am at home on my desktop PC, or in a library with my iPad or my laptop then I can always get to that spreadsheet to make any changes.

I mainly work on my father’s DNA connections or my mother’s as they will be one generation closer to the Most Common Recent  Ancestor (MCRA) than if I work with mine or my brother’s.

The main DNA spreadsheet has lots of sheets relating to Dad

The first sheet has a copy of the first 2000 links from GEDmatch using the one-to-many test. This is just a straight copy/paste. I have then gone through the first 100 people using the one-to-one test to find out the chromosomes shared with my dad.  I am starting to colour code people who match each other when using the share 2 kits test. At least once a moth I update this sheet by checking the people marked in green on the main GEDmatch page for Dad. These will be the recent people who share his DNA.

The second sheet is a copy of the share 2 kits test for Dad and Kevin (his half brother)  This is a straight copy/paste. This means everyone on that list is from dad’s paternal side as dad and Kevin share a father. This list includes names and emails of the matches as well as the amount of cM shared and the generations between the matches. I am in contact with 3 people on this list so far.

The third sheet is one I have to create from information on available trees from the people in the Dad/Kevin list. I find their trees on any of the DNA websites. On this sheet I list the name of the person, the surnames at 4 or more generations away and where and when those people were born and died.

The fourth sheet is the share 2 kits test for Dad and Ruby. Anyone on this list relates to my dad’s maternal grandmother.

Dad/Patrick is because Patrick is the closest unknown link on the GEDmatch list at 3.9 generations.

I just found a great video from Ancestry explaining shared cM, mirror trees and a lot more. The sound is not too great and sounds a bit tunnelly.

My future plans

I will be starting a new spreadsheet for Mum’s DNA at some stage to keep all her information there.

On Ancestry, I have lots of trees, one labelled DNA Dad’s tree. It is here that I use the information from dad and Kevin matches to create mirror trees to find out where they link. So far I have about 6 trees started but none link yet. This will certainly be an ongoing project.

I also keep a separate spreadsheet with all those people I have already found a match to with DNA from either Mum or Dad. But I also include matches with the other people whose kits I look after eg Ruby, Dorothy and Kevin. The information in this is then sent to Blaine Bettinger’s shared cM Project via this Google form. The MCRA is usually a grandparent couple rather than an individual except in the case of my father’s grandmother. Most of my dad’s matches are half relationships and in the note column I will mention if the match is double cousins as I have on one side of mum’s tree. As Ancestry doesn’t give the largest number of cMs, I just put Ancestry in this column. When I have uploaded data to the shared cM project I put the year in the Done column. Anything highlighted in yellow is dad’s side but more information needs to be included, green is same but mum’s side.

Readers: How do you record your matches for DNA from all the websites or do you just use one website?

Checking the DNA

Since my last post, I have been doing some more work on the DNA tests that my immediate family had done as well as those relatives I asked to test to prove or disprove some of Dad’s background. (He is my problem child with a paper trail not matching his DNA very well.)

They all tested with Ancestry but I had uploaded the raw DNA data from the immediate family to Family Tree and My Heritage as well. I found some different names at these websites that were not included on the Ancestry site.

The one site I had uploaded everyone to was Gedmatch – the site US police are now using with cold case files.  It is here that people who have tested with any site upload their data so it is a huge database of  DNA connections. Again I found some new connections.

But it is only this last week that I decided to upload the other  relatives DNA raw data to FTDNA and MyHeritage. Immediately this helped me work out a new connection with my father.

Below is a quick pedigree chart for my dad. Now you can see why he is my problem child. Very little proven paperwork for his father – not even a birth date and place. But at least having his half brother tested means anyone who matches them both must come from dad’s paternal side of the tree. Now to build lots of trees from his DNA hits to see where the links are in all these trees.

On his mum’s side we have an unknown 1st-2nd cousin which could only possibly mean her father is not who we thought. Through testing a so called relative and a cousin we proved dad’s mother didn’t descend from my whaling captain William Smith. Now to find who her father really was – I have quite a few DNA hits that must relate there.

Dad’s maternal great grandparents are also a problem with 5 possibilities as the father and the mother born to one person but then living with another person with half siblings.


It is a lot of work trying to prove the paper trail using DNA at least it is for dad. My mum’s paper trail and DNA match well so I spend little time on that. Most hits are easier to find as I have most of her ancestors back at least 4 or 5 generations.

Readers: Have you DNA tested? If yes, what are you finding most difficult? Where have you uploaded your DNA raw data to?