This originally ran in the Ancestry Daily News on 1 January 2006. The ideas are still good and it’s been the basis for one of my webinars.
Brick Walls from A to Z
This week we discuss the alphabet looking for clues to ancestral brick walls. The list is meant to get you thinking about your own genealogy problems.
A is for Alphabetize
Have you created an alphabetical list of all the names in your database and all the locations your families lived? Typographical errors and spelling variants can easily be seen using this approach. Sometimes lists that are alphabetical (such as the occasional tax or census) can hide significant clues.
B is for Biography
Creating an ancestor’s biography might help you determine where there are gaps in your research. Determining possible motivations for his actions (based upon reasonable expectations) may provide you with new areas to research.
C is for Chronology
Putting in chronological order all the events in your ancestor’s life and all the documents on which his name appears is an excellent way to organize the information you have. This is a favorite analytical tool of severalAncestry Daily News columnists.
D is for Deeds
A land transaction will not provide extended generations of your ancestry, but it could help you connect a person to a location or show that two people with the same last name engaged in a transaction.
E is for Extended Family
If you are only researching your direct line there is a good chance you are overlooking records and information. Siblings, cousins, and in-laws of your ancestor may give enough clues to extend your direct family line into earlier generations.
F is for Finances
Did your ancestor’s financial situation impact the records he left behind? Typically the less money your ancestor had the fewer records he created. Or did a financial crisis cause him to move quickly and leave little evidence of where he settled?
G is for Guardianships
A guardianship record might have been created whenever a minor owned property, usually through an inheritance. Even with a living parent, a guardian could be appointed, particularly if the surviving parent was a female during that time when women’s legal rights were extremely limited (read nonexistent).
H is for Hearing
Think of how your ancestor heard the questions he was being asked by the records clerk. Think of how the census taker heard what your ancestor said. How we hear affects how we answer or how we record an answer.
I is for Incorrect
Is it possible that an “official” record contains incorrect information? While most records are reasonably correct, there is always the chance that a name, place, or date listed on a record is not quite exact. Ask yourself how it would change your research if one “fact” suddenly was not true?
J is for Job
What was your ancestor’s likely occupation? Is there evidence of that occupation in census or probate records? Would that occupation have made it relatively easy for your ancestor to move from one place to another? Or did technology make your ancestor’s job obsolete before he was ready for retirement?
K is for Kook
Was your ancestor just a little bit different from his neighbors? Did he live life outside cultural norms for his area. If he did, interpreting and understanding the records of his actions may be difficult. Not all of our ancestors were straight-laced and like their neighbors. That is what makes them interesting (and difficult to trace).
L is for Lines
Do you know where all the lines are on the map of your ancestor’s neighborhood? Property lines, county lines, state lines, they all play a role in your family history research. These lines change over time as new territories are created, county lines are debated and finalized, and as your ancestor buys and sells property. Getting your ancestor’s maps all “lined” up may help solve your problem.
M is for Money
Have you followed the money in an estate settlement to see how it is disbursed? Clues as to relationships may abound. These records of the accountings of how a deceased person’s property is allocated to their heirs may help you to pinpoint the exact relationships involved.
N is for Neighbors
Have you looked at your ancestor’s neighbors? Were they acquaintances from an earlier area of residence? Were they neighbors? Were they both? Which neighbors appeared on documents with your ancestor?
O is for Outhouse
Most of us don’t use them any more, but outhouses are mentioned to remind us of how much life has changed in the past one hundred years. Are you making an assumption about your ancestor’s behavior based upon life in the twenty-first century? If so, that may be your brick wall right there.
P is for Patience
Many genealogical problems cannot be solved instantly, even with access to every database known to man. Some families are difficult to research and require exhaustive searches of all available records and a detailed analysis of those materials. That takes time. Some of us have been working on the same problem for years. It can be frustrating but fulfilling when the answer finally arrives.
Q is for Questions
Post queries on message boards and mailing lists. Ask questions of other genealogists at monthly meetings, seminars, conferences and workshops. The answer to your question might not contain the name of that elusive ancestor, but unasked questions can leave us floundering for a very long time.
R is for Read
Read about research methods and sources in your problem area. Learning about what materials are available and how other solved similar problems may help you get over your own hump.
S is for Sneaky
Was your ancestor sneaking away to avoid the law, a wife, or an extremely mad neighbor? If so, he may have intentionally left behind little tracks. There were times when our ancestor did not want to be found and consequently may have left behind few clues as to his origins.
T is for Think
Think about your conclusions. Do they make sense? Think about that document you located? What caused it to be created? Think about where your ancestor lived? Why was he there? Think outside the box; most of our brick wall ancestors thought outside the box. That’s what makes them brick walls in the first place.
U is for Unimportant
That detail you think is unimportant could be crucial. That word whose legal meaning you are not quite certain of could be the key to understanding the entire document. Make certain that what you have assumed is trivial is actually trivial.
V is for Verification
Have you verified all those assumptions you hold? Have you verified what the typed transcription of a record actually says? Verifying by viewing the original may reveal errors in the transcription or additional information.
W is for Watch
Keep on the watch for new databases and finding aids as they are being developed. Perhaps the solution to your brick wall just has not been created yet.
X is for X-Amine
With the letter “x” we pay homage to all those clerks and census takers who made the occasional spelling error (it should be “examine” instead of “x-amine.”) and also make an important genealogical point. Examine closely all the material you have already located. Is there an unrecognized clue lurking in your files?
Y is for Yawning
Are you getting tired of one specific family or ancestor? Perhaps it is time to take a break and work on another family. Too much focus on one problem can cause you to lose your perspective. The other tired is when you are researching at four in the morning with little sleep. You are not at your most productive then either and likely are going in circles or making careless mistakes.
Z is for Zipping
Are you zipping through your research, trying to complete it as quickly as possible as if it were a timed test in school? Slow down, take your time and make certain you aren’t being too hasty in your research and in your conclusions.
The “tricks” to breaking brick walls could go on and on. In general though, the family historian is well served if he or she “reads and thinks in an honest attempt to learn.” That attitude will solve many problems, not all of them family history related.