Brick Walls from A to Z


This article originally appeared in the Ancestry Daily News on 11 Jan 2006. It is copyrighted and requests for reprint/redistribution can be directed to me at

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 several Ancestry 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


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


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.



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