Brick Walls in Your Genealogy?

You may be of the opinion that the route to your earlier ancestry is blocked by what genealogists and family historians often label a “brick wall”. This suggests an impediment so difficult to remove or a problem so complex to solve that research has reached a dead end.

This is not always the case. However, it certainly is the case that if you stand in the road staring at the wall or if you try to scale it in the same way or break through it repeatedly in the same manner and fail, then nothing will ever change and the wall will remain.

For many years there was no way forward because the range of data and records remained the same. The usual, widely known documentation such as birth, marriage and death certificates and census, parish records and wills were almost all that was readily available to the genealogist.

The arrival upon the scene of larger genealogical collections has changed this to a great extent. Commercial operations such as Ancestry, Findmypast and The Genealogist have joined institutions such as FamilySearch, run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, and The Society of Genealogists in curating family based information for their collections.

Breaking through a “brick wall” is often achieved by obtaining a piece of evidential information that proves that only one of many candidates can logically and uniquely be the person sought. When large genealogical institutions are actively trawling knowledge bases for content for re-sale or for educational or religious reasons then they bring together the very minutiae that can achieve this aim and import it into their huge databases. The expert genealogist, specialising in breaking down “brick walls”, is intent upon teasing out these pieces of information from banks of “big data” and matching them to an individual and his family.

For example a military recruitment record will routinely record the height and physical description of a serviceman from his medical examination. He may have a common name and come from a large city and have been indistinguishable from other men of the same name and age and this may have become a “brick wall”. Until that is one of the larger genealogical entities negotiates to purchase the right to index, for example, a collection of Court Case files that also contains a physical description of detainees and information about their birth. When these details are joined in a single large index by the military records the big data machine finds the match and the wall comes tumbling down!

an article from WDYTYA magazine about finding an elusive ancestor

An article for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine written by me.

So one of the ways to break through is to keep returning to the large search engines of these genealogical giants because they are constantly adding to their collections. This of course takes time and diligence as well as money in the form of subscriptions which soon mount up. You may be better off employing someone whose job requires them to monitor these collections and to know where the relevant details are located.

You also need to know how to interrogate the indexes. Many of them suggest that you narrow down your search criteria which sounds sensible but will leave you staring at the same “brick wall” in some circumstances because you may well be inputting the same erroneous information oblivious to the fact that it is this that prevents the truth being uncovered. It may well be something out of the ordinary, like a person consistently understating their age by 12 years, that is creating the brick wall in the first place. You need to know when to widen research and when to home in on a piece of information. That comes with experience. People frequently change the year of their birth, but far less frequently the day in the year and this, for example, can lead to a breakthrough.

These very same indexes may also tell you to widen the parameters of your search which can leave you with a bewildering amount of data to sift through. So you then need to apply only the absolutely certain facts that you have, those that are beyond dispute, in order to narrow down the candidates and identify your ancestor.

There is an old vaguely amusing saying in genealogy that states that we should never forget to “kill off our ancestors”. The meaning of this saying to a genealogist or family historian is that we should not leave research unfinished. In the euphoria of locating a long hidden and lost ancestor we may rush to write him or her on our pedigree enter them in our Gedcom file and email all our far flung and distant cousins to inform them that the person has been found after the combined efforts of our whole extended family for the last 20 years. But if you have not made certain that the person is the one you seek by following his life until his demise, you could be in all sorts of trouble proving his birth. The person you found may have been buried two parishes away as an infant. If you do not check, you do not know.

By killing off candidates, marrying them off or waving them off to a distant land you increase your chances by reducing the number of candidates. As Sherlock Holmes famously said: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Often it is a ridiculous change of occupation or an improbable marriage in a far off land that stands alone as the sole possibility and which has, on closer examination, led to the person who was sought for so long.

“There is nowt so strange as folk.” the saying goes and while most of us follow a path well trodden there are those who march to a different tune and end up living extraordinary lives. Often these are people influenced by love or fortune hunting, by social need or simply through wanderlust who turn their back on the normal workaday existence and live physically or socially at some distance from their origins, their family and their peers. Here they may remain beyond the reach of all but those who specialize in finding them.

On one occasion I located a humble printer from Edinburgh marrying a doctor from an aristocratic family in Calcutta in British India in 1903 and followed their travels around the world. Today two cousins, one a French Army Officer and another, a musicologist in Canada, regularly visit each other because I was able to locate what seemed the most unlikely of marriages.

I have found births when the actual name was unknown and I was armed only with a birthday and a vague idea of where the event occurred. This led to my Australian client contacting cousins at the addresses I was able to provide and to actually obtain photographs of a bigamous grandmother she had never seen before.

I discovered the tragic fate of a bankrupt surgeon who fled in shame to India after his practice collapsed by locating the whereabouts of his close friend’s tea plantation in Assam, India to where he had fled only to die young.

This is not run of the mill genealogy. Results such as these come after years of experience and it can take time for the light bulb to come on and it may not shed light until many hours have passed scrutinizing list after long list of possibilities looking for anomalies or similarities and discarding the impossible until what remains is the truth.

More recently a formidable weapon in the genealogists armoury has appeared upon the scene and that is DNA testing. From our parents and grandparents we inherit genetic information which is very nearly irrefutable and, just as long as the father of a child is just that and not an interloper at intervening generations, then matches can be made. However, DNA does not replace paper based genealogy since although it can prove relationships it cannot find the individuals involved.

Furthermore, with each receding generation the accuracy of testing decreases as the number of potential ancestors nearly doubles at each generation. You need candidates, and they need names! Finding 3rd or 4th cousins multiple times removed is one thing, but who were the intervening parents and siblings that brought about the relationship?

So while DNA testing helps provide proof, especially in the first two or three generations, beyond that you need more than science if you are going to break down that “brick wall”.