Brick walls are a common topic of conversation among genealogists. Brick walls occur, quite simply, when we are stuck on a problem and don't know where to go for a solution.
For years I have been struggling to find my great-grandfather, George Potter. I have only his name and it is from his children's death certificates. The marriage record for him and my great-grandmother was most likely destroyed in the 1884 Hamilton County, Ohio courthouse fire. The family has not been located in the 1870 U.S. census and George died at an early age. George is my brick wall and has been eluding me for almost 30 years.
What can be done to knock down a brick wall? Here are a couple of suggestions:
In the past I have mentioned the importance of collateral research. Following the direct line of ancestry is not enough. Siblings of our ancestors must also be researched for the search to be reasonably exhaustive. For example, in all the records that I collected for my grandmother, Julia Nolan, none stated where she was born in Ireland. Family legend was that she was born in County Cork. However, I could not find her family in County Cork. Julia's brother, Dennis Nolan, stated in his Spanish-American War record that he was born in County Kerry. The family was found in County Kerry.
Follow known associates, friends, and neighbors
Many of our ancestors immigrated and migrated from the same town or village as their neighbors and friends. Those neighbors and friends lives may have been recorded more fully. I was researching William Morgan of Adams Co., Ohio and could find no information about him prior to moving to Adams County. His neighbor, Herbert Smith, had the same place of birth as William. Using the place of birth for their children, it appeared that William and Herbert moved to Ohio about the same time. Smith was a prominent citizen in Adams County and had a large biography in the county history. The history gave the town in Pennsylvania where Mr. Smith was born. I looked for William Morgan in that town and found that he was also a neighbor of Mr. Smith there.
Re-examine and reorganize information previously collected
Some of our brick walls have been hanging around for years. During that time, your research skills have improved and knowledge of records has increased. Sometimes taking the same information and organizing it a little differently will help make a connection. The clue that did not seem to exist will pop out and grab you when the information is organized a different way. There are also more indexes available today than were available even a few years ago. There may be something there that is obvious now that you missed before. I recently found the passenger list for my second great-grandparents. I have been trying to find this list for over 20 years. By looking at old data, I saw that I was looking in the wrong years. By expanding my search to earlier years and using the online passenger list index, I found the record.
Discuss the problem with fellow genealogists
Many societies have meetings specifically for members to discuss brick walls problems. These discussion can not only help the one with the brick wall but may also give the other members ideas about how to attack their own brick wall. Some genealogy societies have special groups who meet to discuss research techniques and problems. One of these groups would be a perfect setting for discussing brick walls. Consider joining a group or starting a group of your own.
Interview relatives a second or third time
Additional details may be remembered with further discussion. Discussing the information found since the previous interview may also stimulate a memory. My cousin, Jack, gave me the names of five children of his grandparents. I had trouble finding the origins of the family so I went back for a second interview. During that second interview, I went through each child separately and talked about the information I had acquired. As we were discussing each child individually, he mentioned Albert. I asked "who is Albert?" since that name is not been previously mentioned. He told me that Albert was a child of his grandfather's first marriage. Jack didn't know Albert's mother's name and so didn't think that Albert was worth mentioning. Because Albert was the only child not born in Kentucky, he led me to the town in New England where the family had lived previous to the move to Kentucky.
Most genealogists come up against a brick wall at least once when researching their family. If this happens to you, don't be discouraged. Continue to look for new ways to chip away at that wall until it is finally knocked down.