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10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Genealogy When it Stalls

The proverbial brick wall. We all hit it at one time or another. You've searched every single document you can think of but you simply can't get past a certain time period or event for an ancestor.

Maybe you can't find Grandmother Mabel on that 1850 census but you have her in 1860 and you know she is hiding somewhere!

Perhaps Great-grandfather James is keeping his Irish origins hidden and you can't go any further unless you can figure out where in Ireland you need to look!

That's when you need to jumpstart your genealogy research. You need fresh ideas, fresh eyes and you need to be rejuvenated.

Here are 10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Genealogy:

1. Revisit and review old research
Take out all your research on that brickwall ancestor. Go over it again. Read it carefully, analyze it, see if there are clues there you might have missed the first time around. I've written about my own reviews of old research and the new clues Ive found at Why Review Old Genealogy Research? and Everyone Makes Mistakes: Why You Should Review Your Research Notes 

2. Search siblings!

Remember that siblings share common ancestors. Even half-siblings share at least one parent. You may find that your ancestor’s brother or sister’s obituary has the information you have been seeking.

3. Search a different ancestor or family line

Sometimes it's time to set Grandmother Mabel aside for a bit and work on someone else. when you are ready to go back to the puzzle of Grandmother Mabel, you may find that fresh eyes will make all the difference in the world.

4. Find a genealogy buddy who will brainstorm with you 
I always brainstorm with my husband when I have a challenging genealogy mystery. It's beneficial to have someone approach the mystery with a different outlook. Often that person comes up with something that you didn't think of.

5. Make a chronological timeline of your ancestor's life events.
This is one of the most helpful ways to organize your thoughts and see at a glance where the holes are in your research. Making a timeline for one of my husband's challenging ancestors I noted that I had his baptism record, immigration record, marriage record, births of children, death of his wife and then his death.

However I did not have a record of land he might have purchased or rented and that sent me off a hunt for those records. To my surprise there was mention of him selling his land to his wife for $1.00 then buying it back two years later. That in turn led me to think about what happened in those two years? Why had he sold the land and then bought it back? Long story short, eventually I found out he had gone to jail in that time.

6. Look for alternate or obscure records. There may be tax records, or perhaps you can find a coffin plate at http://ancestorsatrest.com/coffin_plates/ for an ancestor. Try finding a funeral card at http://ancestorsatrest.com/funeral_cards/ or a medical record.


Coffin plate in collection of Brian L. Massey, published with permission
Coffin plate in collection of Brian L. Massey, published with permission


7. Search newspapers for mention of an ancestor. I found a brief notice in a local newspaper for my great-grandfather Alexander McGinnis, stating he had been sent to jail for selling liquor without a licence!

8. Talk to family members. Someone, somewhere, might have that tidbit of information you need. My husband and I searched for years for the baptism of his great-grandfather. What we didn’t know was that he was Catholic so we were searching in the wrong church records. One day my husband’s grandmother casually mentioned that her mother used to sprinkle holy water on her during thunderstorms! Bingo! I knew we had to look in Catholic records.


ID-DNA green purple

9. Take a DNA test. DNA will match you with others who share a common ancestor. You will have to work to discover the link but many new discoveries can, and do, occur when you have your DNA tested. See DNA Genealogy - Choosing DNA Groups to Join for help if you have not yet had your DNA tested

10. Take a break
Yep that's right. Sometimes it's time to say "Enough!". Put your genealogy aside and go for a walk, or out for lunch with friends, or to a movie. Do something relaxing such as read a book, or visit a museum....  do something completely different and you may find yourself coming back to your research in a better mood and with new ideas.

For more ideas on breaking down brick walls see Ten Brick Wall Tips for Beginners and Ten Brick Wall Tips for Intermediate Researchers in the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.


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Excellent article, Lorine. I'm struggling with a few dead ends and missing details, so I'll pick one person and start working my way through the problem! I'm a little more hopeful with this list of what-to-do actions I could take. Cheers.

Another source of information is message boards or forums. I made contact with people on RootsChat who have information about my family. I connected with at least 3 people this week that are related to me. Some of them had information that I did not have. One of them is a cousin that I have not seen since I was a child and I'm a senior citizen.

Revisit and review reminds me of a funny story (which has happened to me more than once). I have Googled information about family research and found a link which had information which SEEEMED new to to me and the name of the person who posted it was not visible in the link. When I pulled it up I found the person who posted it was .... me! Sometimes almost ten years ago! lol

I find that Surname Research such as within a particular area -- like a county -- can sometimes reveal new information.

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