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Sorry, I don't get it!

By Marian Pierre-Louis

In my recent post "A New Twist on an Old Trick" I discussed creating a chart to track one moment in time to help with genealogy research and brick walls. The example I used didn't break down my brick wall and it created more questions than it answered.

In response, Jean Richards left the following comment:

"Sorry, I don't get it. This still didn't help you solve your brick wall, did it?"

This is a great question! What is the point of doing an activity if it doesn't help your research? She might not be the only one asking that question. Let's see if I can provide an answer.


When doing genealogical research, especially the first pass-through on our family, we look to census records as the primary resource for discovering and building our family tree. The census records help us quickly identify family members as we go back in time. Once we gather that information we branch out to other records such as vital records, draft registration cards, state censuses, passenger lists, city directories, etc. all of which are readily available online. From there, hopefully, family historians are seeking out offline records such as deeds and probate records (which are now starting to come online).

Inevitably, somewhere along the line, we get stuck. It doesn't have to be a brick wall, it could simply be a temporary obstacle that needs more time to resolve. When we get to this point in our research we slow down and need to be more thoughtful.

Not finding the results you want

One of the things that happens along the way is that we will search for various records and not be able to find them. Perhaps an ancestor is missing from the 1860 census. Or maybe there is no marriage record for the parents of your great grandfather. If you are doing your research in intervals as you find the time, you might forget that you searched for a record but didn't find anything. To prevent that from happening you need to keep track of your search activity so that you don't continue to search repeatedly for the same items. [Of course, if you are primarily searching online, you will want to re-do your searches in the event that new records come online.]

Why can't I find what I'm looking for?

A search that ends without the success of finding what you want or need is called a "negative search." Not only do we want to keep track of unsuccessful searches but the lack of records can push us to dig deeper and harder in other areas that we might not have considered. When you have an unsuccessful search the first question you should ask yourself is" why didn't I find this record as I had hoped?" You need to determine if there are extant records of the type you are looking for in the time period and location you are searching. Ancestry's Red Book and the FamilySearch Wiki can help answer this type of question.

Or the answer could be as simple as a typo in the indexing of a particular record group. This is a very common problem with census records. By determining why you can't find a record you will know if you should be able to find what you need using another method or whether you should pursue other strategies because the record you need doesn't exist.

Once you have determined the record doesn't exist,  log this as a negative search so that you don't have to spend any more time searching for that record. A situation where the records exist but your ancestors aren't found after thorough review is also a negative search and should be noted. Though it may appear that negative searches are a waste of time, they can be very helpful for your research and tracking them is a key part of that effort.

Ask lots of questions

Records that don't answer the questions you have or that give you unexpected results provide an opportunity for you to closely analyze your research. What you need to do is ask yourself questions about your ancestors. In my case, I was very specifically searching one family in the 1810 census. By looking closely at the census I discovered things that I didn't know before such as that only two of seven children were in the household in that year. While the new discoveries didn't help me solve my brick wall they forced me to ask myself new questions. Where were the other children? Can I find them? What does this tell me about the family in 1810?

The process of asking questions will encourage you to seek out new information. In my example, I hadn't previously spent a lot of time researching the siblings of my ancestor. The unexpected result of finding the family dispersed in 1810 made me question what had happened to the intact family. That can potentially be resolved by looking more closely at the siblings.

Solving brick walls means careful review

The initial research phase that I mentioned at the start is an easier research process than solving a brick wall. Long standing research challenges mean analyzing everything you know in detail, noting down what you have found and asking lots of new questions to try to resolve your brick wall. It means looking at every document you have completely until you have understood every clue that it will offer you. It is the culmination of reviewing all your records and information that will lead the resolution of a problem.

Measuring success

While I did not solve my brick wall by analyzing the 1810 census I was successful in asking new questions that will help determine new research paths to follow. The early 19th century in New York provides most genealogists with a challenging search. My next task will be to go through the same process for all the records and information I have and to try to answer the new questions I formulated. I may never actually solve my research question during my life time but what I can do is carefully analyze what I know, ask more questions and carefully document everything so that future generations can take over my work without having to repeat my research.

What do you think? Was the effort worth it even though I didn't solve my puzzle?


Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.


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Yes, any effort is worth more than no effort or just complaining about the issue. Thomas Edison said he just 10,000 ways that didn't work - before he finally did find one that would work. In my family - 3rd cousins married each other - each line spelled family name differently Bloss/ Blose but didn't know they were actually related to each other. GGGGrandfather BLOSE was lost for 125 years until we located his grave/ could corroborate a birth date. His name was PAUL/ church records had us scurrying to find a POLLY (at baptism, his grandparents apparently called him his nickname PAULI but got recorded as POLLY). NO one lifted his baptismal dress or asked if he was a boy or girl. But try to change an original record after the fact!
Yes, many in my genealogy classes say - they don't get it? It just takes time and little bit of effort. Carl

I recently had the same situation. My grandfather was one of 13 children (only 8 lived) and his parents both died in 1913 when he was 13 yrs old. There were also 9 year old twins and a 6 year old sister. I recently think I found her on the 1920 census in an orphanage, and I have one of the twins living with a sister in Brooklyn, but where is the other one? My grandfather's grandmother is listed in the 1930 census as living with her other son but I can't find her in 1920 - and why didn't the uncle take the orphaned children of his brother? Like you said - opens up more questions to be answered. The search goes on.

When I began researching my Family about 1990, the local libraries did not even have Census Indexes. They did have census records on microfilm and I spent hours searching for my Mother's ancestors. My "Brick Wall" was her 2nd Grt-Grandfather, Samuel P. Bayless (or Bayles). This was difficult. First of all there are several family members named Samuel all living in about the same location at the same time. I decided to look for his wife who I was told was Eliza Hoss. No luck with that either. At last I discovered Samuel in the 1840 census! Sadly, without names of Family members and no MI on any records other than the 1840 census, this was a dead end. I decided to research all of those Samuels and their kin. It was a run around the Wall. The MI of "P" for my ancestor was included in the 1840 census but beyond that I could learn nothing. Eventually I found my lead, Samuel P. Bayless, son of John and brother to Rees was named in two deeds. One was land deeded to him from his father and one was the same land deeded from him to his brother. Many other records then opened the "Door". These deeds led me to many other connections! I make Timelines to help me and have found the very useful.

Hmm. Do we have a term for these temporary bumps in the road that aren't really a brick wall? I've been likening it to being stuck at a long traffic light. It will turn green...eventually.....

I anxiously awaited the release of the 1940 census because I would be accounted for in my family. I could not find any family record where I knew they were living. I was sadly disappointed, but I didn't give up. I would go back every month in my search for myself and my family. I used variations of our family name POSTON as I had found it in other records spelled PASTAN/POSTEN/PASTEN and even POLSTON. A year later I finally found my family listed in the next city as we lived in the rural area near the city limits, but my father whose name was CLAUDE was listed as CLOUD, mother's name was MADIE but she was MAUD, my older brother was ROBERT, but he was listed as BOB, my name was the only one spelled correctly, but my younger sister born in Jan 1940 was listed as Donald L. I suggest finding the original record, not the indexed record. Mistakes are made on both types of records when it comes to trying to translate someone else's writing on an original document. You have a better chance of recognizing your family names than a stranger doing their best to index the original record.
Katherine I MOCK

I love timelines! Although I don't recall them helping me find relatives, they easily help me rule out erroneous claims made by other online family historians.

Another type of spreadsheet that HAS helped me identify relatives is one that includes not only vital dates and sources, but also the name of the person who performed a couple's marriage (my family seemed to have kept a Cleveland JP named Zoul on retainer), the mortuary used (again, remarkable loyalty even when different cemeteries were used), and most important of all - ADDRESSES. In spite of surname spelling changes and misspellings, daughtering, and re-marriages, the same Cleveland family addresses popped up over and over.

Example: The 1st time this address spreadsheet helped me was when I realized that, unknown to me prior to this, the remarried Gustie Mahdal was actually Augusta Grunschalski, after her 1st marriage, who was born as Auguste Ewert, all because her address stayed constant.

For Katherine Mock: My Great grandmother is Belle Virginia Poston Carpenter. She was the only Grandma Carpenter I knew as her daughter-in-law died when I was 18 mons. old . She came to keep house for my grandfather and stayed for 4 years. I cried when she went back to family in Des Moines, Iowa. She died at 94 years old. Grandma Belle father I have discovered is A J. Poston of West Virginia. Is A. J. any connection to you somewhere?

Hi, I am researching the Anderson of Allendale County, South Carolina and my father-in-law, John Henry Anderson is the son of William and Girlie Anderson but lo and behold, he does not appear as a child in any of their households, along with his siblings, Frank and others. That is so strange because he was born in 1926 and according his marriage certificate, he married Ella Thomas of Cameron, South Carolina. But again, John Henry does not appear as a child in any of William and Girlie's household on the census records. Where else can I find this man because his only living sibling is very old and senile and no one else is talking. Where is John Henry?

Hi! I wanted to let you know that I've included your post in my NoteWorthy Reads this week:

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