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.
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?