Tips for Removing Stubborn Genealogy Research Blockers

by Lisa Alzo | Apr 19, 2012

Lisa Alzo

Brick walls are an inevitable part of a genealogist's research life. In the simplest terms, brickwalls are often defined as those genealogical research problems that seem too difficult to solve. But not all brickwalls are created equal, and there are a number of myths surrounding the exact definition. Many times, what seems like an insurmountable brickwall may in reality be a mere stumbling block. This article will discuss practical suggestions for removing five common stubborn genealogy research blockers.

1. Relying Too Heavily On Family Lore Or Stories.

Perhaps Aunt Betty tells you "Our name has always been spelled this way" or you hear a story that an ancestor in your maternal line can be traced back to nobility, but you can't seem to find the proof. Often a barrier arises when the researcher is looking in either the wrong place or searching during the wrong time period, or both, or perhaps conducting a search for the wrong name. You need to take a step back and evaluate the evidence and take account of who is feeding you the information and where they obtained it. Then make a list of all the potential resources you can seek out to prove or disprove what you've heard.

2. You Can't Find Great-Grandpa's Arrival Record

If you've been unsuccessful in documenting your great-grandfather's arrival in America and are about to declare he either swam across the ocean or somehow beamed down from outer space, you may be tempted to think you've hit a huge impasse. Missing passenger lists are a common problem for genealogists, and the earlier your immigrant ancestors arrived the harder it may be to locate them. Are you looking in the right place? Not all immigrants came through Ellis Island, or even its predecessor, Castle Garden. It's also possible your ancestor may have come through Baltimore, Philadelphia, Galveston, or another US port, or perhaps arrived first in Canada, so you may need to expand your search in online databases. Try using Steve Morse's One-Step Webpages to perform "sounds like" searches for names and towns for various ports. Also, remember, online databases are not perfect (i.e. spelling issues, transcription errors, missing entries, etc.). Sometimes you may need to go back to microfilmed copies of passenger lists (check with FamilySearch or the National Archives Records Administration) and do a page-by-page search. For more guidance on searching passenger lists, consult the excellent free online resource Ship Passenger Lists and Immigration Records: A Genealogy Research Guide by Joe Beine.

3. The Disappearing Ancestor

Another common problem is losing track of a particular ancestor. For example, locating an individual in one or two censuses but then he or she just disappears, or finding one or two records for a person but nothing else. Try creating a timeline for the ancestor based on the life events you have already documented. You can do this from your favorite word processing or genealogy software program, or with specialty timeline creation software. Be aware that a family in your line may have migrated several times throughout their lives, thus making it difficult to dig up evidence. One strategy is to research collateral lines (brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins, etc) and also to do "cluster" genealogy--follow the friends, coworkers, associates, neighbors). Be sure to always look at the witnesses on documents such as baptismal certificates, marriage licenses, and naturalization petitions because they are likely to be someone who had a close relationship with your missing ancestor. Search out their records for clues and leads. Another tip is to perform a community analysis. Look at who is living near your ancestor on the census he or she appears on. Also, consider geography: Get historic maps and note the surrounding regions and counties near the location where your ancestor lived at a particular time, and take account of shifting borders. The key documents you seek could be in a nearby county, or state. Using this information, you can use free online tools such as Google Earth, or subscription services such as Ancestral Atlas, or AncestralHunt to "map" an ancestor's life. Click here for additional advice on tracing "lost" ancestors.

4. "All Those Records Were Destroyed."

We hear a lot of myths associated with genealogy. In addition to family lore, sometimes you hear from a clerk, priest/minister, archivist, or fellow researcher that certain record sets were destroyed or not available for you to look at. Certainly, there are documented instances of courthouse or other repository fires (for example, 25% of the 1890 US Census schedules were lost in a fire and more lost from subsequent water damage; while military personnel records were destroyed in a fire in 1973 at the St. Louis National Personnel Records Center), or records that were destroyed due to organizational or storage issues (such as the Bremen Passenger Lists), but there are occasions when there are other copies of records kept in another location or there may be a substitute source. Perhaps the person telling you the records no longer exist is misinformed, or is basing their statement on an assumption that was passed down in their organization. It could also be a misunderstanding (something especially common when dealing with foreign records that may be located in unlikely places or there may be a miscommunication if the archivist does not speak English). Too many times it's easier to just give up due to a belief that records no longer exist than to spend the extra time and money to find alternative sources. For example for the missing 1890 census, you can check fragments, surviving Veterans schedules, reconstruction efforts, state censuses, or try city directories or tax lists. For the Bremen records, look to Die Maus (passenger lists 1920-1939), and resources from the Bremen State Archives, or printed resources on German immigrants from Bremen from the Genealogical Publishing Company. There are also some workarounds for lost military records (see Kathleen Brandt's article "Your Ancestor's Military Records Were Destroyed? What to Do? ").

5. Giving Up Too Easily

In our "instant access" world it's easy to get frustrated by tasks that take a long time, and we automatically assume we've hit a brickwall when in reality we haven't even begun to exhaust all research possibilities. Are you limiting your research to those sources easily available online or through other means? Have you truly done enough legwork? For example, have you searched every library and repository for records? Have you traveled to where your ancestors lived to research in person at churches, courthouses, cemeteries, libraries, or historical societies? If you can't travel due to health, financial or other reasons, have you considered hiring a professional researcher who can perform the work on your behalf, or a volunteer willing to do some lookups? Don't forget to consider the time period, as well as laws governing the localities where you're researching, and be realistic in your expectations. (For example, if official records don't exist beyond 1650 in your ancestral village this is not a brickwall, but really more a case of reaching the end of the line when it comes to a paper trail). Finally, have you conducted a reasonably exhaustive search? This is one of the five core elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard. Also, be prepared to evaluate those genealogical resources you've consulted. For more on using the Genealogical Proof Standard, read "Where is Your Proof? by Susan Jackman.


In the journey back to your roots, you're likely to encounter many stops and starts, some roadblocks, and perhaps even some pretty big barriers that may stall your momentum and impede your progress. But it doesn't mean you should give up. Your "brickwall" may turn out to be a bump in the road and you may just need to find some alternate routes.

References and Further Reading

"Analyzing Brick Walls -- a genealogical myth or reality? " by James Tanner (Genealogy's Star).
"Brick Wall Breakthrough: Follow The Breadcrumbs On & Offline," by Claudia Breland (
"50 Best Genealogy Brick Wall Solutions - Part I" (Genealogy in Time).
Overcoming "Brick Wall" Problems, (ProGenealogists) by Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA.

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