Breaking down those Family History Brick Walls

Strategies when your family history research hits that brick wall.

Review the Research that you have previously got together

Information that you may have found a few years ago that may include names, dates or other details that now provide clues, given new facts that you’ve since uncovered. Organising your files and reviewing your facts may uncover just the clue to move you onto the next stage.

Go back to the original source

You may have kept the names and dates from that old census record, but did you also keep track of other information that was to hand such as ‘years of marriage’ and possibly even the ‘country of parent’s origin’ if your family moved internationally? Or, perhaps, in error, you misread a name or a family relationship? Be sure to go back to those first records you kept, making complete copies and noting down all clues – they may all come in handy in later research.

Widen your search

When you’re stuck on a particular ancestor, good practise is to widen your search to other family members and neighbours. When you can’t find a birth record for your ancestor that lists his/her parents, maybe you can locate one for a brother or sister. Or, when you’ve lost a family between census years, try looking for their neighbours. You may be able to identify a migration pattern, or a wrongly mis-indexed census entry that way. Often referred to as “cluster genealogy,” this research technique can often get you past those brick walls that had proved so troublesome.

Family history photos

Question your data & verify accuracy

Many brick walls occur simply from data that is incorrect. In other words, the sources you’ve uncovered may be leading you in the wrong direction through their inaccuracy. Respondents not telling the truth on Census Forms/ Birth, Marriages and Death records was possible, as was information such as their correct age or whether married or not. Attitudes were different back then and many people felt very uncomfortable divulging true personal information. Also, published sources often contain transcription errors when being noted down. Try to find at least three records to verify any facts that you already know and then judge the quality of your data results.

Check possible name variations used

Your brick wall may just be something as simple as looking for the wrong name. Variations of last names and ancestors using middle names or even ‘nicknames’ can really complicate research, so be sure to check all manner of spelling options and possible variations. The ‘all in one’ search facility and phonetic search options on TheGenealogist helps enormously to find those people who may have used middle names or names easily misinterpreted on census documents- on TheGenealogist we can see an example of this with the records of a Benjamin Freke.

Variations in surname spelling can cause problems to the family history researcher

Search record results for Benjamin Freke on TheGenealogist

Know Your Geography

Even though you know that your ancestor lived on the same street, you may still be looking in the wrong county for your ancestor. Town and county boundaries have been subject to change over time as populations grew or council boundaries changed. Keeping up with geographical changes can help break down those brick walls!

The many boundary changes and other changes to administrative areas mean that some local advice can save you a lot of time and frustration. The South West of England, as an example, has gone through a number of administrative changes over the years- such as the abolishment of the county of Avon in 1996. This created the authorities of Bath and North East Somerset, City of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. To the person unfamiliar with the local area, research can become very confusing but it highlights how boundaries in the UK have changed from time to time. It is always worth getting some local guidance from a local Family History Society for example, in the first instance.

Seek out help- there’s a number of sources available!

Fresh eyes and a fresh perspective can often see beyond brick walls, so try running your theories by other researchers. Use a specialist forum like – www.roots-forum.co.uk  Post a query on a website ‘help’ forum such as www.thegenealogist.co.uk/forums  Also, check with members of the local historical or genealogical society, they can possibly offer advice and guidance. Be sure to include what you already know, as well as what you’d like to know and which tactics and methods you’ve already tried so those helping you do not waste time duplicating effort.

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