Genealogy brick walls--those problems we think
are insurmountable-- are frustrating. Occasionally the brick walls are
of our own making, and those walls are the ones we are looking at this
week. Some ancestors left behind confusing records, but it is possible
that we have muddied the road ourselves. Today's column focuses on some
questions to ask yourself in an attempt to knock a hole in that brick
Is the Tradition Really True?
Are you holding on too tightly to that beloved family
tradition from Aunt Helen? The one that apparently was a state secret.
Even though she lived in rural Kansas, she whispered it to you, fearful
that the neighbor five miles up the road would hear.
Or, despite her insistence to the contrary, maybe her
grandfather did not own eight hundred acres of prime Indiana farmland
and maybe he was born into abject poverty.
Remember, you may find clues in these stories, but they may be
small ones. “Analyze the Tradition
" offers ideas to help researchers make the most of family traditions
without building walls in the process.
Do You Have the Right Place?
County boundaries have changed, and that is not the only
potential geographic problem. Is it possible you are mixing up the name
of the county with the name of the town? Remember that if a state has a
county and town with a same name, the town may not be located in the
county of the same name. Keokuk, Iowa, is located in Lee County,
Iowa--not Keokuk County, Iowa, as one might expect. There are numerous
International boundaries can create difficulties as well. My
daughter was looking on Mapquest, www.mapquest.com,
for Limavady, Ireland, because she was creating a map for a project.
After insisting to me that Limavady was not in Ireland and that I must
be wrong (something children love to do), I realized that she should be
searching for Limavady in the United Kingdom, not in Ireland, as
Limavady is in Northern Ireland. Boundary and geo-political changes in
other parts in other parts of the world can create similar problems.
Do You Have the Right Spelling?
Sometimes family historians “hold tight” to that one
particular spelling, insisting that it is the “only one” and that those
with a “wrong” spelling either cannot be the same person or are not
related. As much as it irritates me, my last name is occasionally
listed as “Neil,” “Neal,” “O'Neill,” and a variety of other
spellings--particularly in old records. The sooner one learns to accept
these variants and to search for them, the fewer brick walls they will
have. And remember, if your ancestor was illiterate, he couldn't read
how his name was written anyway.
Do You Know What You Are Doing?
Our friends and relatives may occasionally wonder if we
know what we are doing, but there is a serious side to this question.
If you are researching in an area where you are unfamiliar with the
history, culture, or records, you are at a serious disadvantage. You
are also significantly increasing the chances of interpreting something
incorrectly and researching in the wrong direction.
A few years ago in this column, we discussed the importance of
learning about the time period and culture when a mid-eighteenth
century will from Virginia was analyzed. The female writer of the will
did not mention any real estate and her inventory did not list any real
estate because at the time women were not allowed to own property and
consequently could not bequeath any real property in a will. Those who
wish to take another look at this 1760-era probate can do so by
It is always an excellent idea to learn about the time and
place in which our ancestors lived.
Do You Know What the Word Means?
Are you absolutely certain you are interpreting a word
in the proper historical and social context? Is the word a legal term
with which you are not familiar? An incorrect interpretation may send
you down the wrong path.
Are You Disorganized?
For some of us, this is a loaded question. The stacks of
paper on our desktop attest to our organizational skills. Research that
is highly unorganized and done in a haphazard fashion is apt to be
inefficient and unsuccessful. It is also important to organize the
information one has located in order to see patterns and trends that
will not be obvious when the records are analyzed individually. There
are a variety of ways one can organize information, some of which are
touched on in the following columns:
The Space-Time Continuum
(chronologies and more)
Do You Have the Right Person?
Sometimes more than one individual with the same name
lived in the same location, and the two can easily be confused by a
researcher two hundred years later. Is your confusion resulting from
“merging” two different people together? First cousins (particularly
males who share the same paternal grandfather) can easily have the same
first and last name. If the last name is Smith or Jones, there can
easily be several unrelated contemporary people with the same name in
the same location.
Do You Have the Correct Pronunciation?
If your ancestor's native language was not the language
of the country where he lived and not the language in which his records
were written, confusion can result. The town of Kisa, Sweden, can very
easily be pronounced to where it sounds like “Cheesuh,” As a result,
the name of the village might be spelled starting with the letters “Ch”
instead of “K.” If your ancestor's place of birth on a death record
cannot be located, consider that the spelling on an English language
record may be how a native English speaker interpreted a non-English
word. Obtaining a guide to how letters are pronounced in a foreign
language can be good start to overcoming this type of stumbling block.
Did Someone Get Remarried?
Multiple marriages of ancestors can create brick walls.
If your ancestor was widowed or divorced, there is always a chance that
he or she married again. Keep in mind that hard times and lack of
financial support may have easily resulted in a marriage of
convenience, if not outright necessity. This subsequent marriage may
have meant the addition of stepchildren to the family and the informal
changing of the last names of some children. All of these things can
result in confusion for the researcher five generations later.
Two recent columns have discussed this very problem:
Pick a Spouse, Any Spouse
Looking for a Bigger Bieger and a Lost Sparrow
Do You Have Hidden Assumptions?
It is easy to make assumptions, and often they are
necessary to get our research started. The downside to assumptions is
that if we are not careful, they can migrate from the “land of
assumption” to the “land of fact.” Assumptions that have accidentally
become facts often do not go back to being assumptions.
To clean out your assumptions and become more aware of some
you might have been overlooking, write down everything you “know” about
an ancestor or a problem. Then find the sources you have to prove each
statement. Are there statements for which you have no direct proof? Is
it possible to verify these statements using a combination of documents
and reasonable logic? If not, then you have assumptions left. Is it
possible that some of these assumptions are incorrect? Even if they are
not, a careful analysis may indicate that the remaining assumptions at
least need to be modified.
Give Them a Rest
After all, most of your ancestors are dead and they are
not going anywhere anytime soon. One final approach (and a favorite of
mine) is to work on another family and then come back to the brick wall
person a few weeks (or months) later. Sometimes time is the greatest
destructive force that can be applied to a brick wall.
Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the
Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in
Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg
College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the
FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State
Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures
on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes
to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry
Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at email@example.com or
visit his website at www.rootdig.com,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
Copyright 2004, MyFamily.com.