When I’m out talking to groups about my books on Northwest Florida, I almost always have at least one person come up and start talking about one of their brick walls. It is just natural for family historians to get around to commiserating about their research brick walls. If you do genealogy, you likely have one or more of these pesky obstacles that stare at you every time you open your software or pull out your files. They torment and cause no end of frustration. I have a number in my ancestry that continue to challenge me to uncover something, somewhere, that will answer the question of who fits in that blank space. While many of these are the female ancestors who didn’t seem to leave any documentation on their maiden names, and you therefore can’t push the line back in time, they can also be male ancestors who seemed to leave minimal records where you are looking. I have both and have decided to make 2018 the year I solve at least one of them. If I don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying!
To really tackle genealogy brick walls, start by clearly defining what you want or need to know, and commit to getting beyond indexes and other people’s trees and do research in original records. Indexes generally extract minimal information from a record and other people’s family trees can be full of errors because some people collect names, they don’t do research. It is also very helpful to understand legal terms and procedures during the time and in the place you are researching. Probate laws, for instance, can be significantly different between states and across time. You need to have a research plan and be systematic about recording all the information you collect, whether you know it fits, or think it might; so that you can review and look for patterns and clues. Most genealogy software are not particularly good at this, not withstanding you shouldn’t enter a person in your database until you know that they fit unless you leave them unconnected to your line. I’ve started using a software program called Evidentia3 that I find helpful, though there is a learning curve. They do, however, have some good training videos. It will not only help in documenting your research and citing sources, it will help to determine if you have found enough information to draw a conclusion one way or the other. A good research plan and good documentation may pleasantly surprise you when you sit down to review.
If you’ve been doing genealogy for a while, you probably have lots of materials and if you are like me, some are on paper, some are digital, some are organized, and some are not so organized. Start by getting it all in front of you for your brick wall. I decided as I started my process to take the opportunity to digitize any important pieces of paper since my computer files are much more organized than my paper ones. Now go through all of your materials: your paper files, your software database if you have one and your computer files and create a research log. I do these in MS Excel, but you can also do a table in MS Word. Column headings: Date, Where you found the info, Source citation, Objective (what you are/were searching for), Results, Notes. These can not only help with looking at your data in a more comprehensive way, they can keep you from repeating searches because you don’t remember them or what you found, if anything. I’ll admit I’ve had that happen more than once. Each piece of data should have more than one source and you should try to resolve any conflicts. Three sources are good, though that can be a steep climb for some ancestors.
Time to Really Review Your Data
Once you get the research log finished, really review it. You might consider doing a timeline at this point to help you look for gaps. I use Timeline Maker Pro but there are other options, including some genealogy programs that can do a simple timeline. Include both details on the individuals and some more general historical information, especially the local history that might have impacted your ancestor(s). And finally, really study the original documents you have on these ancestors; read the will, read the death certificate, read the deed, whatever you have gathered. Read it in detail, slowly, looking for clues you might have missed. Transcribe it. I find having to transcribe these documents into words on a page does wonders for helping me “see” what is being said. Look for the names of witnesses in deeds, wills and other legal documents. These may be related and in the case of the elusive maiden name for a female ancestor, those men listed on her husband’s will or on a land deed may be her male kinfolks. Frankly, most of us just use the information from indexes (or worse other people’s trees) and never acquire the original documents. Regardless of how good the index appears to be, the original is always going to be a better resource and someone else’s family tree should only be a suggestion for your own research. Identify any new possibilities for research and make a list to follow.
Creating a FAN Diagram
If the above didn’t provide any new insights, there is another possible way to put some details to your tree. Climb out on the branches! Some folks call this your ancestor’s FAN Club or cluster research. Many family researchers focus up their direct line and don’t bother to identify siblings and other related family. That is a mistake. Siblings not only provide details to the family, they can provide details on your direct line that doesn’t appear anywhere else. Their wills and legal documents may provide valuable clues to your ancestor. The same is possible with your ancestor’s neighbors and their acquaintances. Create a diagram of known family, acquaintance and neighbors and look for records and documents for these people. These diagrams can be done in MS Word, on paper, or in Powerpoint. Elizabeth Shown Mills has a number of Quicksheets for genealogists, including one on doing cluster research. Look for your ancestor’s involvement with the FAN Club. While this may sound like a lot of extra work, it can be very rewarding. In the case of my years of research in the area of Oak Grove in Okaloosa Co, FL, I’ve come to the conclusion that nearly everyone was related to nearly everyone else. For small, rural communities that was likely more true than not.
The Best of Times
Northwest Florida genealogy can be a challenge. It seems every county has had at least one courthouse fire, and some have had more than one. Birth and death records were not required until the early 20th century and then there was a transition period where reports were just not done consistently. But we are doing family history in the best of times. More and more records are available online so in some cases visits to dusty old courthouses can be minimized because you can find an image of the original documents online. Familysearch.org is a great resource that is free and has many local records available online. They not only have original records you can search using their search feature (these will only be as good as the person who did the indexing and none of us are perfect), they have a number of original records that are images online but are not indexed. I have found probate records for several ancestors recently and civil war prison records for a couple. I found my grandparents’ marriage license that had failed to come up in a search by identifying a couple in the same area who married a few days before. I found the other couple by index and then just went image by image and until I found my grandparents. So even search results at FamilySearch and Ancestry will not always be complete. It can be time consuming to wade through the images but worth it when you suddenly find your ancestor’s name on the page. Even more records, and help, are available through your local family history center.
I’m going to be taking off the month of December from my blog. I plan to make some changes to the look and do some research for next year’s posts. If you are on Facebook, do a friend’s request to follow me. I will likely be sharing short items throughout December.
I hope each of you have a joyful family and friend-filled holiday season. Let us be thankful for all that we have been given and for the family and friends we are blessed to still have with us. For those we have lost this past year, let us be thankful for the time we had with them and the joy they brought to our hearts. With love from my household to yours.
Until 8 January 2018.
- Genealogy In Time “Brick Wall Solutions”
- FamilySearch Research Wiki
- The Historical Biographers Guide to Cluster Research (Quicksheet) (Kindle), Elizabeth Shown Mills
My Books for Sale:
- The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War (Lulu Printers – Hardcover ; Paperback) (Amazon – Hardcover ; Paperback ; Kindle)
- Yellow River Baptist Church Membership Records (Lulu Printers – Hardcover)
- Barrow-King Family History (Lulu Printers – Hardcover)
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