Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genealogy Tip - Are You Building Your Own Brick Walls?

By Joan Young as published in the Rootsweb Review:

It's a new year, a new opportunity to dust off some of your trickiest research issues and take another crack at finding the answers.

We all have them--brick walls, impossible to locate ancestors who we swear arrived on a mother ship from Mars and plopped full-grown in the place we first found them leaving no trail or records in their wake. Mind you, these elusive ancestors lived well before the days of the Witness Protection Program. They probably were not spies or secret agents whose identity was changed or hidden. They most likely didn't need protection from the bad guys (or maybe the good guys) despite possible family stories to the contrary.

Granted there are occasions where there simply is no evidence to be found for your brick wall ancestor, but there may also be instances where your approach to breaking down the wall may need some fine tuning.

Here are a few suggestions for taking a New Year's shot at cracking those long-standing brick walls.

1) If you have only considered that your SMITHs are English expand your horizons if you have no direct proof of ethnicity. Take a look at who your John SMITH married and what community he lived in and his religious affiliation. You may find that John SMITH was originally Johan SCHMIDT. Being locked into assumptions of ethnicity can result in building your own brick wall.

2) Did your Aunt Susie tell you great-grandmother Matilda was a "Cherokee Princess?" Examine anything you can find about Matilda such as census records and place of birth before you run off to check Cherokee records. Even if you don't know Matilda's maiden name, clues such as her birth location could help you establish whether Aunt Susie was on the mark or not. Since Native Americans didn't use titles such as "Princess" the use of this term could be an indication that not everything you were told was completely accurate even if there is a kernel of truth to the story.

3) Have you been accepting the family trees you found online which list no sources for your John SMITH in Arkansas being the same John SMITH who fought for the Union in the Civil War from Maine? Family trees are a great resource, but make sure you personally verify sources for the data you find there. Do not accept online unsourced information at face value. If no sources are given, contact the database submitter, when possible, to learn where they got their facts. Finding multiple trees or messages listing "facts" with no sources is no guarantee of accuracy. Others may simply have copied from the original submitter.

4) Have you given up on finding your SMITH ancestors because you searched everything online and off last year and the year before and found nothing? Thousands of new records are added online and placed in files at your local historical society library (or a society in the area where you first located your SMITHs) every year. Always start off the New Year with a fresh search to see what might have come to light or been digitized since you last checked.

The point of all of these suggestions is to keep an open mind, don't jump to conclusions, and while not ignoring family stories and lore, consider other possibilities as well. Follow where the evidence trail leads you rather than leaping to conclusions or jumping at illogical connections.

If you do make new discoveries about elusive brick wall ancestors be sure to post them online in an updated family tree, or on a message board or mailing list. Sharing what you have learned will help others and provide them with an opportunity to share any additional data they uncover with you.

Happy hunting in 2011!

Previously published in RootsWeb Review: 12 January 2011, Vol. 14, No. 1