Is Your Brick Wall in Your Head?

The following article is from the Ancestry Daily News and is (c) MyFamily.Com. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the Ancestry Daily News is available at Ancestry

Is Your Brick Wall in Your Head?

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 wall. 

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 other 

International boundaries can create difficulties as well. My daughter was looking on Mapquest, 
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 

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 clicking here. 

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: 

Organizing Data 

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. 

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