Hammering Through the Brick Wall: 3 Tips for New Genealogists

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By Claire Wang

It’s a fact: Regardless of skill level, experience, or serendipity, all family historians will encounter dead ends in their research.

Brick wallMy first stumbling block appeared in the form of a great-great grandfather. Although I could trace his spouse’s lineage to a Scottish immigrant who arrived on the Delmarva Peninsula in the 17th century, he appeared to be a mysterious drifter who wandered into Somerset County, got married, and then inexplicably whisked his bride off to Baltimore.

His origins remained a mystery. Was he born in the United States or was he an immigrant? Did he have siblings or other family? His death and burial place were also unknown. The entirety of his existence on paper consisted of a marriage certificate, spotty appearances in the U.S. Census, and a misspelled entry in my mother’s baby book. Beyond these items, my research was stalled. I had hit a brick wall.

As a new genealogist, I (falsely) assumed that the apparent lack of records meant that I had exhausted all possibilities. For the next two years I gave up on him, and focused on other ancestors who had been kind enough to leave a more discernible paper trail.

MDCH city directoriesBut my great-great grandfather’s inscrutable origins continued to nag at me, especially as the passing years expanded my knowledge and understanding of genealogy resources. When I revisited the search, some new pieces fell into place. City directories shed light on his livelihood and gave me a rough estimate of his death year. I also searched again for the children listed in my great-great grandparents’ household on the U.S. Census. Whereas nothing turned up on my first attempt, I now discovered a newly-transcribed newspaper obituary for one of their daughters on Find a Grave. Since the listing identified her burial place, I consulted the cemetery’s registers for other family members.

From there, I hit pay dirt: my great-great grandparents are also buried there, and the records contain the dates of their internment and causes of death. Newspaper archives contained another critical item. A search for my great-great grandfather turned up an obituary for his brother, a sibling I never knew he had. Since the article identified Somerset County, Maryland as the brother’s point of origin, it stood to reason that his other family members likely came from Somerset as well.      

Although most new genealogists are aware of other resources beyond the U.S. Census, it often helps to keep the following in mind when you’re starting out:  

  1. Don’t assume that the information does not exist. Contact or visit local historical societies and city/state archives for vital (birth, marriage, death) records.
  2. Be patient. If at first you can’t find any information on your ancestor, try again in a few months. People are transcribing records every day and publishing new resources online.
  3. Don’t forget to check city directories, archived periodicals, military rolls, local history books, etc. The Pratt Library offers free access to these resources on the Database section of the website.

Visit the Pratt Library's Genealogy and Ethnic Heritage page on the calendar to see a list of upcoming programs.

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