10 ‘Brick Wall’ Tips for Your Family Tree

10 tips for breaking down brick walls in your family tree

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Welcome to Tenacious Genealogy! Today I’m going talk about 10 ways in which you can break through genealogical ‘brick walls’ and continue finding your ancestors.

‘Brick walls’ in genealogy speak are times when a genealogist or family historian gets stuck and can’t find any more information on a specific ancestor or a family line. For example, in my family tree, I’ve hit a brick wall with my 3x great grandmother’s (Domitilde Vilandre) parents. The only record of them is a note in Domitilde and her brother’s wedding records stating their names, what parish they lived in and that they were dead at the point of the marriages. But in searching for them, as of yet, I can’t find any records for them specifically.

Either way, there are a bunch of ways to break down – or circumvent –  bricks walls. They aren’t necessarily easy or quick (though some might be), but with some time and tenacity, these are all ways that a genealogist can break down their ‘brick walls’.

10 Ways to Break Down Brick Walls

  1. Look at civil collections for areas where your family may have lived
    • While records such as censuses, birth, marriage, and death records are some of the first records that many family historians and genealogists investigate, depending on when or where your ancestors may have lived, there may be a plethora of other civil records with information that can help you break through a brick wall. City directories, especially in the late 19th century and early 20th century are great ways to find ancestors who lived in urban areas. They can tell you a lot about your ancestors like where they lived or what they did as an occupation.
    • School yearbooks are a less used, but just as handy of a record source. Ancestry has a collection of high school and college yearbooks (from the US) that go back to 1880. These yearbooks can have not only pictures of your ancestors, but the people in their communities including friends, neighbors, and extended family. Sometimes researching these people can help uncover more information about your ancestors.

      Picture of grandfather from high school
      A picture of my grandfather (in the yellow square) from his high school yearbook.
    • Military records are also handy. If you have a male ancestor who lived during World War I or World War II, chances are there are draft and enlistment records for them. More often than not, those records have the name of a next of kin. These are usually the name of a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or a child. Then you can usually find records for that individual that circumvent the ‘brick wall’.
  2. Look for church records in the area where your family may have lived
    • Another important record source that can help break down ‘brick walls’ are church records. Especially in areas where you had a large group of people adhering to the same religion (such as Catholic/Jewish/Mormon/Quaker communities in the US and around the world), there are often large amounts of church records. In my family, the Drouin collection (a collection of vital records kept by the Catholic parishes in Quebec and Ontario) have been incredibly helpful in breaking down brick walls that are decades old.
  3. Search for naturalization records
    • Naturalization records are a GREAT way to break down ‘brick walls’ especially if the brick wall is due to immigration. Naturalization papers often span years and can include family members, occupations, and birthdate and place. Case in point, I was working on a family line where the ancestor had immigrated from Europe. The family story was that he was from either Germany or Transylvania. There were plenty of records once he arrived in the US, but nothing prior. Due to censuses after he arrived in the US, we knew when he immigrated and began searching for naturalization papers for him. Once those were found, not only were we able to find the names of other family members but the specific date and place (in Transylvania) where he was born.
  4. If a female ancestor has been married multiple times, look for her married name on subsequent marriage records
    • Marriage isn’t always a happily-ever-after and despite divorce being somewhat less common in the past, it still happened. As did remarriage after one spouse died. In the case of a widow or divorcee remarrying, more often than not, their subsequent marriage records will be under their married name. So if you have a female ancestor who may have been married multiple times and the different marriages aren’t coming up under her maiden name, try whatever her married name would have been.
  5. Try searching middle names if you know your ancestor had multiple names
    • If I had a dollar for every French-Canadian ancestor of mine whose first name was ‘Marie’ or ‘Joseph’, I could buy a house in California with the cash. More often than not, these individuals would use their middle names instead of ‘Marie’ or ‘Joseph’. Marie Victoria will pop up as Victoria in later records. Joseph Stefan will pop up as Stephen. My 2x great grandfather – Charles Gaspard Noel Michaud – was regularly recorded as just Gaspard – the only record I’ve found with his full name? His baptismal record.
  6. If your ancestor had a name with lots of nicknames/ variations, try looking for records with that nickname
    • A few of the family lines I have researched have involved ancestors with nicknames. Similar to the example given above with my 2x great grandfather, I have many relatives who, instead of going by their legal name, would go by a nickname. So if one of your ancestors has a name that could easily be turned into a nickname, trying searching for them in records with the different variations. If you aren’t sure if their name could be turned into a nickname (or the name you know them by might be a nickname), Google it.
      • Francis/Frances became Frannie or Fannie/Fanny.
      • Elizabeth became Lizzie, Eliza, Libby, Betty, Ellie or even Beth.
      • William was Bill, Will, Billy or Willie. So on and so forth.
      • Nan & Nannie are  nicknames for both Ann and Nancy.
    • The same rule goes for surnames as well. A good thing to remember is that MANY records prior to the 20th century were written phonetically if the writer wasn’t sure of the correct spelling. For example, my maiden name of ‘Fielding’ sometimes pops up as ‘Fielden’ in British records. Considering how often the ‘ing’ is slurred when speaking fast in English, it’s easy to see how someone could spell it based on how it sounded. Another example from my family tree is Vilandre. In another post, I’ll go more in-depth into the different variations I’ve found for the name, but suffice it to say, I’ve found records for Vilandre cousins, some of which spell it as ‘Vilandre’ and other as ‘Vilandry’.
  7. Focus on related individuals, sometimes your ancestor may pop up in their records
    • Sometimes when you get stuck on an individual, looking at their siblings and in-laws helps to bridge the gap. As noted before, I’ve had issues with my Vilandre line. Finding records, figuring out where they lived, etc. However, one breakthrough for me was due to researching one of the families that married into the Vilandre line – the Marois family. Through researching their family tree, I was able to get a sense of when and why some of my own ancestors moved. (The Marois and Vilandres always seemed to pop up in the same town within a few years of each other.) With other family lines, I’ve found in-laws being neighbors previous to their children or grandchildren getting married.
  8. Use spreadsheets to organize a person’s life, family members, etc.
    • A great way to keep names, dates, and peers of your ancestors is to create spreadsheets of them. I do this when I have large families where I want to keep track of all the siblings, who was living when and where, as well as immigration dates. It also allows me to add notes to specific years or names (which is helpful if there is conflicting information). Spreadsheets can also be used to organized data from searches on large genealogical websites that might otherwise take too long to browse. The blog Genealogy’s Star has a good article on how they use spreadsheets for genealogy research here as does The Shy Genealogist.
    • brick wall
      An example of one of the ways I use Excel to keep track of my genealogy research. Black denotes the period of time before or after a person was alive.

      You can also look up different ways to use spreadsheets for genealogy on YouTube and Pinterest.

  9. Read up on the history of the area where your ancestor lived (or their demographic)
    • A lot of times, we find our ancestors settled in an area for a time, but we have no idea why. Or that all of a sudden, they just up and left. Reading up on the history of the area where your ancestor lived or where their demographic community was, can give insights or clues into why your family lived in or left a certain place. Last week, I did a post on the history of San Marcos, California that gives a brief snapshot of the history of a small city in Northern San Diego County. Finding local histories like this can be very informative.
    • As an example, I have a line that pops up in Pennsylvania first, and then later in North Carolina. Then the next generation ends up in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and eventually California. Why? I have come to find out that the places this specific family lived were Quaker settlements. So they tended to travel from one community to the next. Their children, however, were not so keen on the Quaker faith and ended joining other faiths or following emerging pioneer trails for better opportunities.
    • Another family line shows a mass exodus of cousins from Quebec to the United States during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Why? Researching the economic and political history of Quebec show that the profession of many of these cousins (farmers) became more difficult as the years passed by and that French Canadian Catholics were treated as second-class citizens by the Canadian government, which was predominantly of English descent and Protestant. So immigrating to America was a better choice for many of them than staying in Canada.
  10. Take a break (and watch for new collections to pop up on FamilySearch/Ancestry/MyHeritage)
    • Last but not least, sometimes you just need to take a break. If you’ve been researching a specific line for a while and are coming up with dead ends, make note of where you’ve left off and take a break. This could consist of researching another line, indexing, or working on a completely different hobby. In the meanwhile, keep watching for new collections that pop up on the different genealogy sites regularly. More often than not, something will click and you’ll be able to find new information on your ancestors.

Questions? Comments?

Have any questions or comments about ways to break down brick walls in genealogy? Have any tips of your own? Let me know in the comments! And if you like what you’ve been seeing here on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get access to freebies such as ’10 Tips for Starting Your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber only’ items!

9 thoughts on “10 ‘Brick Wall’ Tips for Your Family Tree

  1. Vanessa Cole says:

    Thank you for these tips. I printed this out so it will always be handy in my files. My question is a little different…how do you even begin to look for someone when you don’t think the name you have is a real name? My great grandfather was a man named John Henry Gray and it’s a really long story… I have written it down everything I know and I have made charts and timelines for both him and my great grandmother, Fannie. Although he states who his parents are and where he is from on the marriage record, I have searched for years (like 25+) and come up with nothing for any of the names, dates and places that he provided. He disappeared about 18 months after he married Fannie, leaving her with 2 babies. He never saw the 2nd child and his first, my grandmother, was about age 1 when he vanished. That’s the (extreme) Reader’s Digest version. Bottom line question is do you have any suggestions of how I might find out who he really was? Thank you so much!

    • Laura Nelson says:

      I’m glad the tips are helpful. 🙂 As for your great-grandfather, I think it would depend on when or where he lived, his profession, whether or not he was thought to have run off or was involved in illicit activities. Name variations might be of help, if the family stories allude to him running off. Other ideas, could be whether or not there are other records (like census or voter records) that show up with his name or variations? Or even variations of the names of family members he supplied? During the time that he and your great-grandmother were married, were there other Grays (or Greys/Grees/Greis, etc) in the same town, county, surrounding counties. Was he noted as having a specific profession? (Certain professions such as law enforcement officers or railroad engineers tend to be more trackable.) Sometimes, also, going over family stories about the individual help to find discrepancies or otherwise ignored tidbits that were previously overlooked. And historical context is very important as well. Were there possible economic, social, or political reasons that he might have ‘disappeared’ for? These are all tips that I’ve used in my own research, so hopefully, they help. Something I’ve realized over the years is that each family history ‘mystery’ is unique, so some tips on breaking down brick walls help more than others.

  2. Gayla Watley says:

    I enjoyed your article “10 Brick Wall Tiis”. I have 2 HUGE BRICK WALLS, both with the Powell family. think I’ve tried everything and have 1 ancestor GGG who it appears just appeared out of no-where. Alexander G. Powell married Sarah Thrailkill in Monroe Louisiana. The Thrailkill line is very detailed, but makes only a comment that Alexander was born abt 1824 in NC. I cannot find anything listing him in NC. I’ve looked in possible migration lines also …Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina,Georgia, and Alabama. There are few Alexander’s out there during this time period. Any help on finding Alexander’s parents would be appreciated.

    On another note… my grandfather William Garland Powell had a pair of riding spurs. They are basic riding Spurs (no hurtful spikes on them.) I was told he got this when he was in the cavalry at Ft Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. So they are military Spurs. BUT… He was never in the military.
    Where would a civilian get military cavalry Spurs?
    When would there be a job for a civilian to get Spurs?
    He was Born in 1909 in North Texas. He went 12 years to school and then went 2 years to Cisco Jr College to study RADIO. He was 21 when he married in 1930. So he would not have a large window of time to go military. I suspect maybe during the late1920’s. In WWll he worked at a bomber plant in north Texas. Still not military. No time after that was he away from family, or did he work military or around horses. Do you think there is a list somewhere, showing names of civilians who worked low paying jobs for the gov or military in the 1920’s-30’s, like with the cavalry? I am very curious to find out what he did, and where he did it at.

    Thank you for your help. 😁

    • Laura Nelson says:

      I’m glad that you enjoyed my article. I’m curious about your two brick walls now! I always love a good mystery (or two)!

      For the first mystery, I’m curious about whether Alexander pops up anywhere else. The information about him being born in 1824 in North Carolina, is that just in a family tree or in a family bible. You may have already looked him up in censuses, but I’m curious if any censuses with him and Sarah note where he or his parents were born. Also, depending on the source stating that he was from NC, he could have lied about it to Sarah’s family in case he was wanting to ‘disappear’ from something or someone. Another path to look down is to see if he went by his middle initial. I don’t know if any records (or family lore) might note what the G stands for, but that could be another lead.

      For the 2nd mystery, a couple questions pop up. What type of spurs are they? If they are ‘Prince of Wales’ style spurs, there is a possibility that they are from ‘Order of the Spurs’ (an honor and tradition in the US Army). Also, have you had a chance to investigate whether they are military spurs or not? If it is a family story that they are military spurs, it could be possible that they are not. Contacting someone well versed in cavalry gear might be able to verify whether the spurs are actually military or not. Lastly, is there a chance that your grandfather could have been given the spurs as a gift by someone who was military (and at Ft Sam Houston) who may have respected him? That is a possible reason for a civilian receiving military spurs. I only ask because generally speaking after WWI, cavalry units didn’t ride horses (You have a few occasions in WWII, but most military uses of horses and spurs ended with WWI).
      As for military records, I can only think of a few places. The National Archives repository in St. Louis, Missouri generally has most military records. I don’t know if these records would include civilians working for the military however. You could also contact the Fort Sam Houston Museum and see what records they have (and whether your grandfather may have been there at any point). Their website is: http://www.museumsusa.org/museums/info/15955

      Hopefully that helps! Good luck on breaking down those brick walls!

  3. Ava George (Liberty, Laliberte) says:

    Dear Laura,
    Thank you so much for writing this! I am living your French Canadian nightmare….I appreciate the tips on how to track these elusive connections down 🙂 I am going to tackle the history….My French Canadian relatives started coming over in the 16th century. They were some of the founders of Annapolis Port Royal, Nova Scotia and are buried in the Garrison Cemetery there (Belliveau (Béliveau), Perrine BOURG, Antoine BOURQUE (BOURG) (BOURC), Breau (Brault), Dugas, Marie Marguerite Dit La Cadette LANDRY, René LANDRY LE JEUNNE, Perrine RAU (RHEAULT) (BEAU), Marie SALLÉ (SALÉ) , Claude Jean THÉRIOT, Thériot (Thériault)….My God….A lot of my family were in Port Royal…I’ve never listed them all before or drew familial lines like this….I can see how a spreadsheet would be helpful. I also had family in Quebec who moved to Louisiana….your explanation of why they left (they were Catholic) really explains why they moved….I think perhaps Louisiana because there was a large French population there at the time. I can see why looking into the history of the place where they lived will tell me more about their migrations. Thank you so much!


    • Laura Nelson says:

      I’m glad that the post was so helpful! A good portion of my maternal line is French Canadian, so a lot of these tips were ones that I used in researching their families.

  4. Ava George (Liberty, Laliberte) says:

    I just noticed that this posted as 2:32 PM….I’m writing at 10:32 AM…So, where do you live?


    • Laura Nelson says:

      I’m currently in California, however, I use WordPress for my blog and it seems to think I’m in (looks up time zone map) Iceland? Lol. I’ve tried fixing the timestamp, but it kept reverting back to the London (and now Iceland) timezone. At this present moment, I’m on my lunch break (12:22pm in CA), but it’s showing me as commenting/editing at 7:22pm.

  5. Mary Ellen Nigh says:

    Hi cousin! My Marios line was French Canadian and eventually the name became Morway. I spent 8 years as a Civil War reenactor and at that time only knew of two CW ancestors. One, Levi Morway was killed at the Sege of Petersburg and left his widow and 3 year old son, George Levi Morway behind. Your article was very interesting to read and I’m hopeful of one day breaking the wall on my Shannon line (Scots Irish in early PA during Colonial times).

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