When You Hit a Brick Wall

when you hit a brick wall in your family tree

Watch out for the brick wall in genealogy

Ah, the genealogy brick wall. We all have at least one of them, if not several. Some relation who we cannot get past. A person with unknown parentage and who cannot seem to be found anywhere. I have a few techniques that might help you get past your latest brick wall, and maybe even prevent the next one.

Look Sideways – Rather than only following your own line of ancestry, try looking at siblings and other family members for the information you need. Here’s an example to make this more clear. My grandfather’s parents are my biggest brick wall. I basically had only their names, from my grandfather’s birth registration (I never knew them personally). After many long months searching for more details, I came across my great-aunt’s marriage registration. As my grandfather’s sister, it listed the same parents that I was searching for. But on that document, it provided the birth place of the parents, a fact that I was missing. Now that I know they were both from the United States, I have been able to refine my searching and have found records of their family in the census. Up until that point, I had assumed they were Canadian like all my other relatives, which is why I got nowhere.

Take a Break – You can find yourself going in circles if you try tackling a brick wall for too long at one time. I have printed out the same documents more than once, forgetting that I had already tried that lead and got nowhere. Pick an easier branch of your tree, and come back to your wall later. Fresh eyes may see something new, or there may even be a new genealogy database online for you to search that you didn’t have access to before.


Go to the Source Offline – I tend to fall into this trap, by relying too heavily on searchable databases on the Internet. Send some letters to the various record offices in the areas where you think there may be records available. Make sure to provide as much information as possible. This tactic works mainly with vital records (birth, death, marriage). You may end up with a lot of documents that you don’t need, but there might be that one piece of the puzzle in there as well. Be prepared to pay fees or at least postage when ordering copies of vital records though.

Check for Errors – You might not be able to find anything on a particular person because what you have in your files is wrong. Double check your sources, and look for mistakes. If you have material transcribed from old documents, see if you can find images of the originals and make sure that they are correct. Your “Jon Smith” might actually be “Don Smith”.

Hire a Pro – Let’s face it. Sometimes you just need some professional help when something is outside your abilities. This can be particularly true if you are trying to do research from overseas locations or in languages you are not familiar with. You might find that hiring someone closer to the location of the records you need, can result is a quick resolution of your brick wall problem.