Every genealogist has a brick wall ancestor – that ancestor with the record trail that seems to just stop. One of the keys to busting down that brick wall is to organize your project in a way that lays out what you already know about the ancestor, your research problem, and a research to-do list. Having this summary and plan written up, will make it super easy to follow through and bust down those brick walls.
There are 7 steps to organizing your brick wall project:
1.) Write Down Everything You Know and How You Know It. I prefer to do this in a timeline format – starting from birth and listing every event I have my ancestor until their death and/or burial. Under each event, I list the source from where the information came from. I also like to write a summary sentence or two about the weight of each piece of information.
A source is where you got the information from. Original sources provide information that is not derived by another source. Derivative sources, just as the name suggests, is a source that has been abstracted, transcribed, summarized, or in some way derived from another source. It is usually best to see the original source whenever possible to be sure exactly what it says. Derived sources like transcriptions and abstractions can sometimes contain errors.
There are two types of information that can be found within a source. Primary information comes from records created at or near the time of the event with information by an person with close knowledge of the event. For example, a birth record (unless it is delayed) will contain primary information about the birth of a child. This information was probably provided by the parents that were present or the midwife/doctor that was present during the birth. Secondary information is information found in records created after a long period of time has passed from the event or was contributed by a person who was not present at the event.
The complicated part is that one source may have multiple types of information within it. For example, a death certificate is an original source with primary information regarding the death date and place, but secondary information regarding the names of parents and date of birth. The secondary information will need to be assessed and it will probably be best to search for more records created closer to the time of the event.
2.) Identify the Problem: Now that you have a clear picture of what you know about your ancestor, it’s time to identify exactly what question you want to answer. If there are multiple questions, list each one separately and clearly.
Examples: Where was George Monroe Rogers born? What was the name of his parents? Where was John N. Morris living during the 1900 census? Did Adolph Doerflinger become a naturalized citizen? Where was Julia Morris Rogers buried?
Stay tuned for the next post in this series of blog posts about busting down your brick walls!
[Photo: Flickr User Jayel Aheram, text added by Elyse Doerflinger]