Tag Archives: brick walls

Overcoming Brick Walls: Cluster Research

It can get very frustrating when you’ve collected lots of source documents on your ancestor but you still haven’t found what you wanted.  You’ve done everything right and still can’t find the piece of the puzzle that you want.  What do you do now?

Cluster Research: Researching the siblings, children, parents, cousins, and neighbors of your ancestors.

So begin expanding your net: gather as much information as you can on the siblings, children, parents, cousins, and the neighbors of your ancestors.  This is important because people often lived nearby, went to church together, traveled together, etc.

For example, I was stuck on my great-great grandfather for about a year.  I knew the name of his father, but I had no information at all about his mother.  I checked my great-great grandfather’s death certificate and marriage certificate with no luck.  I tried to find his mother in the census, but I wasn’t having any luck.

Then I found his father’s obituary and all the pieces fell into place.  The obituary gave me a name and a death year for this woman.  She died not long after the family immigrated to this country, which explains why I couldn’t find her in the census.  She also died while they were en route to Montana, which explains why I couldn’t find any death record for a woman with her married name.

All of these clues that did not come from the ancestor that I was researching, but from his father, led me to find the pieces to the puzzle that I was lacking.

Previous Articles in the Series:

Further Reading:


Overcoming Brick Walls: Expanding Your Knowledge

An important step to breaking down a genealogy brick wall is to begin learning as much as you can about the time period and the geographical area that your ancestor lived.  The history of the time may have had a big impact on your ancestor.  It can also be what is holding you back from finding your ancestor.

In particular (but not limited to) search for:

  • Political Changes: Politics played a huge part in the lives of our ancestors.  Perhaps you brick wall ancestor lived during the civil war when many men joined the military to fight.  For example, I have an ancestor who lived in the “border state” of Tennessee during the civil war.  The county that he lived in was in favor of joining the Union.  But people in a nearby county came over and threatened many of the men to join the Confederate army.  According to diary and journal accounts, I was able to learn that many families that refused to aid the Confederates had their houses set on fire, their crops destroyed, and their livestock stolen or killed.  My ancestor joined the Confederate Army and then deserted for the Union army.  I never would have been able to find my ancestor if I hadn’t learned this information through county histories.
  • Boundary Changes: The map of the United States has changed a lot since the original thirteen colonies.  This makes it so important to learn as much as you can about how an area has changed.  It can be easy to miss the record that you just know exists because that record is in another county.
  • Religious Movements and Trends: Religious trends and movements may have had a huge impact on your ancestors lives.  Your ancestor may have changed religious affiliations during their lifetime.  During the westward expansion, many church congregations traveled together.

Not only are all the above important to be knowledgeable in, but you also want to have a good general history of the area.  But how do you gain all of this knowledge?

  • Web Searches
  • County Histories
  • Diaries/Journals
  • State Histories
  • Genealogy Societies (many are willing to answer email questions)
  • Other researchers (ask questions!  Most genealogists are very kind and willing to help)
  • Books
  • Websites

As you expand your knowledge, you may think of another potential record to order!

Don’t forget to read the first post of this series, Overcoming Brick Walls: Establishing A Plan Of Attack.

Further Reading:


Overcoming Brick Walls: Establishing A Plan Of Attack

Every researcher will eventually run into that ancestor that seems impossible to get to passed.  This is your brick wall ancestor. Overcoming a brick wall takes patience and a good strategy.  No matter how tall or how wide the brick wall is, you can break it down.

genealogy, ancestral brick walls, family tree

Figuring Out What You Know

The first step to breaking down that brick wall is to figure out exactly what facts are known.  The best way to do this is to create a timeline of the brick wall ancestor.  On this timeline, include every known fact that you have about this ancestor.  Be sure to then include a list of each source that proves each fact either on the back of the piece of paper or on another page if in a document.  This timeline will show you at a glance exactly what you know and exactly what is missing.

Did You Miss Something?

The next step is to review the actual sources that you listed with your timeline.  Do not review your notes, transcriptions, or abstracts of your sources, but actually view the record itself.  Looking at this document with fresh eyes might show something that you missed that could be a lead.  If you discover something that you missed, then add it to your timeline.

You could always create a timeline on your own, but you could also use pre-made ones.  Here are some forms for creating a timeline:

Creating Your Research Plan

Your research plan is a living, breathing, ever-changing document.  It is your guide to breaking down your brick wall.  Get comfortable with your research plan because it is your best friend.

The point of a research plan is to clearly define exactly what you are looking for and list potential records to check for that information.  As you look at more records, you will add to the research plan.  You will create new goals and a new list of records to check.

You could create your own research plan with pen and paper, a word processing program such as Microsoft Word, or you could use a pre-made form.  Here is an example of a pre-made research plan at ShoeString Genealogy.

Using your timeline, decide exactly what you want to know about your brick wall ancestor – this will be your goal.  Then begin to brainstorm exactly what kinds of records would help you find that information.  Fill this information into your research plan.

Do you have any great suggestions for creating a research plan?  Do you create your own timelines and research plans or do you look for pre-made forms?

Further Reading:

Thanks to ezioman for allowing me to use this photo.