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Kevin Airrington is a professional genealogist & historian with 15+ years experience. Specializing in adoptions - It's Who I Am!™
Genealogy Tip of the Day!
How Close Is That Post Office?

If your ancestor lived near the county line‚ his “post office address” might have been in the neighboring county. Members of my Rampley family lived in Hancock County‚ Illinois’ Walker Township‚ yet for a time in the late 1800s and early 1900s‚ their post office address was “Loraine‚ Illinois” in neighboring Adams County.  Always keep […]

When it comes to family trees things are rarely straightforward. Families often disappear between one census and the next; records are lost or destroyed through mishandling fire war and flood; and sometimes the facts you do find just dont make sense. When your family history research hits a dead-end organize your facts and try one of these popular brick wall busting tactics.  I always say There is no such thing as a brick wall we just have not discovered the right tool.


Many brick wall problems can be solved by the following:


Review What You Already Have
I know.  This is like asking is it plugged in when the lamp wont come on.   Do you know how many people have HIRED me…that means PAID me and it turned out I found the information in their own files.  By the way…I will not refund your money.  🙂   Check your paper files check your computer hard drive some of you check those old floppy discs and CDs.  Information that you found a few years ago May include names dates or other details that now provide clues given new facts that youve since uncovered. Organizing your files and reviewing your facts May uncover just the clue youre looking for.  Remember genealogy is like putting a puzzle together: first we find the side pieces and then we start filling in the pieces in the middle until we complete our puzzle.

Go Back to the Original Source
Many of us are guilty when transcribing information or recording notes of only including the facts we deem important at the time. You May have kept the names and dates from that old census record but did you also keep track of other information such as years of marriage and country of parents origin? Or perhaps you misread a name or misinterpreted a relationship? If you havent already be sure to go back to the original records making complete copies and transcriptions and recording all clues – however unimportant they May seem right now.  I cannot express enough the importance of citing your sources.   Read my article: Citation Guide.

Broaden Your Search
When you are stuck on a particular ancestor start looking at the whole family and neighbors.  GET A DEATH CERTIFICATE.  The death certificate will be filled with information and clues.  DO NOT ignore the informant.  The informant May be a husband a brother sister or an aunt.  Shift your research to your informant.  You May unearth a record that has the ancestor you are researching; the piece of the puzzle you need to move on.  Or when youve lost a family between census years try looking for their neighbors. You May be able to identify a migration pattern or a mis-indexed census entry that way.    Case:  I had an adoption case.  The client had been working on it for about 10 years.  Her file was about 1/2̸; thick.  One ̵; in 10 years she should have found her biological parents.  Two- in 10 years that file should have been 4̸; thick!  In less than 30 minutes I found her parents.  How did I do it?  I check the census record and discovered that her mother had a brother.  I then searched for an obituary on her brother.  Yep he was dead and his sister (my clients mother was in the obituary…with her NEW MARRIED name.  This led me to the mother.  And then the father…and then her brother which was adopted to another family.  My client said I didnt look for an Uncle because I only thought I wanted to find my mother and father.  I called her cousin on the phone…after he hung up on me twice I sent him a photo and a letter.  He called me and said I do remember that little red headed girl.  🙂

Question and Verify
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.  You May have created the brick wall by recording incorrect information.  This is WHY it is so important to CITE YOUR SOURCES.   I had another adoption case…all I had was a first name that could have been the name short for her real name or a nickname.  I had a last name…married or maiden I had no idea.  The name was on a hospital receipt from a hospital in Los Angeles County that was no longer in existence.   My initial census search yielded nothing.  I was not surprised.  Then I did another search…only this time I used a little used known tool called SOUNDEX.  Basically you are telling the search engine to return results that look like smell like or sound like your desired search terms.    My results were amazing.  It turned out the transcriber turned the letter N in her name into two Rs for the 1930 census.  The 1940 Census  the name was completely mangled.  Published sources often contain transcription errors while even original documents May contain misinformation whether purposefully or accidentally given.   If you did not Cite your source you will never remember where to return to verify your information.  Try to find at least three records to verify any facts that you already know and judge the quality of your data based on the weight of the evidence.

Check Name Variations
Your brick wall May just be something as simple as looking for the wrong name.  Variations of last names can make research complicated but be sure to check all spelling options. Soundex is a first step but you cant count on it entirely – some name variations can actually result in different soundex codes. Not only can the surnames be different but the given name May be different as well. Ive found records recorded under initials middle names nicknames etc. Get creative with name spellings and variations and cover all the possibilities.  My last name for example AIRRINGTON has 39 spelling variations.  Everything from Airrington to Arrington to Hairrington to Heninto to Yerrington and more.  ( Check variations…it could have been as simple as the informant not know how to spell your name.  Do you know how many times I have received mail with the wrong spelling?  Or went to the doctor only to have a nurse call my saying Mr Harrington…Mr Harrington or they completely fuddle my name?  Whats worse they have fuddled it official medical records.

Learn Your Boundaries
Even though you know that your ancestor lived on the same farm you May still be looking in the wrong jurisdiction for your ancestor. Town county state and even country boundaries have changed over time as populations grew or political authority changed hands. Records were also not always registered in the locality where your ancestors lived. In Pennsylvania for example births and deaths can be registered in any county and many of my Cambria county ancestors records were actually located in neighboring Clearfield county because they lived closer to that county seat and found it a more convenient trip. So bone up on your historical geography and you just May find a new route around your brick wall.  Recently I posted the following tip on my twitter.  Just because a record indicated that grandpa was born in Cameron Twp Minnesota that does not mean he was actually born there.  Be sure and replace in with near.  And there is always a chance that the person gave the county seat as the place of birth instead of the township village or rural farm where the birth actually took place.

Also pay close attention to where boarders were and when you are looking.  Why is this important?  Because borders change thats why!  One of the most office border changes that comes to mind is Virginia and West Virginia.  If you are Civil War buff then you know this.  But after the Civil War West Virginia split from Virginia.   Here is a map of Virgina before the war: Map.  Here is a map of the Eastern United States Pre- Civil War: Map.  Finally here is a map of present day Eastern United States: Map.   West Virginia did not become a state until July 20 196.

This is why I am a PROFESSIONAL GENEALOGIST and a HISTORIAN.  Knowing your history will drastically improve your hunt!

Ask for Help
Fresh eyes can often see beyond brick walls so try bouncing your theories off other researchers. Contact me and I will be happy to help you bust a brick or two.   See my fees page.  I think that you will find me surprisingly affordable.  And listen I LOVE this.  So if I can help you and it is not too time consuming I will do it for free.  Please send me your questions…those are always free!  Be sure to include what you already know as well as what youd like to know and which tactics youve already tried.Listen I am a very fair man.  If I look at what you have and the answer is staring at me…I will waive any fees.  perhaps you can return the favor at some point.  I am always looking for local researchers and foot soldiers.  I am in Oregon and if you live in Connecticut (or wherever) I May need a document…thats where you could come in.  You alk in the building an get it for me.


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