Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives 10 tips for overcoming the frustrating brick wall that all family historians eventually hit. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
That “brick wall” ancestor. No records for that ancestor exist. You’ve looked everywhere for him or her. You can’t think of one more thing to try and you are beyond frustrated. You’re starting to believe they came from outer space and then hitched a ride back on a flying saucer. What is a family historian to do?
Stop, take a breath, and rethink your approach. Sometimes trying something new can make all the difference in the world. Here is a list of 10 things to consider doing that might help you find that elusive family member.
- Search eBay. Have you used eBay for genealogy? Sure, it’s a great place to find whatever you collect or need at a low price, but consider it your genealogy superstore. What is genealogically relevant on eBay? Local history books, family Bibles, postcards, photographs, and other potential family heirlooms. With a free eBay account, you can set alerts for a surname, an ancestral name, a place, or something to do with your ancestor. Then, anytime someone lists an item matching the keyword you saved, you will receive an email.
- Search Your Ancestor’s FAN Club. You have a FAN Club and so did your ancestor. Your ancestor’s friends, associates, and neighbors might hold the key to learning more about your ancestor. Take a second look at your ancestor’s records. Who are the witnesses on those documents? They could be the brother of your female ancestor whom you can’t find a maiden name for, or a cousin who is easier to research. Take a second look at whatever documents you have found, but this time really analyze them.
- Who Else Is Researching That Surname? Have you Googled your ancestor’s name? If the name is unusual, have you looked at who has posted an online tree with that person on it? Have you explored surname associations, one-name studies, or DNA projects? Check out the list of links for Surnames, Family Associations & Family Newsletters on Cyndi’s List.
- Join the Genealogical or Historical Society Where Your Ancestor Lived. It may seem initially like a waste of money to join a society where you will never attend a meeting, but think about the benefit of a society membership. You most likely will receive other membership perks aside from in-person education meetings, such as research assistance and look-ups, their publications (which you could send an enquiry to), and best of all, local knowledge. Use your membership to ask questions, seek advice, or learn if anyone else is researching the same surname as you.
- Seek Out Ethnic Organizations in Your Ancestor’s Hometown. If your ancestor was Portuguese and there is a Portuguese American Club in their adopted hometown, contact them. These groups might have records or information about their past members.
- Join a Heritage Specific Genealogy Group. There are genealogy societies for specific ancestral groups, such as the Germanic Genealogy Society. The benefit of joining such groups is that they can provide education and research help as well as online members-only resources.
- Leave an Online Trail. Create a blog and post the name of the family you’re researching. Add whatever you know about the family, including photos. When someone Googles that name, they will find your posting and, hopefully, contact you. Make sure to provide contact information (such as an Internet email account dedicated to genealogy).
- Leave a Physical Paper Trail. Send a query with brief information about your ancestor to the newsletter for their hometown local genealogy/historical society, library genealogy collection, or museum. Getting your information out there might help other people find you.
- Seek Out Local Histories. Use online digitized book websites like Google Books, Internet Archive, and the FamilySearch Digital Library to find local histories about where your ancestor lived. Even if your ancestor is never mentioned, local history books can provide you with ideas for further research – such as possible churches they may have attended, events they may have been a part of, or who could have been in their FAN Club.
- Call the Local Library. Call or email the local library in your ancestor’s hometown. In 1-2 sentences explain that you’re researching someone who lived in the area, and provide them the years. Ask them what resources they have that might help in your search. You might find out that they have a local history room or a clipping file with information about local residents.
Does this list of 10 search tips give you some new ideas? Use this as a reminder of what steps you can take the next time you get “genealogically” stuck and aren’t sure what to do next.
Note: Tomorrow’s blog article will provide another 10 search tips to break through your brick wall.