But sometimes we need to take a step back from a brick wall and go back to some "beginning" tactics.
1. Start with what you know and work your way back.
Yes, this is the piece of genealogy advice we give to all beginners, but let's step back and approach our brick wall as if we're starting all over again, too.
What do I know about the brick wall I've been researching for 25 years, Emma Anna Murphy without even going into the research I've done on her?
Thanks to my parents filling out this information when I was born, I know she is my great-grandfather Harrison Clifford Shaw's mother. I know her maiden name. Thanks to conversations with my grandmother Barbara (Shaw) Wood before she passed away, I know Emma came from Nova Scotia, possibly Halifax.
2. Create a timeline.
If you haven't already done this for your brick wall ancestor, step back and give it a try. If you're not sure how to format your timeline, you can check out some of the ideas from the April 21 #RogueGen Twitter chat.
Why a timeline? Because it can help you better articulate your research goals for this particular person.
Whether you use a simple list format or spreadsheet, just start writing what you know in chronological order, working your way back. This overview takes you out of the standard person or family view in your family tree software, pedigree charts and family group sheets.
Here is my timeline for Emma (click,to expand it to full size):
3. Review what you have gathered.
Sometimes we overlook something in the records we already have.
In Emma's case, I have the original marriage register from the town of Middleborough, Massachusetts, her marriage certificate, her death certificate, and censuses from 1900 to 1940 all printed out. This also includes the birth, marriage and death records of her only child, as well as the administration of her estate, her obituary, a photograph of her headstone, two town directory entries and a newspaper article about an assault case in which she was the defendant.
One thing I didn't pay attention to initially, but noticed upon re-examination was that Emma stated in the 1930 census that she was age 16 at the time of her first marriage. That means her first marriage occurred around 1877 or so. That helped me narrow my search for her first husband.
So pull everything out and review it to ensure you didn't miss anything.
4. Print everything and put it in a binder or folder.
Having a brick wall case file - that is, a binder dedicated to brick walls and current research, or folders for brick wall ancestors on whom research is ongoing - can help immensely. It's easier to flip pages than scroll through digital documents. It's also nice to have a physical file to carry with you when you do research on location.
5. But also put your digital files on a thumb drive, tablet and/or laptop.
If you have a mobile device you use for your research, having your digital files on that also ensures you've got them ready to go for genealogy road trips.
6. Use your timeline to pinpoint questions and goals.
Now that you've reviewed and re-examined the records, look at your timeline. What are the gaps that need to be filled in? Work your way back from your ancestor's death to make a list of questions and research goals. In my great-great grandmother's case, my primary goals are:
a. Find out the name of her first husband, Mr. Re(a)gan, and their date and place of marriage;
b. Find out my great-great grandmother's date and place of birth.
Additional goals or questions to be answered are when and where Mr. Re(a)gan passed away or if they were divorced, if they had any children, and when my great-great grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from Canada.
Finding that marriage to Mr. Re(a)gan is pretty much my main objective right now, but the other goals are also written on my timeline and highlighted in yellow.
7. Get a second set of eyes on the problem.
Send your timeline to a friend and see if they have any ideas or recommendations. They can help you see where there might be other questions you could focus on or areas to direct your research.
Another idea is to swap brick walls with a friend. We all need to rest our minds. Otherwise, we keep banging our heads against the same brick wall, not even making a dent in it. So why not see if someone else wants to take a crack at it and offer to return the favor?
All of us have different subscriptions, different ways of researching or approaching a question, or running an online search. So swap timelines and your primary goals/questions with someone else. The new research problem will refresh you.
8. Put your ancestor's life in historical context.
Did they live during the American Revolution? The Civil War? The Great Depression? Historical events can have a significant impact on how our ancestors lived and moved. Correlating their life to these events can help us better understand what might have motivated certain moves, how they reared their children, and other decisions.
Also look at the circumstances surrounding their childhood and what you know of their adulthood. In the case of my great-great grandma, my current theory (based on recent findings) is that she was an illegitimate child. As a result, I think she might have created a certain "history" for herself to pass on to her grandchildren. For example, she showed one of my great-uncles pictures of ships and said she had wealthy ancestors who owned them and had a trade route from Nova Scotia to Boston.
Yet I find no evidence of this. That's not to say this isn't true. Perhaps it is, but the one link I've found so far to another potential family member completely turns these stories on their head and give me an illegitimate Emma born to a Murphy mother, not father.
9. Keep a research log or journal.
Use this to keep track of where you've researched so you don't return to the same books, documents, and newspapers again and again. Databases are often updated, so do log them, but make note of the date you checked them. If you return to them for another search, make note of it.
10. Look beyond the usual online searches.
Finally, after exhausting census records, vital records, databases, books, and newspapers, you might think an ancestor simply fell onto the face of the earth one day and that was that. Trust me, I know that feeling.
So try switching up your search techniques in databases. The break-through for me came when I searched for my great-great grandmother's parents' surnames, instead of my great-great grandmother directly. What did I find? Another woman with the same parents, also from Nova Scotia. Now, it remains to be seen if this is Emma's sister (I now believe it is her aunt), and I still need to learn what I can about Margaret Murphy, the woman whose parents have the same name as Emma's. But this has been the most useful find in 25 years of researching my great-great grandmother.
Don't forget local historical societies, tax records, DNA matches (I am currently in the process of triangulating mine thanks to one of my parents sharing their DNA data, so I can narrow the field of potential relationships on my Murphy side), and more. A Research Checklist can also help make sure you cover some of your bases from the start.
Oh, and treat yourself to something after a particularly intense research session. I don't care of it's a margarita, an iced latte, chocolate, binge-watching Netflix or buying a new genealogy book. When the going gets tough, try some self-care to keep from burning out.
I hope these 10 tips help you overcome the overwhelm and get your focus back. What is your favorite way to handle a frustrating brick wall?
Copyright (c) 2017 Wendy L. Callahan