Expert advice - what to do when you hit a brick wall


1. Re-examine everything

The first step in overcoming a brick-wall is to re-examine how you got to this point in your research.

Going back over all of your research is an extremely useful course of action. Not only will it refresh your memory of how far you've come, and give you a wider context for the elusive ancestor you are struggling with, but it may well throw up the answer.

Something that wasn't relevant when you found it months ago may provide an all-important clue. A previously unknown person on your family's census entry, someone with a similar name in the birth, death or marriage index that you had previously ignored, or ruled out. Check for clues in what you have amassed so far, as well as mistakes that you might have made first time round.

It is equally important to question everything that you think you know about the missing ancestor. Whether you are working on assumptions, hearsay or even information taken from an official document, it may well be incorrect. Mistakes can be found on a certificate as well as in a relative's testimony. Check for proof of everything that you think you know, double-check ages and places, spellings and dates.

If, to this point, you have been working solely on what you have been told, either by relatives, family tradition, or someone else's research, you should look to get concrete evidence for yourself, from the records.


2. Search all available sources


Often a brick wall can be overcome by broadening your search. The first step is to try to locate all possible records for the person, try to find them in every relevant census, birth, marriage and death records. Make sure that you obtain the documents as proof. Double-checking and cross-checking details such as the name, age and place of birth is essential when you encounter difficulty.

If you have exhausted all of the core records, it is time to branch out and investigate the many billions of other records available on findmypast.

Search the Passenger Lists: perhaps the reason that you cannot find a death entry for a person is that they moved away to start a new life overseas. Look at occupations directories, parish registers, military roll calls and lists. A dead end doesn't mean the end of your research, simply that you will have to try another approach.

There are a great number of resources available, both online and offline. Libraries and local family history societies may be able to help. The answers that you are looking for will be out there, but you'll need to look in new ways.

Always note your sources, whether it's a book, relative or online resource. Note the library, website or record office that you found it in.This will allow you to go back over what you have found, double-check and confirm that you have interpreted all of the information correctly.



3. Name variations


The further back in time your research takes you, the higher the chances are that you will begin to encounter name variations and mis-spellings.

Literacy levels were considerably lower in previous centuries. There is a good chance that an ancestor wouldn't have been able to give the correct spelling of their name, nor indeed recognised if it had been written down incorrectly. The spelling of names was more fluid, and phonetic, until the mid-1800s, meaning that if you are tracing ancestors beyond 1850 you should expect to encounter variations.

Name changes are not always accidental. Some people deliberately change spellings to their name, preferred to use a middle name, or nickname, and some change their name in order to start again, or distance themselves from their past.

If you are having difficulty in locating someone try name variations. Be creative; think of how a name could be spelled phonetically. In the case of the census it would have been taken down by an enumerator and therefore reliant upon their interpretation of what they heard. Try different vowels and any obvious possible alternate methods of spelling, search using known middle names or nicknames.


4. Age variations


In the same way that a name you have may be noted slightly differently in the records, an age can also be a source of difficulty.

An ancestor may have deliberately altered their age at one time or another, for many reasons. Perhaps they needed to be older to enlist in the military or to gain employment, maybe they were marrying someone much older (or younger) than themselves and wanted to reduce the margin. Misinformation stated in one record has a habit of creating a knock-on effect, making the job of locating them harder.

Age may also be different from what you would expect through no fault of the person in question. It was not unusual for a person to be unaware of their exact date of birth, whilst the age at death is a potential source of error due to it being reliant upon information given on behalf of the deceased.

If possible always double-check ages, collating all available certificates and matches on the various censuses. This should help to pin down an accurate date of birth, and help to locate a person throughout their life.


5. Collateral lines


If you have tried all of the above and still not got any closer to overcoming your brick wall, do not give up. You should remember that it doesn't signal an end to your growing family tree, and that the next step you take in your research may very well lead you to a solution.

Researching other lines of your family tree; the siblings of ancestors and other wider family, is not only an equally valid and vital part of one's family history, but also a good way of finding answers to problems on your direct line. Collateral kin, as these ancestors are known, may be the key to unlocking the secrets of your more immediate relatives.

Whilst collateral kin may seem remote, or perhaps even irrelevant, when viewed from a modern vantage point, there would have been a time when their ties to your own ancestors were much closer. The siblings of grandparents, or their cousins, might appear too distantly related to have a bearing but that is not the case. Researching these lines, finding their certificates and other records may well lead you back to your direct line, from a new and interesting angle.

Perhaps the elusive ancestor you have been unable to trace was staying with them on the night of the census, perhaps they were mentioned in a will, appear as a witness on a death certificate or even married within the family. Marriages between cousins was not uncommon.

Researching collateral lines will provide you with a wider view of your family history and help to put it into context. It will also allow you to uncover many relatives that you were unaware of, some of whom you may wish to meet.


6. Social history


The history of your family is inextricably linked to the history of their time, and place. Part of the appeal of genealogy is discovering how your family lived, and how different their world was. Events of their day would have had a marked effect on their day to day lives, perhaps causing them to leave an area, pursue a different line of work or even causing their death.

Knowing that a deceased male ancestor was of fighting age in 1914, for example, would naturally lead you to check for his death in the World War One records. Between 1914-1915 an estimated 250,000 British teenage boys enlisted whilst underage; 120,000 of them were killed. Their death records will refer to them as being older than they actually were, due to their having adjusted their ages when signing up.

On a smaller scale the industrialisation of the country led to marked changes in employment, as well as a large-scale movement of people. You may have an ancestor's dates of birth and death but what happened in between? Why did they live where they did, who did they move with, or towards? All of these questions can be useful when looking to trace a problem ancestor.

Understanding an area at the time when your ancestors lived there is key. You may find them in local newspapers, or in legal documents relating to land, property or local government. It will also enrich your understanding of where your family have come from, and tie you to an area you had never previously taken an interest in.


7. Other researchers


During your research you may have found new relatives, or got back in touch with others that you hadn't spoken to for a time. It is always worth asking any new relatives for help. Find out what they know, if they have photographs, stories or even research of their own to share with you.

It is also worth sharing your findings with your close relatives, particularly any who you spoke when you started to build your family tree. Something or someone that you have found in your family history research may spark a memory, or a connection that they had previously forgotten. They may have heard a story about the elusive family member which, however trivial it may seem to them, could be of enormous use in narrowing down places and ages.

With the prevalence of genealogy resources and messageboards on the internet it has become possible to contact others who may have researched branches of your family. Whilst this can be of use it is always important to check for yourself, using someone else's research as a guide rather than taking it as fact.



Checklist


•Re-examine everything; a small error in your research can create a knock-on effect. An incorrect date, or name, may be the cause.
•Don't limit yourself to the birth, marriage, death and census records. There are billions of other resources, try them all.
•Be wary of name variations, particularly as you begin to go further back in time. Expect differences in spelling.
•Remember that people's ages may also vary, they may have been liberal with the truth, or simply not known their exact date of birth.
•Research collateral lines - investigating more distant branches of the family may lead you to solving the problems in your direct line.
•Discover more about the history of the area and time period in which your ancestors lived: understanding exactly how they lived is key.
•Continue to ask for help from your family, and the new relatives that you uncover with your research. Share your family tree online.