Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Brick Walls and Cousins
When family researchers speak of "brick walls," they refer to insurmountable, unsolvable problems that cause them to despair of ever finding answers. Often such a problem causes us to abandon all hope of resolution, set it aside, and tackle another ancestor who is easier to track.
Some brick walls are caused because records simply do not and may never have existed. Vital records were not kept uniformly before the 1900s and many church records have not survived. Not all ancestors owned land nor did all leave a will. Many migrated and left no clues to their earlier residence. Some names are so common it’s impossible to determine origins from census records. Siblings may be unknown and children too few to significantly expand the search.
But how many brick walls are real obstacles created by circumstances beyond our control and how many have we constructed ourselves? Our own thinking is sometimes the biggest barrier to our research success.
Most family research is first done by — what else? — beginners. Typically, when a record is found the information is copied to a chart or to a genealogy program, and the record is filed away and forgotten. Months and years pass, with no thought of other information that might be revealed beyond the obvious. Often clues overlooked by a beginner will lead to the solution of a long standing problem when records are reviewed by a more experienced eye.
Preconceived ideas are killers of creativity. Because your grandmother said her mother’s name was thus and so, have you ignored clues that might prove grandma was wrong? Memory plays tricks on us and so does thinking focused only on what we think we know. View every statement as suspect until evidence is found to prove it is indeed factual.
So what do cousins have to do with brick walls? Earlier this month I wrote about the many cousins we all have with whom we’ve never had any contact. As years pass and distance grows, families lose touch with each other. But every cousin, not matter how distant, has a common ancestor with you at some point in the past.
A distant cousin may have family memorabilia with information that can solve your brick wall problem. The secret is finding the cousin(s). Trace forward from the person whose ancestry you’re trying to solve to locate other descendants and you may find a cousin who has the answer. At the very least, you’ll find another family member who may be delighted to hear from you.
A few years ago, a woman living on the Marine base in Guam where her husband was stationed found my genealogy online and emailed me. She had Bible entries that provided the clue I needed to trace our common ancestry back to the 1600s. My brick wall was my paternal great grandmother born in 1871 in Brooklyn, New York before birth registrations were mandatory.
Trish and I are fourth cousins whose families lost contact in the 1890s. Our common ancestors are our third great grandparents, Charles G. Davy and Mary Jane McKee who had only two children. I descend from the daughter and Trish descends from the son who inherited the family Bible. Don’t neglect to search out and contact distant cousins when you have the opportunity—you never know where the important clue to topple the brick wall is hiding.
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