15 Ways to Solve Your Family History Mystery Once and for All

Published by Genealogy-Research on

This article is an excerpt from our online genealogy research course, The Genealogy Journey. The lesson here is part of an in-depth section on breaking down genealogical brick walls – which includes an additional 8 step, highly detailed strategy for solving even the toughest family mysteries.

It is one of just 65 lessons in the course that covers everything from finding and using free research sites, to Google for genealogy, organizing your research, using DNA and more. After reading the lesson below you can take the entire genealogy course over the summer by registering here before June 4th. At that time all courses will close to new students until Fall 2018 while we update, improve and add new materials. Or, to find out when courses reopen this fall, enter your email below.

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Beating your head against a wall trying to find missing information about your mysterious ancestor? It’s time to get a fresh perspective and try some new tactics. Have you done everything on this list?

These ideas only skim the surface of how to break down a stubborn brick wall. For more help read the many articles on this site or take our online course.

1. Get to Know Your Ancestors

The best way to break down any brick wall is to really know the person you’re researching. Learn everything you possibly can about them, even if the data and records you collect do not directly relate to your brick wall query. Then lay them out in a timeline to get a fresh look at everything.

Create the timeline of your ancestor’s life with your current recorded information, and go back and review documents you’ve already collected to see what you may have missed the first time. Add this information to your timeline to identify what you know and what you don’t. Then, start filling in those holes with new research.

We offer a walk-through for how (and why) to reexamine records here.

2. Get to Know Your Ancestors’ Relatives

Your ancestors didn’t live in a vacuum, they were connected to family members, friends, associates and neighbors. Pay attention to the people that filled your ancestors’ lives. Not only are you likely to find some clues from their records, but you may be able to locate missing ancestors by finding their relations first. Read all about this process in our article, Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree?

3. Get to Know Your Ancestors’ Communities

Most people were greatly intertwined with their community on a variety of levels. From life events like birth, marriage and death to school, work, hobbies and religious affiliations — knowing your ancestor’s community is vital to knowing them.

When looking for an elusive ancestor make sure you take the time to get to know what kind of community they lived in. Where were people working and worshiping during the time your ancestor lived? What events shaped their lives? Read the local history of your ancestor’s town, city and county and state. Read newspapers from the time period. The more you know the more power you will have when trying to uncover new information.

Start with these articles about using old newspapers for help: Chronicling America or Newspaper.com.

4. Understand the Local Records

Looking through general search collections online can only get you so far. When you hit a brick wall with your research it’s time to branch out and begin searching those collections that relate directly to your ancestor’s location. We cover this in our step-by-step guide and provide tips for getting to know the records from your ancestor’s time and place.

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If you haven’t yet done this, take the time to educate yourself about exactly what records were recorded, which ones are available now and where they’re currently stored. As you discover this information you can search individual databases, browse online collections, order offline records and make trips to libraries, historical societies and family search centers to uncover the information these collections hold.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who specialize in an area of research you’re looking in to. One good place to better understand exactly which records are available for a geographical area is a FamilySearch wiki, since they have guides on almost any location.

5. Get and Stay Organized

This may seem obvious, but a good deal of family historians dive in to their research without ever taking the time to get organized. It is incredibly hard to track down difficult to locate details when the data you already have is not easily accessible.

Find a program that works for you, such as an online note keeping system like Evernote, Trello or Google Keep— or use your own system, and organize the files and notes for each of your ancestors.

Keep track of everything you find, even if it is only a small clue. If it seems related, or may help you in the future, record it and its source for future reference. Make separate sections for details and collections that you come across that relate to your ancestor, details and records that you are unsure of, those you have rejected and those to research later. Then, when you are researching your ancestor you will have all of the information you need in front of you to make smart decisions.

6. Know the Collections You Are Searching

While it may be tempting to simply search through a collection because it contains the city, county or state name your ancestor lived in, remember that many collections are incomplete and are missing records for certain dates and places. Get to know the record collection you are searching before you begin your search so that you don’t waste time on something that is a poor fit. Instead, use the information you have to find a collection that does match your needs.

Of course, it never hurts to do a search or two in a loosely related collection — just don’t find yourself wasting hours on a complicated search effort in a collection that will not help you.

Most collections offer descriptions that can be easily found near the search box or at the bottom of a collection or record page. You can also use these descriptions to identify original source records to research and to locate related collections.

Find out how to discover and search individual collections in this article.

7. Search Creatively

Searching for your ancestor by name and not finding them? It’s time to try a new tactic. It is incredibly important to search creatively. Names were very often recorded or transcribed incorrectly. Middle names or nicknames are used as first names or even surnames, first letters are replaced with similar sounding letters instead, names are spelled phonetically (how they sound) and, sometimes, names are completely incorrect.

Because this is so common you will sometimes need to use other information to help you find your ancestor.

Try these tips:

  • use multiple creative spellings for first and last names, consider what mistakes you might have made when recording an unfamiliar name and search for those
  • search for only a first name and use another details, such as a date, to refine your search
  • search only a surname and refine your search by date and location
  • search only a first name or surname with one parents’ name or a spouse’s name along with it
  • replace the first name with the middle name, initial or a nickname
  • don’t always limit by a specific location as your ancestor’s place may have been incorrectly recorded or they may have moved unexpectedly, you may even find that the search box is not showing all records in a location correctly
  • search only by date or location and omit the name altogether for smaller collections
  • use wildcards for missing words or letters (usually this is a * or ? symbol, but each site has different rules, find out what they are)
  • search for relations that may be mentioned in a document instead of the person themselves
  • replace the first letter of a surname with other letters that sound similar (“b” for “v” and “c” for “s” for instance)
  • add an “h” to the beginning of names that start with vowels, this was a common mistake
  • forget the search function and use the filters of the search form to create a collection of records you can browse through instead
  • don’t give up, if you think your ancestor should be found in a collection, browse the whole thing if you need to

8. Distinguish Between Similar Individuals

Whether you have multiple individuals in your tree with the same or similar sounding name, have an ancestor with a very common name, or you’ve encountered more than one individual with the same name in the same location in your research, you need to be able to easily differentiate between these people so that you don’t get confused or make mistakes when recording data. This mistake is more common than you may realize.

One of the best strategies for doing this is to make a simple list of facts for each similar person that you can easily reference. Write down details like their full name, including middle names and initials, birth, marriage and death dates, locations of residence and related dates, children’s names and birth dates, direct relatives, neighbors etc.

Highlight any differences between the individuals so that you can easily draw on that information as you research. If you’re tying to tell the difference between people with the same exact name, carefully record all details you have collected and assign them to the person you believe they relate to. Be specific when writing down details since, sometimes, little differences can be the only deciding factor. As you continue your efforts at least one clear distinction should arise to help you identify each individual clearly.

9. Write the Story of Your Ancestors’ Life

This is a unique way to break down brick walls, but it really does work for some problems. The idea is to write down everything you know about your ancestor in the form of a story you would tell to someone else, and then to try and complete the story with what you think might of happened, to open your mind to new research possibilities.

Just be careful not to confuse your story with reality! You are simply using your imagination as a tool to help you think of new pathways for research. Considering what MIGHT have happened can help you discover what did happen.

10. Use Records You’ve Never Used Before

Sometimes all that is needed to break down a brick wall is to find that one right document (read a story about that happening here).

You can look for new records by branching out and trying new sites, by exploring individual collections (as mentioned above), by getting to know the record collections from your ancestor’s location of residence, and by educating yourself about essential, lesser-used collections and what details they contain.

In our course we cover many record collections by topic and where to find them for free online. Use those lessons to locate new record collections to search – or find many free sites to search here.

Here are just a few lesser-used free genealogy collections to get you started:

11. Understand Mass Migrations

If your ancestors suddenly disappear from the records and you have no idea where they went, consider what others were doing during that time. Downward economic trends may have driven your ancestors to migrate to a new location for work or fresh land, and exciting stories of new possibilities may have encouraged them to pull up roots in search of new adventures and opportunities.

Changes in their lives, such as war or natural disasters, may have changed their perspective and prospects. If so, they were most likely not the only ones affected by the change. Take the time to learn the history immediately surrounding your ancestor’s disappearance for clues as to where they might have gone. Follow the trends and you may find your ancestors.

12. Know the Records Before 1850

If you’re researching ancestors before 1850 you are going to need different records than the ones you used for your post 1850 family. Most locations did not start recording vital events until the mid to late 19th century, and even then, many were incomplete. The U.S. Census before that time was far less detailed than later enumerations. To research in this time period you will need to look at a different group of records to find the details you need.

These include:

One of the best places to start looking for these records is by searching individual collections on sites you already frequent. Another is to use online libraries and repository searches like the Digital Public Library of America. If you think your record collection may be found offline, try using ArchiveGrid to find it. If you have African American ancestors, read this guide or this one for UK ancestors.

American Ancestors from the New England Historic Genealogical Society also has a nice collection of (paid) antebellum records, as do many free state research sites.

And always be willing to go offline as well. Here’s some help.

13. Use the Clues You Have

This tip relates to what we’ve already learned about getting organized and detailing all of the data you have about your ancestor – but it is worth mentioning individually. Use each record you have already collected as a clue to find new records. Every name, location and other fact is a possible avenue of research — explore them all.

When examining a record ask yourself questions like:

  • Why is the name spelled this way? Is she/he using a nickname or middle name? Could it have been spelled like this in other documents?
  • Who was the witness? Were they related in some way? Were they a neighbor I could use to find my ancestor in other documents, such as the census?
  • What can I learn about the location that is mentioned? What documents are available from it?
  • This record mentions that my ancestor served in XYZ War. Can I find a service record, draft card or pension file?
  • Is this document part of a larger file? (ie a will being part of a probate file)
  • My ancestor worked as a XYZ — where can I find more information about this type of work/employer? Are their records?
  • This record tells me that my ancestor moved. Is there an associated land record of sale or purchase?
  • The document shows my ancestor’s religious affiliation? Could an associated religious house have more records?

14. Educate Yourself About Your Research Location or Topic

Unfortunately we cannot cover every single location and topic of research on our site and courses, but we can remind you that the internet provides a huge wealth of available data to help you. Whatever your topic of interest, there is a guide somewhere to help you learn more about it. If you take the time to educate yourself on the specific areas that apply to your brick wall you will be more likely to break it down. Here are a few places where you can educate yourself based on research focus.

15. Never Give Up

Whatever you do, do not give up. If you apply the tips and strategies found in our articles, courses and elsewhere online to your research  – and are willing to get creative, organized and detailed – then you will more than likely eventually break down your brick wall. Remember, the research is the fun part, so enjoy it! And when you do break through, be sure to share your find with others.

Don’t forget to sign up for our free email offering, 30 Days of Genealogy Tips, for more help. The sign up box can be found in this and all articles on Genealogy-Research. It will provide many ideas to help you improve your research.


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