Research Clues for those Elusive “Brick Wall” Mysteries

Posted by Ancestry Team on October 19, 2017 in Regular Features

You’ve likely hit a brick wall or encountered a mystery in your research if you’ve spent any measure of time piecing together your family tree. It’s not easy. These challenges crop up in many ways. Sometimes your ancestors have a common last name like “Smith” or there is a lack of census data for a particular country or time. In other instances, your ancestors were enslaved people whose surname traces back their owner, but to no one beyond that.
It can be a very frustrating experience without access to someone who can help. At Ancestry, we have a team of very smart and knowledgeable researchers who we asked to answer questions submitted by some of our Facebook followers last week.
Some of these cover common “brick wall” issues many people have faced, so hopefully there is useful information included that helps get you over the hump if you’re currently having trouble.  If you’re facing a challenge not covered here, drop us a comment and we can follow up directly or perhaps write another post with more input from our research team. 
  • Monique Delatour If you are white, with the same last name as a black person, and the black person is not in Africa, does this mean that somewhere in history, the white side of your family name (or French, etc.) were once slave owners and the black persons family name was because they were forced to take on the slave owner’s name? So you are connected in that way by name? Would that be correct?

It is often true that the surnames of formerly enslaved Black Americans come from their former owner. However, sharing a surname does not necessarily mean that a white person by the same last name has ancestors who owned slaves. Only a percentage of white families owned slaves, so if the surname was a common name like Smith, it may not be your Smith, since not all Smiths are related. If your surname is unique and your family lived in the south during slavery, then there is definitely a strong chance that there is a connection, but it is not proof itself. Also, there were many enslaved men and women who changed their surnames years after emancipation to disassociate from their former owner which further complicates the matter.

  • Jessi Hall Wells I can’t find much on my great-grandpa’s side of the family in Russia. They were Jewish. Are there many records of Russian Jews from the 1700s and 1800s?

The majority of “Russian Jews” actually emigrated from areas formerly controlled by Russia, i.e., parts of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. Depending on when they immigrated and what constituted “Russia” at the time they entered the U.S. (since the boundaries changed repeatedly throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries), they may have identified as “Russian,” but have been from an entirely different present-day country. If your ancestors came to the U.S., you can often narrow things down and find their town or region of origin on passenger lists or domestic records such as draft registration cards, births/marriages/deaths.  As for record availability, there’s no one answer! Records vary greatly from country to country and even province to province and, unfortunately, many records were destroyed or disappeared during the Holocaust. However, many family, military, and tax lists or registers do survive as well as births, marriages, and burials. The best place to start is the Jewish Family History Collection on Ancestry. If you know the surname and the town where your ancestors lived, you have a better chance of locating them.

  • Maureen Brennan How can I deal with the lack of census records in Ireland for the 1800s?

While it’s true that almost all of the censuses of Ireland in the 1800s were lost in the fire in Dublin’s Four Courts building in 1922, there are other records that can help fill that void. Griffith’s Valuation, which was taken between 1847 and 1864, lists more than 1 million household heads who occupied property and is often referenced as a substitute for census records.

Irish civil registration of marriages began in 1845 and for births and deaths in 1864 and these records have survived.

Church records can also help fill the void. While about half of the Church of Ireland parish registers that had been stored at the Four Courts were lost, many survived. Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian records were not at Four Courts and have survived. Ancestry has several collections of Catholic parish registers and by searching for the parents’ names in baptisms, it is possible to reconstruct households.

For links to Irish collections on Ancestry and additional tips, download our free guide to Finding Your Irish Ancestors.

The 1890 U.S. federal census was mostly destroyed by a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. on 10 January 1921. Bridging the gap between the 1880 and 1900 can be challenging, but there are substitutes.

City directories allow you to track ancestors in between censuses and directories from the 1890s can help fill in for the lost census. Ancestry has good coverage from this period in its U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995.

State censuses, where available, can also help fill the void left by the missing 1890 Census. Typically taken between the decennial federal censuses, state censuses vary in availability and in the information included. Click on the map in the lower left corner of the Search page on Ancestry to see whether Ancestry has censuses for your ancestor’s state.

Although the 1890 population schedules were mostly destroyed, fortunately nearly 75,000 special schedules from that census with the names of Union veterans and widows survived. 1890 Veterans’ Schedules for part of Kentucky through Wyoming, Lincoln Post #3 in Washington, D.C., and selected U.S. vessels and navy yards are available, and for those whose ancestors appear in the surviving records, they’re a unique look at the veterans and widows of the Civil War.

On the schedules, you’ll find the name of the veteran or his widow, rank, company, regiment or vessel, dates of enlistment and discharge, and length of service. On the lower half of the schedule, it also lists the address, any disabilities incurred (and sometimes where), and remarks.

And of course, you could get lucky and hit the genealogical lotto if your ancestor was enumerated on one of the surviving 1,233 pages or pieces, which document only 6,160 of the 62,979,766 people enumerated that year. You can search the surviving fragments here on Ancestry.

  • Marsha Smith-Mott asks:  Both of my husband’s grandparents were adopted and the records were sealed.  Information on their names and birth dates have been changed.  How can I get around these obstacles?

The first thing you need to do is get your husband (and any of his parents or aunts/uncles that are still living) tested with AncestryDNA.  If none of his parents or their siblings are living, getting a 1st cousin tested on each side of the family will help him sort his DNA matches out between maternal and paternal.

Where he is looking for biological parents of his grandparents, they would be his great-grandparents.  That means that if either of them had any other children, their descendants would be your husband’s ½ 2nd cousins.  If any of them (or their parents or children) have taken an AncestryDNA test, they will show up on your husband’s DNA match list.  Contact them to find out more about their great-grandparents so you can figure out which one of them was in the right time and place to be the biological parents.

For more information about how to do this, you can download our free research guide:  AncestryDNA for Adoptees:  Search Strategies

  • Jordan Briley asks:  My great-grandmother immigrated from Germany as a little girl, by way of a ship.  I haven’t been able to find the name of that ship, when it sailed, and where it landed.  I don’t know how she got to America.  Did she enter from Canada or Ellis Island?

You don’t mention what time period you are researching to make this discovery so I will share some basic information about mid- to late- 19th century immigration to America that you might find helpful.

The first step in all immigration research is to exhaust all U.S. based resources first.  Is your great-grandmother listed in the 1900, 1910, 1920, or 1930 U.S. Federal Census records?  Each of those records list a year of immigration.  They may not all be consistent but it should give you a good idea of a year or range of years.  Also, pay close attention to her citizenship status listed on that census.  If she married a U.S. citizen prior to 1922, she will have gained automatic citizenship.  But, if her husband was also an immigrant, did either of them apply for citizenship?  If so, her date of immigration (and sometimes even the port and the ship she came in on) will be listed on the Declaration of Intent to Naturalize.

The next step is to look at where the family lived in the years immediately following immigration.  Those first few years usually meant a lot of movement as the immigrant gets settled into their new country.  Use City Directories to track her movement in between census years.

Now, with a year range and a location, start searching ports from that location and expanding out.  People didn’t just come into New York.  So, be sure to check ports in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere for East Coast arrivals.  Also, check U.S. Border Crossing from Canada.  It was sometimes easier (and cheaper) to get passage into Canada and then take a train or other form of transportation across the border.

Finally, keep in mind that in genealogy, spelling doesn’t count.  Just because an ancestor spelled their name a certain way after arriving here in the United States does not mean that they always spelled their name that way.  It is also possible that the clerk at the port of departure misspelled their name or that their handwriting was so difficult to read that it was indexed incorrectly.  So, be sure to search using variant spellings and wildcards.

For more tips on how to find your immigrant ancestors, visit our Immigration Webcasts playlist on the Ancestry YouTube channel.

Past Articles

Family Foodways

Posted by Linda Barnickel on October 18, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary perhaps says it best. Foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical time period.” Foodways include the growth and production of food, methods of cooking, spices, who cooked the food, social occasions, and special events. Even the intangibles such as aroma, food’s association with memories, folktales and Read More

World War I Records on

Posted by Jennifer Holik on October 11, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

I’ve found one of the best ways to search what is available on Fold3 is to search within the records of a particular conflict. I wrote a little about this concept in my WWII article, Combining World War II Research on Fold3 With Your Ancestry Family Tree on this blog in April 2016. The same Read More

October is American Archives Month

Posted by Linda Barnickel on October 10, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

October is American Archives Month, and institutions throughout the country are celebrating! Here are seven ways you can get involved: 1) Attend an event Many archives will be having special events throughout the month. These might include open houses, lectures, tours, exhibits or other activities. Check the websites of nearby repositories, including college campuses, public Read More

What to Know About World War I Burial Files

Posted by Jennifer Holik on September 29, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

A couple of months ago I wrote an article about the Ancestry collection of U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger Lists 1910-1939. If you review that article, near the end I talk about my great-granduncle Michael Kokoska’s ship manifest, on which it shows he is deceased. In that article I mention briefly the World War I Read More

PBS’ Finding Your Roots Returns October 3 at 8/7c

Posted by Jessica Latinović on September 26, 2017 in Website

A brand new season of PBS’ hit show Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., premieres on Tuesday, October 3 at 8/7c. This star studded season features some of our favorite comedians, journalists, and A-list celebrities. Catch the season teaser below: Episode 1 | The Impression Guests: Larry David and Bernie Sanders. Two Read More