Posted by Brian Gallagher on September 28, 2014 in Research, United Kingdom, Website

The Dreaded Brick Wall


How can I get past a brick wall?

When you run across a brick wall in your research, what do you do? You may be tempted to send your laptop on an expedition out of the first floor window, and who could blame you? A brick wall can be incredibly frustrating.

Some researchers might advise you to abandon the individual concerned for a period of time and move on with the rest of your family tree, and there is some wisdom to that. You’ll want to check back on that individual from time to time though. Ancestry is constantly adding new records to the site and other members are adding trees every day. A brick wall today may not be a brick wall in a few week’s time.

Review your research and revisit the card catalog

Sometimes the answers to our questions are waiting in the research we’ve already conducted. Revisit the records you’ve gathered. You may find that you have overlooked an important detail or missed a connection.

Survey what resources are at your disposal. Ancestry members will want to head for the Card Catalog to see what collections may hold the answers they seek and search them directly. A new collection may have crept in under your radar. Use the filters on the left to narrow your search by geographic location, and if you like, by record type.

Take a step back . . .

In family history, a step back may mean revisiting more recent ancestors. In your haste to move on to the next generation, are there records you overlooked or that were previously inaccessible to you–records that may knock down that brick wall? Seeking them out will give you a more rounded picture of those recent ancestors, and you may uncover new clues.

Talk to family members again

When you begin researching your family history, it is important to talk to other family members who may have information on your shared ancestry. When you hit a brick wall in your research, revisit these relatives or have a discussion with them over the phone or through email about what you have found since your last conversation. Share your recent discoveries with them. New names and locations may jog their memories and you may hear previously untold family stories.

Go beyond the direct line

Go beyond your ancestor and his or her siblings and expand your search to include distant relatives. The records of in-laws, half-siblings, cousins, step-parents and whoever else you can dig up, may include details missing in the records of your direct ancestors.

Use social media and other online resources

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you use Facebook you can search for living relatives who may hold the key to your brick wall. Feel free to post research questions to the Ancestry Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our online communities are an amazing resource with many experienced researchers who are willing to help other members. All you have to do is ask!

Try searching for an elusive ancestor into your favorite search engine. You may be surprised at what you can uncover in this way. The most important thing is not to lose hope. We have all faced a brick wall in our research, but with perseverance all things are possible.

Photo: Lars Thomsen. Flickr creative commons.

Brian Gallagher

Brian is the International Social Media Specialist for Ancestry, working closely with our United Kingdom, Sweden, German and Australian teams.


  1. Connie

    Sound advice. .

    Many apparent brickwalls often prove to be well built fences or substantial hedges rather than a fortification that’ll withstand an army demolition squad!

    Now if I could just find Stephen COLLING(B)RIDGE’s baptism ……… 😉

  2. Steve Cousins

    One way I have got around some brick walls is to assume that the family was in the area and search for that surname in the area, and then I have often found the link through the wall. That of course assumes the family hasn’t travelled; so it may be necessary to look further.

    I have gain a lot of useful information through going through scans of original parish records, with a lot of useful extra bits not covered by what has been entered into the Ancestry database (or transcribed wrong, but we can all do that).

    Build-up a pattern of families with the surname you are looking for, but remember that just because it is the same name it dosn’t mean they ‘are’ your ancestors. And don’t forget all the spelling variations and abbreviations.

  3. Catherine Salkeld

    You say to look through your card catalogue, but I assume when I put out a search that everything you have is being searched at that time, so what’s the point in looking again or am I missing something!

  4. Ann Minter

    One of the most important steps I can take to get around a brick wall is to compile a time line for the ancestor who is that brick wall. I use all of the collected data to ascertain the dates, locations and actions of the ancestor and then methodically fill in the blanks by revisiting printed materials, archives, libraries and then any of the online sites. Do not forget to go to the local historical societies, genealogical societies and the elders of the regions you are searching. The reason for taking these actions is because by comparison, only approximately one-fourth of the data is actually online at this time.

  5. Lesley

    i have hit a brick wall. The 1861/71 census is proving difficult to finding siblings of a GG grandfather, I need this to prove that his father is the right person!

  6. Alice

    I just got through my brick wall of over 20 years with my Ancestry DNA test!!!!! I thought I knew who my dad’s maternal great-parents were,lots of circumstantial evidence, but not one printed word of proof. I now have over 30 hits on this family in my DNA, and I think that’s real proof!! Thanks, Ancestry!

  7. Louise

    Catherine, as I understand it, there are quite a number of records that have been scanned in, but have not been indexed yet, so they would not show up in a search.

  8. julie

    My brick wall is a 3x great grandmother who dies (presumably) before the 1850 census. No marriage record exists that I can find and her children die before death certs were required. Her husband remarries 2 times after she dies (?). What do you suggest I try?

  9. Brian Gallagher

    Hi Adam, this blog post is a rework of an Ancestry help article posted originally on the Ancestry site 09/21/2010. I have never read the blog you have referenced which was written a few months ago.

  10. nanaord

    I have great-grandparents who came from Germany, but its like the Berlin wall. Absolutely nothing comes up in Ancestry in Germany and I can’t go there. Any suggestions?

  11. Neil Hotson

    Brick wall circumvention:

    1.Looking at the second cousins.
    2. Looking at the witnesses on the marriage certificate.
    3. Looking at who the informant on a death cert was.
    4. Going to the house and asking a old neighbour ! Good for up to 50 years after the event, extraordinarily so.
    5.Remembering brothers followed brothers in emigration.
    6. Sisters followed sisters to the same employment and area.
    7.People changed their name and age to suit the next marriage.
    8. Said they were widowed when they were still married.
    9.Moved around the country easily and cheaply.
    10. Just maybe left some memory in you, so go with your gut feeling ! … started 1985

  12. Ruth Halladay

    I am back to the mid 1600, They must have been short names because they name all their children the same. Now that’s a brick wall!

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