Posted by Crista Cowan on July 28, 2016 in Research

We all have them.  Those ancestors who just refuse to be found.  In genealogy, we call them “brick walls.”  Whether you are brand new to the family history game or you have been doing this for decades, the strategies for climbing over, going around, or breaking through those brick walls are the same.  In this week’s episode of The Barefoot Genealogist I cover some of those strategies.


I explain each of these strategies in a bit more detail in the video below.

Have fun climbing your family tree!

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Twitter


  1. John Curran

    Good information. My Brick Wall is California. I have a German great grandfather who lived in California where my grandmother was born in 1877. From her death certificate in Maine I learned that her father immigrated from Germany and lived in California where she was born but a search of Ancestry records yields no information, thus my Brick Wall. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  2. Janice

    This is all good but here is my question. What if you know all the children of an individual/couple but are trying to locate the parents of your ancestor … whose siblings are unknown because you are not sure when or where your ancestor was born (he does not show up in a census record which may have given that info)? In searching Scottish records, pre-1841 census records are unavailable. Have checked Pigot’s Directory (1837) and found him in a particular town – and clues – but can’t confidently validate parents or siblings of my ancestor. A death record for any of his children will not reveal my ancestor’s parents. Have searched for siblings of my ancestor and found there are a number of possibilities. However, because my ancestor doesn’t show up in the 1841 census (he could have been deceased or living elsewhere – though I have found his wife and two of his children in 1841 census record), I have no idea ~where~ he was born. So how do you find his parents? I know where and when he married as I’ve found that record. But this does not mean he was born in that town. Just saying … I have done numerous searches at Scottish website (pay per view on records) to little avail. A common surname. Common given names in the family, etc. I feel I have researched as extensively as possible without making a trip to Edinburgh to research there.

  3. Davis

    Janice, almost all my Scottish ancestors hit a wall around that point. I suspect some olde time (real) genealogy might be required and church basements crawled through to get any further, if the records I need even exist. Censuses show neighbors, professions, other family members, etc. but church records often show little.

    My U.S. and Canadian ancestors fare much better, of course, with all those wonderful online records, books, and family histories.

  4. Steve

    Nice overview of some good, common sense methods for tackling brick walls. Good refresher. Thank you.

  5. Janice

    Thanks Davis. I guess I know I am not alone with this dilemma. And you’re so right. If your Scot traveled to Canada (or Australia or U.S. for that matter), you can find a lot more information.

  6. Maryellen Stoker

    I sent my test June 1 2016 and it is now August 2, 2016. Please find and email me my results. Thank you! Maryellen Stoker

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      Hi Maryellen, thanks for taking the time to get in touch with us. We do advise a time frame of between 6-8 weeks for the test to be completed once it has reached the lab, we apologize for any frustration caused by this delay. Once your results are ready you will receive an email stating as such. To view your results, simply click on the ‘DNA’ button at the top of the Ancestry home page and they will be presented to you on screen. We hope that helps.

  7. Teresa Elizabeth Snyder-Higginson

    Ive been searching for my fathers family for toooo long now. I was 12 when he died. Was very close with his family. But the circumstances caused everyone to split. My dad walt snyder was a phila pa police officer until 1982. In the 15th precint. He had 4 sisters. Theresa, kay, cookie, Barbara (altho a cpl of them nick names. He was married to my ma. Barbara and had us. 2 boys one girl. Ive searched and searched but it seems his mother kinda played the goct a lil. And census showed them in new york and phila pa. Its so hard to find anything at all. Ive been dying to see a pic of him since i was 12. Everyone took stuff and i just wish to find info on his family. To perhaps just find a pic of him of them. Im at a brick wall. And now unable to pay for service. I love all my family. His family. My mas family. Its like because there were odd circumstances to his death that it is hidden and not wanted to be found. Id appreciate any help. My children and nephews really want to see what my gorgeous father looked like.

  8. Kathi

    My brick wall: my paternal grandmother’s father. I have his marriage certificate (1895 NYC) with his parent’s names; my grandmother’s birth certificate (1896 NYC) with his name on it. That’s it. I can’t find any census records or his parents anywhere. I find my grandmother and g-grandmother in 1910 census, not him though. No death is found but g-grandmother is remarried and their marriage certificate has her listed as a widow, her second marriage. Any suggestions?

  9. Bobbi


    I had a problem similar to yours. My gr-grandfather was born in Germany and supposedly came to the US in 1868. Yet was unable to find anything about him before his marriage in 1893. What I discovered is that he actually came in 1872, his father came by himself, his mother came under a nickname, and all the kids ages were incorrect. (Presumably so they would pay less for younger children.) They weren’t here for the 1870 census. For 1880, the father died just before census day. The family was listed under an incorrect surname (the census taker probably wasn’t German, and had trouble understanding the pronunciation).
    The mother remarried 3 months later. It took me years to figure the whole thing out.

  10. Paula

    My brick wall is my maternal great great grandmother. I have few records of her when she married my GG grandfather, but before that I know very little about her. Supposedly, she was born in Canada-either Quebec or Ontario according to her death certificate. Her DOB is in question as well! There was no obituary and her death record states unknown for her parents names. Her marriage record is a blurb in a book of records that is a paragraph long and only states her last name and city she lived in when married. Very frustrating! I think she may have been an orphan and may not have known her parents if they died when she was young.

  11. Sherry Tuminaro

    Thank you Crista. You are a great source of information and keep me plodding along. I’m too stubborn to give up, so will continue to trudge forward, all the while wondering why no-one bothered to take a few minutes to jot down names and life/death events. If only!

  12. Kelly

    I’m not a memeber of this site, but just have a question about the DNA results, my husband’s father was adopted, and it was a closed adoption, he doesn’t know what his biological parents names were, so, will a DNA test help with that info?

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Kelly: It would match him with relatives that have also taken the DNA test. We’ve attached a link to an article here with some more information that we hope will be helpful:

  13. Terry Thompson

    I’m 30 yo. My father passed this year at (2016)at the age of 54.i have very little record of this side of my family and I can only seem to get to my grandfather on his side and my grandmother and her complete side. But as for my grandfather, I still have found no real info on him and am not totally sure the person I found is him. I recently met a woman with my name Terry Thompson (hers is Terri Thompson ) and we’re both from the same small town and are wondering if we’re related in some way. At this point I realize that I know nothing about my father’s family pertaining his father. PLEASE HELP!!!!

  14. Lynda Rutenkroger

    I am trying to locate the birth and death months and days for my maternal grandmother, Mattie Baxter Koon who was born in 1890 and died in 1941 in Suwannee County, FL. She was married to my grandfather, Henry W. Koon. I have run into a “brick wall” trying to get these dates.

  15. Patti

    Searching is great, as long as you’ve got the correct information to begin with, and that rarely happens. I’ve been looking for anything beyond the great grandparents for over 20 years. My paternal great grandmother was named Leah, and I found out earlier this year that her real name was Sarah and her middle name might have been Elizabeth. Leah was just a name everyone called her and a name she wrote on all documents. I just hope it doesn’t take me another 20 years to find out about her husband, my g-grandfather. He was John William, and I have heard through relatives that his father might have been named William John. His last name was Trimble, a common name in Ireland. I have no idea where to go with this one, but I will keep searching.

  16. Linda

    I am unable to find info on what happened to my second great grandparents, Mindert W Low & Sarah Jemima Wilson. I still havent found them, but using these strategies I learned that my 10th GGrandfather, Phillipe Maton Wiltsee, was killed by Indians, and his sons kidnapped in 1632 just 15 minutes from my home! I visited the memorial site yesterday. I also found 5 DNA matches who share this common ancestor and shared my findings, as well as a book in the DAR library, and available online that documents the family history.
    Thank you, Crista!!!

  17. Linda

    Oops, quick correction of my post just now. Mindert’s mother was Sarah Jemima Wilson; his wife Sarah Jane Gaddis.

  18. Charles Luedeker

    Since my 2nd great grandfather came from Hungary, we are unable to find out more information about him. We know his name was Chris, Criss, or Christian Weiss. His wife’s name Julia. Where should I look?

  19. September Castaneda

    First I took the dna test and so did my niece when it came back it shows that we are 1 cousins now how can that be. Also having trouble finding my great grandmother can find her up until my grandmother’s birth then nothing. She was to have died a short time after that. Can’t find a death certificate. She seems to have disappeared.

  20. John Curran

    I posted a comment that lack of records for California within the Ancestry data base is my ‘brick wall’. I asked for suggestions. No one from the Ancestry staff commented. Others ask questions but no one from Ancestry responds to most inquiries. Why?

  21. Renee Cerbino Junette

    I am having problems finding the parents of my 2great grand mother. She was born Margaret Welch abt 1868 and died at 26 December 1895 I think. I can’t find a marriage record or who her parents were. She had 3 children with my 2 great grand father Henry John Metz 1868-1949. The oldest my great grand father Thomas (1887-1972). Complicating matters, Henry John married a second time in 1904 with another Margaret last name Richardson born the same year and she died 1933. Margaret Richardson was a widow and her first married name was White. I believe I found Margaret Welch Metz’s death certificate. I mailed away for the certificate from NY. I found a marriage certificate for a Margaret Welch 1885 but it does not list groom’s name. I requested that from NY vital records also. Also, my family repeated names a lot which is quite confusing. On my great grand father Army enlistment paper it lists next of kin, Grandmother Margaret Welch and even lists an address. Adding a 3rd Margaret to the puzzle. The 4th margaret is my maternal grandmother. Yikes! Which way to I turn? Can you advise?

  22. Renee Cerbino Junette

    Also, after Margaret Welch and their 3rd child Elizabeth Metz (1895 died 9 months old). Henry John Metz placed both sons in an orphanage. I would like to search orphanages in the 1900 federal census for them but I am not sure which Orphanage they were placed in.

  23. Wendy Harp

    My mom got her results back from AncestryDNA and found out she is 1/2 Black, 1/4 Ashkenazi and 1/4 Irish & British. It is evident that her mother didn’t tell the truth about who her father is. We uploaded on Gedmatch but don’t seem to come close to finding out who her father is. My grandmother was born in 1888 and my mom in 1932 (still alive and well). My grandmother wasn’t married to my mom’s father. Any help would be appreciated on what to do next!

  24. Wendy Harp

    My husband’s grandmother died in childbirth in 1937 in Lumberton, NC. She was from Orangeburg, SC. but lived in Dillon SC and went to NC to have the baby. Her name was Lumisha Evans Bethea and I can not find a death certificate anywhere! I thought all deaths were registered but I can not find a thing. Any information would be appreciated. I know I have seen many numberous spellings of her first name but i have searched with just Evans and Bethea. HELP!!!

  25. Shirley J Miller

    I have hit a brick wall in Tennessee. I have been trying to locate cousins in Texas who I felt might have some information but I really doubt that they do. I need help in trying to find from where my ancestors immigrated. I have thought about doing the DNA thing but I already know I am likely Northern European because I have traced my mother’s family back to 1600s in England but would like to trace my dad’s lineage of whom little is known. Is there anyone out there to help? Another road block is it is a very common surname.

  26. Katherine Buhrow Priester

    I am trying to locate my paternal grandfather’s beginnings. He came over from Germany in 1897 with his step father and mother. He was listed on the manifest as stepchild, his stepfather was Schultz. My grandfather’s last name was Buhrow. Any help would be appreciated.

  27. Jeanne

    My brick wall is my great grandfather. We were able to find a marriage certificate when he married my great grandmother Richie Lu Hamilton May 10,1888. His name is J.P. Looney. Through YDNA we have discovered no relations to the Looney’s. My grandfather Was William Bleve Looney. He was placed in an orphanage after both his parents passed away between 1897 and 1898. He changed his name to St.
    Clergy after running away from the orphanage.
    We have been unable to find any information regarding the family except hearsay. I find my grandfathers WW1 Draft card under Will Clergy. We find him in the 1920, 1930 and 1940 census. He was born in 1890 according to my dad in greenwood, miss. We have not records. IN each one of the census he gave different birthdate and place of birth. In the 1940 census he did state he was born in Greenwood, 1890 and his father was John St. Clergy. I have had a St. Clergy ancestor do YDNA and we know we are not related. Since the 1890 Mississippi census was burned I am unable to find any census or enumeration where I can find any of this family. In addition on my grandfathers marriage certificate he said his father was Clyde St. Clergy born in Memphis Tenn. My dad youngest brother was name Clyde. Does anyone have any suggestions. I am at my wits end. Help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

  28. Diane

    My problem is the same as Janice’s. Trying to find the parents of my Scott ancestors. I’ve managed to get details as far back as the 1600’s but there the trail ends. The Irish side I’ve managed the 1700’s. Just about all my brick walls (Scot & Irish) end in a John & wife Mary (always her surname is unknown). I think my research has also come to the point where I need to travel over there to find a link to their families. Online there are so many possibilities with many of them incorrect.

  29. Heather Lennox

    My brick wall is that I can’t find any relatives beyond my own paternal grandfather. My grandfather has a common name, and from what I have found out, so had his father. My mother can’t help as she wasn’t given the information. They wouldn’t even tell her their birthdays. Case of “Children are meant to be seen, not heard.” Very strict household she grew up in. Verrrrry frustrating and confusing. As I am living in New Zealand, this means that I am limited in my sources of information.
    All I’ve managed to get is his year of birth, marriage details and his father’s name (common name). Can’t find anything else. Looks like the ol’ crystal ball has to come out.

  30. Heather Lennox

    My grandfather is John Hall, born 1903, married a Martha Kent Glenville on 6th October 1928. His father is James Hall. That’s all I could get.

  31. Verena speers

    My brick wall is my great grandmothers parents who were John Marshall and Catherine mount ford. Searching for information is very frustrating.
    Her name was Ellen Marshall Taylor and she marriec my great grandfather Leonard brumby.

  32. Carl Temple

    Heather, with common names (I have Smith, Brown, Walker), you have to hope for small towns of origin, patterns of names in the children, ideally with unusual first names, and a process of elimination via researching the alternative candidates to see if you can eliminate them. Another handy thing is if the family were dissenters, this can sometimes distinguish them (and make them hard to find). Clues can exist in unlikely places such as strange names in the same grave, details of the person buying the grave, death notices and so on. Sometimes you have more luck with a siblings line and they will give you the links such as an uncle/aunt that has a good civil registration certificate listing parents (I have this for Gordon/McDonalds from Scotland). Wills can identify families, as can unusual occupations such as fellmongers. I also try and use different sources tocreate cross checks to eliminate baptisms when the child subsequently died soon afterwards (eliminating them as the adult ancestor). The key is to think laterally. Of course some problems can never be solved. Good luck.

  33. Gwen Green

    my maternal great grandmother was said to be born in Germany20 January 1855 – died 10 June 1937 at Dulwich Hill, NSW Australia. She travelled by ship from England to Australia on the “Star of India” arriving 1877 She married passenger Georg Wilhelm Bohlsen (George William on their marriage certificate – which I have in my possession. Family members who remember her said she had a strong German accent but would clam up if ever asked about her early life. Her name seems to have varied from Bertha Auguste Louise Zuhlke with Bertha Auguste being the only given names on the marriage certificate with the surname Zullke. Her Naturalisation certificate has her as Bertha Amelia Bohlsen (20/11/1905). We have a possible name for her mother as Charlotte possibly born 5 April 1825. Her husband had been listed on the Pride of India passenger list as Boulton. His signature on the marriage certificate is G W Bohlfsen. They married in Orange on 25 November 1877. The first of eight children was born 1 January 1878. My grandmother was the second daughter, Helene Ethel born 2 February 1881. My brick wall was anything about her before that journey to Australia in 1877. She never again left Australia.

  34. Darrel Downie

    A very interesting and helpful approach to brick walls. We all have them and some are easier to climb over than others, I am going to try the methods described by Crista to try and knock down my biggest brick wall. I have been trying to discover the fate of one of my GG Grandfathers (Charles Adam McGhee) for nearly twenty years to no avail. I know his parents, I know when he was born and married, I know he faked his own suicide around 1910, I know from a court appearance in 1919 he served in WW1 under an alias (not mentioned), it’s very hard to find a record if the person changed their name. And then after 1919 he falls off the face of the earth, not to be found in electoral rolls or shipping records or death records or notices.
    This guy is a phantom, but then I am only 54 so I might have time to find him yet!!

  35. Don Baker

    For over 20 years I have been trying to trace the maiden surname, exact place of birth, ands the place and date of marriage for my Great- Great Grandmother. Her Christian name was Ann, born around 1793, her place of origin was County Cork in Ireland, she married an Englishman John Dyke from County Kent England around 1830, and died in Kemsing Kent in 1862.
    It would be great to be able to trace her family name and exact birth date in County Cork, as well as to trace explanations why, when and how she eventually moved over to England, and where exactly she met and married John Dyke.
    I am now 76 years of age and have been fortunate to have enlarged my family history records immensely in many other areas. However I will always regret having not being able to have found out this lady’s maiden surname, exact place of origin, and her marriage details. Did an Irish famine, death of a husband young family, perhaps have had something to do with her exodus from Ireland when she was in her mid- late 30s.
    If someone could assist me to trace any of these outstanding, currently unanswered questions, I would of course be very grateful.
    With kind regards.

  36. Ruby Dann Romano

    Can you help with finding informational Archives for children in Homes
    I was in two Homes with other members of my familyShenley Fields Cottage Homes 1941 give or take a year.
    Erdington Union Cottage Homes 1945 – 1947 give or take a year
    The registration would have been Dann.
    Thank you Ruby Dann

  37. Isabel Liddle

    I find the trees produced by other people very misleading and irritating. I have been trying to research my family – Thomas- if one person makes a mistake with people of the same name different generation it trickles through several other trees- no one is taking responsibility for accuracy. Satatments like a particular member having died at sea in 1850 and then dying again and being buried in South Australia is noted. The son with the same name is listed as the husband of his mother and it states it as fact. If one person makes that mistake ok – they are a novice but the mistake perpetrates through several more trees and no- one challenges it.

  38. Barry Moss

    I guess the info is helpful although my great grandmother seems to have disappeared – no, death can be found, no re-marriage, no nothing AND then I keep getting messages that say “this page is temporarily unavailable – try reloading” WHAT’S this all about? It is VEFRY annoying.

  39. The first thing I found on the site was my own death! same name, date of birth, parents names and location. So matching records can sometimes go astray even with the best of intentions, or else I’m a ghost. My biggest brick wall is my mother, she was adopted a couple of years before records were kept and was always very silent about her childhood. I don’ t even know the names of the people who adopted her, her birth certificate and passport were not in her things when she died and her name doesn’t show up on any records before her marriage. I have tried all the names with as many different spellings as I can imagine, but still nothing. Does anyone have ideas on how to scale this wall?

  40. Isobel ledden

    I’be hit the brick wall with my great grandfather we think they are from a Scottish background! He had one son called John Alexander Paterson who was born in 1879 in Robe in Australia the certificate was witnessed by elizabeth Watson as the mother? That’s where it all stops nothing matches after that! And I cannot go forward I found one record of j a Paterson marrying a Elizabeth Watson however the dates are out!

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