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.

24 Comments

    • Monika

      Try GENEANET! I broke through a very thick brick wall on my mother’s side of the family (my mom is French) using this French ancestry site.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @C.Jaquez: Hi there, have you tried searching for Mexican records through the Card Catalog? This search function allows you to narrow down a search to a specific area, such as mexico. The following article explains how to use the Card Catalog: http://ancstry.me/2gF6xmb

  1. Monika

    Excellent article. Good sources to consider when hitting brick walls are genealogical societies in the towns or communities the ancestors came from. There are also groups that form genealogy clubs in various communities. Some brick walls are often created by familylore. So many of us have a need to associate ourselves with important people or better yet royalty. My husband’s great-grandfather immigrated from Germany to the United States. After his death, his wife wrote a “Family History” while living with her youngest daughter. I traced down the grand children of this youngest daughter with the help of data that I obtained on ancestry.com. They shared this “Family History” excerpt from great-grandma which is….well, let us say “very embellished”! In it it mentions the parents of great-grandpa and claims that great-great-grandpa was an important ships captain in charge of a ship traveling the Rhine River. He was supposed to have been born in Sasbach. When great-grandpa came to America, he changed his name from “Bitsch” to “Beach” (for obvious reasons :-)). After years of hitting brick walls I discovered that there is a “Bitsch Club” in Germany that has done extensive research into this line. Now who would have expected that?? With the help of one of these members (and the fact that I knew great-grandpa’s birth date), they found a baptismal record for a person with the same name who was baptized two days after that birth date. (Customarily, what we refer to as the “birth records” of centuries ago are really “baptismal records”. They did not have “Recorder’s Offices” in those days, but–because of the high infant mortality rate, newborn babies were customarily baptized on the same day as they were born.) The two day discrepancy did not bother me much, because I have come across other situations where for one reason or another babies were baptized a few days later.) Anyway, the father of this baby was, according to the records found, “a fisherman who owned his own boat and fished the Rhine River”. So, I guess he was the “Captain” of his own ship! This baptismal record also gave the maiden name of great-grandpa’s mother as being “Vogelbach” , which does not match up with the name that great-grandma had written into her “Family History”. As such, my husband’s family was very reluctant to accept my research. Then my husband took the ancestry DNA test and….wouldn’t you know it, this DNA test connected him with numerous cousins from the Vogelbach line!!! I guess the idea is “reach out in all directions”!

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Monika: Thanks so much for sharing your experience and insight. We’re glad to hear you have been able to work through this brick wall and wish you the best of luck with your further research.

  2. Ernie Kapphahn

    After many years of not being able to identify my wife’s ancestor, Dr. Henry Burkley b. in Delaware 1811, dna provided the clue as to his family. I could find no Burkleys or Berkleys in Delaware around 1810 and my wife had no dna matches who had ancestors with any spelling of Berkley. Without any real evidence I assumed that Burkley may have been a German name as he had married into a German family. About two years after testing with AncestryDNA, a match appeared on her list with the last name Burkleo and who had ancestors named Burkleo and Van Burkleo and searching this family I found that they were in Delaware in 1810. Further I found that there were several doctors in the family and that one was a Dr Henry Van Burkleo. The family was originally from Holland. Their name was simplified, dropping the Van, and later Anglicized to Burkley and in my wife’s family, the spelling was changed to Berkley. It was a big leap over the brick wall that couldn’t have happened without that dna match.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Ernie: Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us. We’re delighted to hear how your DNA Matches have helped you in breaking down this brick wall. Good luck with your further research!

  3. Bill Hodgson

    I would recommend anyone struggling to research their English ancestry before 1837 to read ‘Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors: A Guide to Research Methods for Family Historians’ by John Wintrip. There is a review by Paul Milner at http://www.milnergenealogy.com.

  4. Cathie

    I always was told Scotland had the best kept records.
    I have been searching for the birth and death of my maternal 2nd gre-grandfather, Thomas Nisbet, find only his marriage certificate Bo.ness, Scotland, to Margaret Nisbet (Yes she had the same last name as he), she is listed from Stirling, they were married 1827, both parishes show their marriage. I continue on as they moved to Glasgow area for work and most of their children born there, I find him in the Glasgow census for 1841 and 1851, Thomas, Margaret and their children. on the 1861 he is not there, Margaret is listed as head, meaning she is a widow. I have searched and searched for his birth record which is from 1798-1803, and now even in the Glasgow archives cannot find a death of a Thomas Nisbet. He would have died between 1851-1860, according to the records. I find this very odd.
    I have used FamilySearch and went thru all the Thomas Nisbets of various spellings in and arround Bo,ness, Scotland, and cannot find parent there with a child Thomas.
    Driving me crazy. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks you.
    Cathie

    • Bill Hodgson

      Scotland only has good records after 1855, when civil registration was introduced, but not before. Deaths were not recorded before 1855. Unlike in England, where burials were routinely recorded in parish registers, burials in Scotland were not. If you have not found a record relating to his death, it is probably because he died between 1851 and 1855 and the burial was not recorded.

  5. Joyce

    Some of my brick walls could be alleviated by DNA matches who have NO TREES…this has become crazy as about 99% of DNA these days have NO trees.

    I have gotten around a lot of brick walls by “thinking outside the box” and using resources other than ancestry.

    Try archives.org, google books, hathitrust, and especially familysearch.org.

    A great way to find sources in the wiki on familysearch is to google the place you want info on with the last terms in the search entering familysearch.org. Usually the link you want is in the first few hints. Same with BMD’s for a specific area.

    Do the same things with archive.org, google books, hathitrust etc –you might be surprised at what you find.

    Search in WORLDCAT for various genealogies and other info to see if you might be able to view book on the family or the subject–you put in your zip code and it will tell you what libraries have a copy.

    Tons of resources out there…Use the card catalog too! Every single database ancestry has, as well as published genealogies they have are there.

    Recently I was looking for someone with an unknown name, but I knew the occupation and where they should be living.

    Searching in the card catalog pulled up every person in that area who had that occupation.

    There are tons of tools, and many people simply do not know about them.

    BUT don’t expect miracles all the time. Even with all the books I have purchased on various surnames I still have a few brick walls which I probably will never resolve.

    Good luck and happy hunting.

    Joyce

  6. Joyce

    BTW in addition, something i did recently for someone else–she had a last name in family that was constantly butchered BUT we knew the spouses and children’s names. I did a search leaving the last name totally blank, and also took outlast names for the kids etc.

    Low and behold, there was the family-with the surname butchered beyond all recognition BUT ancestry spotted a family with same spouse first name as well as the kids.

    Also if you have a name that is often abbreviated such as Geo for George, Chas for Charles etc search under those nicknames…you might just find them.

    Familysearch is more intuitive so I ALWAYS look there when I am having trouble…often I can find a census or other doc, see what the spelling etc looks like, and then I can find it on ancestry, which has a LOT of transcript errors.

    DO CORRECTIONS when you see that so others can find them too. Making connections to others really helps.

    NOW if we could just get ppl to put trees on their DNA!!!

  7. Jane

    I haven’t had a chance to read through all of the above Q&A’s, but I usually learn something new from ANCESTRY in these types of exchanges ~ so thank you in advance! There’s one item on which I already have a question though: you mention a “DECLARATION OF INTENT TO NATURALIZE”, but don’t say where to locate these forms? Where would I find these on ANCESTRY please?

    • Jenna

      Jane, on Ancestry, click Search > Immigration&Travel > Citizenship & Naturalization Records, then enter the individual’s info.
      On FamilySearch, I would first enter the individual’s info on Search Records, restricting records results to United States. Then, from the long list of results, limit to Collections of “Migration & Naturalization” (make sure to click the blue “Show All” next to it, so you don’t just see the “Top 5”). Next, check the boxes for the specific sets of records and indexes you think might include your individual. For example, United States Germans to America Index, 1850-1897.
      Best of luck to you!

  8. Leigh

    I would love some hints about overcoming lack of proof of marriage. I hopefully have isolated my great grandmother’s mother through DNA matches. However I can’t find a marriage. 1860, 1870 & 1880 census shows them living in Tippah County, Mississippi. However when I called the courthouse there I was informed that it burned down in 1858 (historical society says 1864 by those Yankees) So the marriage license is gone. I’ve located my great grandmother death certificate — no mother’s name, and unfortunately I can’t locate her brothers or sisters death certificates. I don’t think that the family was wealthy enough to have a will. . . at one point census reports real estate value of $650.00 dollars and personal property of $350.00 (this is my great great grandfather I think). I’m willing to travel to Tippah, Mississippi –but what other documents could prove this?

    • Leigh

      Not enough greats — Know great grandmother. Think I know great great through DNA matches –and if I’m right her father –my great great great grandfather probably doesn’t have a will. I also know that her husband wouldn’t have a will either. He was receiving a Confederate Civil War Pension –and he qualified for it because of his lack of income.

  9. Susan Covert (Riches)

    I am in desperate need of some guidance, as I am at a complete loss on how to go about finding the name of my biological father. I had my DNA done and have found 2 second cousins on my fathers side. This has confused me even more as they are American and I was born in England in 1949 and moved to Canada in 1952. My one cousin has said that we must share great grandparents but i don’t even know how to figure that out and he doesn’t either as I don’t have a name. My Mother only told me that she had an affair and that I was the product of that affair which is very frustrating. I would truly be so thankful if someone could lead me in the right direction or am I not going to find out who he was because I don’t know his name and should not waste any more of my time…

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Susan, we are sorry to hear that your search is causing you so much frustration and we know it’s not easy to find a solution to your big mystery. Taking the DNA test was a very good first step, and we would like to suggest some search tips to go further, hoping that this might help you. You can find the tips here: http://ancstry.me/2geraFJ

      • SPMurph

        I have been reading a trying very hard to follow what the directions are for adding new found DNA matches. But I don’t really understand.
        Here’s my story, My sister and I have both taken the Ancestry DNA test. She is showing up as a half sibling! SHOCKER!! How do I add a 1/2 sister to my tree?
        After much research I find that I am the product of my mother having had an affair. I have also found that I have a niece
        “Amount of Shared DNA 989 centimorgans shared across 39 DNA segments”. We have made a personal connection. How do I add her to my tree?
        She was adopted and looking for her biological father.
        I have also spoken with my next match
        “Amount of Shared DNA 944 centimorgans shared across 41 DNA segments. I believe due to their age that we are first cousins. Does this mean his fathers brother would be my biological father?
        I probably sound very confused. My apologies, but I am truly confused.
        Some help would be appreciated.
        Thank you,

  10. Tom Johnson

    My brick wall involves my paternal line. I was able to put a crack in it recently through a Y-DNA test that definitively placed my father’s line in Ireland with the Irish Type III clan. However, my oldest known ancestor in this line was born in 1800 in Maryland. Any suggestions on how to bridge the gap between this ancestor and those who preceded him? I’m especially interested in eventually finding the intrepid soul who made the trip across the pond. Any ideas are welcomed.

  11. Lorie-Ann Noyes

    I am at a brick wall right now. I’m researching my brother in law’s tree for him. Through the DNA program he shares a lot DNA with another person that has tree here on Ancestry. According to Ancestry, they are very close cousins. I have research through the info I have & the info of other trees. I can not make any surname connections. Is there some way I could get some help with this?
    Thank you!

  12. Shelly

    My brick wall is actually that of my great grandmother. She immigrated from Scotland alongside my grandfather and great grandfather in 1926 and arrived in New Brunswick aboard the Montnairn. I know what I believe to be her maiden name, all the dates, location (Kilbirnie, Ayrshire), etc but have been unable to reach back beyond the birth of my grandfather. There are rumors that she may have been previously married (she would have been very young). I cannot locate a marriage license or birth certificate or anything. Any tricks? Help!

Join the Discussion

We really do appreciate your feedback, and ask that you please be respectful to other commenters and authors. Any abusive comments may be moderated. For help with a specific problem, please contact customer service.