The Doors in Your Brick Walls, by Juliana Smith

Alexander Graham Bell once said, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” When we run into those brick walls we often stumble upon in family history, sometimes we’re so busy staring at that one closed door that we overlook a bunch of open doors. Let’s take a look.

Unmarried Siblings
Married siblings with children represent the potential to connect with cousins, but sometimes the focus on our direct ancestor and siblings with causes us to overlook that spinster aunt or bachelor uncle. The fact is, we should be researching every sibling thoroughly because while the records of one child may not include the information you need, those of a sibling may include much more detail–details that can help us past that brick wall.

Died Young
Sometimes there were siblings that we don’t even know about. High infant and child mortality rates were a fact of life for our ancestors. The siblings of our ancestors who were born and died between censuses may hold the key to that closed door. Look for them in family cemetery plots and in vital records indexes. For mothers who were alive in 1900 and 1910, the U.S. federal census asked for the number of children born, and the 1910 census also asks how many were still alive that year. Mortality schedules will also list the children who died within a census year. Once you identify a child who died young, look for birth, and death records, as well as any church or other records that may have been created during their short lives.

Half Siblings
Half siblings still share one parent with your ancestors and their records could contain information on that parent that your direct ancestor’s record does not.

Cousins will share the same grandparents as your ancestor and you may even find a grandparent living with them for a time. The family Bible or other important heirlooms may have passed down through that line and that information may be waiting for you in the hands of a distant cousin.

Current Generations
Even if you think you know all you need to about current generations, researching them thoroughly builds a strong foundation for your research. Contemporary records have more detail and could have clues to ancestral origins that older records do not. Don’t skip over Grandma Betty’s records simply because she told you all you need to know. You never know what she forgot to mention — or decided to hold back.

Step Families and In-Laws
Families from the old country often settled near others from their old neighborhood. These families often intermarried, so if you’re having trouble crossing the pond with your family, do a little digging into the origins of stepmothers and the in-laws of your ancestor and his or her siblings. You may find connections that reach back into the old country. The same thing applies to witnesses, sponsors, and business associates. Often you’ll find that not only do they share the same hometown, they also share an ancestor or two.

With so many records now indexed and available online, it’s easier to open up these often overlooked doors than it was in the past. Have you had an unexpected door open in your research? Share your success story with us in the comments section below.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

21 thoughts on “The Doors in Your Brick Walls, by Juliana Smith

  1. Dear Juliana,

    This imformation may help someone. A source I found for locating several of my father sibling and parents was the State Historical Society. They had all the records in boxes ther. I found may of my brickwalls and leds for other information I was looking for.


  2. Hi, I am researching a family I was positive had its roots in Canada. However one marriage proved elusive for quite a while until, in despair, I went back over some later records and noticed that one daughter’s death certificate stated she was born in Suffolk. I must have ignored this in my passion for the Canadian origins or put it down to her senile dementia as there is no other connection with Suffolk, but guess where I found the marriage? Carolyne

  3. I found my maternal great-grandmothers information in a biography of her second husband in a county history. I looked through the index, saw her second husband’s last name and in his biography was her maiden name, parent’s names, some dates and where she was born. So far that has been my only serendipity occurrence. Shirley

  4. I learned early on the value of researching siblings rather than simply taking the focused “direct line” approach.

    1) Relatives of those siblings may have already completed a significant amount of research which you can tap into. The more you flesh out those siblings’ histories, the more likely you are to bump into someone who is reasearching the same family. This has happened to me at least 8 or 10 times. In one instance, I was able to procure dozens of family photos as well as finally piece together the puzzle parts that didn’t quite fit. I truly wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of another family researcher.

    2) Death certificates can provide a treasure trove of unexpected info. In getting a death certificate for one of my mother-in-law’s great uncles, I found out his sister was his informant. This in turn led me to her death certificate. Her trail had run cold about 30 years earlier. Turns out she had moved from Chicago to Oklahoma. The informant line is the first one I check when I get my hands on the death certficate.

    3) I read the censuses. For small communties, I read the entire census; for larger cities (like Chicago) I’ll read as many pages before and after my relatives that I have time for (easier to do when the census-taker had good handwriting). Early on in my research, this got me beyond a brick wall because I discovered a brother living next door, and subsequent research into his tree provided me with several generations that I might never have found on my own.

  5. Good reminder. Always check the siblings. Sometimes there are errors in the reports. Like the brother in one family who “never married” according to the family history. However, when I looked at the records for the family I learned that he had married after all —to a divorced woman, one day after her divorce was final. The records and newspaper articles from his marriage and his sudden death just a few months later helped my research by naming many other relatives and filling out the picture of their lives.

  6. I wrote letters to half a dozen second cousins, none of whom I knew, requesting any information about out mutual great- grandparents. It took quite awhile for me to figure out who and where these cousins were, so I was very disappointed when I got no response from any of them. But then, about a year later, one of them wrote to me, informing me that another second cousin (one I didn’t know about and so hadn’t contacted) had donated our great-grandparents photo album (dating from 1869) to a local museum. It was a great find. I have had several other ‘great finds’ from first cousins.

  7. I take a laptop, digital camera, tape recorder and flat-bed scanner with me on information gathering trips. It is generally the older folks that have all the treasures and they are always amazed when you take a picture of them and put it into the computer showing them the results. They will never let you take their precious pictures or heirlooms out of their house but generally they will let you scan and photograph them in their presence. If you can ever get one picture on your scanner and into the computer, take the time to do a little computer magic to make the picture better than the original. You will be amazed at the conversation this generates. Don’t forget to ask permission to record the conversation and be prepared for all of the treasures to be pulled out of the closets. I have done this several times and a planned one hour visit turns into an all day family history lesson. Several of my brick walls have crumbled by bits of information gathered in just listning and being interested. Later I always send them a computer enhanced copy of their favorite picture as a thank-you.


  8. I had hit a brick wall with an ancestor. All I had was the tombstone dates, but no death record or obituary. The local history book indicated he was from Baden, Germany. I searched all I could to no avail.

    I then was looking in the State census records and saw that another relative (same last name) lived with the family in the 1875 census. I researched this person through death records and his obituary. I then researched all his siblings. In going back to the State censuses I found that their mother came to the US and I found her obituary which had where she was from.

    All this has transpired over years, but I am ready to order the films for this locale from the Family History Center and am hopeful it will give me the information I need.

    Never overlook what you think you already know. The family had never moved so I had ignored those state censuses, yet they have held some valuable information.

  9. I had a major breakthrough over Christmas researching my late husband’s Canadian relatives for his aunt. I had been searching for years for a Margaret Burray’s parents in the Scottish OPRs and although someone had done this elaborate tree of her parents and grandparents I could find no evidence to support it in the Scottish records.

    It was while searching on Ancestry in the Canadian records for her daughters who married two Hall brothers in Quebec in the 1860s and 1870s that I had the breakthrough. Helen Wallace Waddell married a William Burray Hall son of a Susan Burray and a Hammond Gowen Hall and her sister Mary married a Peter Wallace Hall his brother. They were both from a place called Leeds in Megantic County in Quebec and searching back through those records I found a whole host of Burrays from about 1820 or so. I suspect that is why I can’t find any Burrays in Scotland for the names on the family tree – they emigrated more or less en masse. I have a lot of work still to do but it was so exciting to find a link among relatives I would never have thought to check unless I had been being thorough in checking out all her offspring and their marriages.

  10. As you and some of the other posters have mentioned, focus on siblings, married or unmarried, those who die young, etc. I have paid special attention to brothers of my ancestors who died in the Civil War, and it was useful in positively identifying someone I thought was the oldest brother in the family but was not sure – he named two of his sons for deceased brothers (one of them had a very unusual name). Another brother (my great-great uncle) was listed with his wife on two censuses as boarders living with a particular family, and on the third census that brother was listed as head of house with the son of the other family living with them. By focusing on the family that this couple lived with for over 20 years, I found the son of a woman raised by them after her mother, the close friend of the wife, died. This gentleman had many letters, pictures, and documents his mother had inherited from the couple, who had no children of their own to inherit, and he generously passed them to me. This material was and continues to be an incredible source of information and clues on this family – the fact that the great-great uncle was a 3-term sheriff of Dallas County, the fates of several other siblings, the maiden name of his father’s second wife, etc.

    And as also mentioned previously, the death certificates of these people have a great deal of information that will lead to finding other information.

  11. Your comment about half siblings, was of interest to me since a half sister was the key to my breaking down a over hundred year old brick wall. Several years ago I discovered what seemed to be my 2nd great grandmother as a widow with a daughter in the 1880 census. My mother was sure I had the wrong person since she knew of no older half siblings. About a year ago looking for my 2nd great grandfather Peter, I found guardianship records of his being appointed the Guardian to a step daughter Louisa. When I started posting my family tree on I included the first marriage and the older half sister just because I like to be thourgh. Lo and behold I was contacted by a descendent of my 2nd Great Grandmother’s sister, His branch never knew she had remarried and had three more children before dying in 1886. He then supplied me with three generations of ancestors back in Germany as well as knowing where the daughter Louisa ended up. Several years of research had gone no where, it was the half sibling no one knew existed that broke my brick wall.

  12. Another half-sister anecdote. I have just broken through a brick wall I have been pounding on for five years. I had found a great deal of information on my great grandfather here in the U.S., but couldn’t trace him back to Switzerland. I located the obituary and death certificate of his sister. Her daughter had included the (anglicized version) of her mother and father. The father’s name was so common as to be of little help, but the mother’s name was very unusual. After considerable searching, I found the correct spelling and located the city of origin in Switzerland.

    Then, one day I decided to search World Connect for this unusual name. Up popped a family tree that surely looked like it could be hers. I wrote the contributor of the tree, and he responded within a few days! Everything he said pointed to a connection. With the help of a volunteer in the Canton of Schaffhausen, I have located a great deal more information. Seems my great great grandfather married three times and had 18 children. My great grandfather was the eldest born in the first marriage. His half sister was the fifth child in the third marriage. Without researching this half-sister, I would still be trying to get through that brick wall.

  13. I began to read “Doors in Your Brick Walls” with hopeful anticipation as I have not found any door in my brick wall for years. The birth year of my ancestor being 1769 in Pennsylvania, with no information on the parents or siblings or even location of birth, makes it very difficult to find sufficient records in this time period. Though I have researched all the children and collateral families, I have not found that door. I wish there were more ideas published on
    methodology for that particular time period, that is the Revolutionary War. Where are records for people not serving in that War–Quakers, perhaps Loyalists? Perhaps there were none.

  14. For years I have been stumped in discovering the parentage of my gg-grandfather in Rochdale,England. Googling his name in December, up came a land sale from 1863 mentioning his wife’s name and a daughter along with his grandfatherand his grandfather’s wife’s first name! I sent for a copy and a copy of the grandfather’s will. This gave his son’s name, his grandson and mentioned a grandaughter but not her name. Attached was a Chancery Court order regarding the grandaughter’s guardian and giving her name, Esther Monday Turner. I had seen her name earlier in searching Family Search. Going back to it again gave me her parents and date of Christening and her brother’s date of Christening. What a find!

  15. I too struck paydirt when I received the 1932 obituary from Manchester, Iowa for my husband’s gggmother’s sister. Mary E. Ohl Vincent had died in 1888 and had a short death notice but 44 years later her sister got a front page story about her family’s trek in a wagon across Pennsylvania,Indiana and Illinois–stopping to see Lincoln and Douglas debate. She had lived long enough to be an important elder citizen in the town. There were many details about the family that I would never have found anywhere else. The volunteer at the library in Iowa sent it to me when I requested other records over 15 years ago. She taught me a valuable lesson about researching siblings.

  16. Hello, Mrs. Smith: I read your articles as well as the Ancestry magazine but I am at a point I really need some help as to where to track ancestors. My grandfather came to Autauga County, Alabama, and married my grandmother in 1953. I found their marriage license and their family on the 1860 federal census in Autauga County, Alabama; by the 1870 census they were in the federal census of Wetumpka, Elmore County, Alabama, and then in the 1880 federal census they were in Chilton County, Alabama, were my father was born in 1874. I do not believe they moved since during these periods the counties in Alabama were changing. I know that in the cities you have telephone directories, city directories, church registers, newspapers, etc., but where do I go to find information on ancestors in the rural communities or even those living outside of rural communities? Thanks for any help you can give me.

  17. #7 Gary….I travel the same way..especially overseas. The older family will pull out albums and my husband gets his family talking while camcorder runs quietly in background…we record the fingers pointing at photos and snap frames later. And the digital camera is used for any closeups!

  18. Once again – or still – the print function doesn’t work! This is helpful info, but a printed copy would sure help!

  19. Pingback: Doors in Your Brick Walls — Paul K. Graham, Certified Genealogist

  20. I had been searching for the maiden name of my 3rd grt grandmother. I found where she son, (not my direct line) had filed for a Blind Pension in S.E. Missouri. He had listed his mother’s maiden name.

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