7 ways to break through a family tree brick wall


13 May 2024
How to smash a family history brick wall tips and advice with family historian Peter Day How to smash a family history brick wall tips and advice with family historian Peter Day
'How can I break through my family history brick wall?' - this is a question that family historians spend a great deal of energy considering. To follow we have a simple set of 7 steps for you to work through and really increase your chances of research success. In addition, we have an inspiring case study by family history researcher Peter Day - who had been facing his brick wall for 15 years, before he finally struck upon a new approach, which we share here.

How family historian Peter Day solved his brick wall - after 15 years!

'I built the Russell tree up as far as William 15 years or more ago, and then got stuck,' writes Peter Day. 'I’d re-visited several times, but with no progress, and no clues. This time I succeeded – by persistence, a new approach and striking lucky.' Peter was hunting for his clay pipe maker ancestor William Russell.

Peter's first tip: cast a wide net and search the web

Peter writes: ' I started with a general search on the Web. I soon found a useful-looking paper on the topic of clay tobacco pipes from an archaeological perspective. This paper from the mid-1970s focussed on tobacco pipes made in London.'

Simply Googling it can lead you to very specific information. Peter's archaeological leads provided him with information about clay pipe makers, one of whom was his ancestor - and gave his address... Peter: 'I now had a definite link between William Russell and Bristol.'

Peter's second tip: persistence pays, so keep delving

Some more delving turned up another work ‘Clay Tobacco-pipes, With Particular Reference to the Bristol Industry’. This proved to be a work of 1800+ pages, published by “Parks Canada, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs” (?!). Unsurprisingly, the only copy that I could locate was in Canada, and at £75 GBP + eye-watering postage and packing, I was looking for a more practical means of access.

Public libraries can often source material that us mortals cannot. They are an under-used resource for genealogy. In this case the Hertfordshire Library Service came up with a link to a freely downloadable copy.

Peter's third tip: timeline the dates

Peter looked carefully at the dates that he can uncovered so far. Peter writes: 'The dates jig-sawed neatly: William’s date of birth, estimated from the age at death in Wapping, was 1743. If we assume that William started his apprenticeship at age 14, as was the norm, then we also arrive at a DoB of 1743. I now knew that William Russell, tobacco-pipe maker of Wapping, was not born there, and that the endless hours that I had spent scouring images of parish registers from Wapping outwards had been wasted.'

Timelining dates helps you spot gaps, inconsistencies and duplicates in your information.

Peter's fourth tip: look for less usual names in the family

Peter writes: 'It transpires that William has a bother, Joel, a reasonable assumption to make for the moment. Whereas the name William Russell is as common as muck, and Edward Russell not far behind, Joel Russell is a rare name indeed.

'This helped enormously, because all I had to do was find a family headed by an Edward, with sons William and Joel who have dates of birth close to those suggested by the dates that they took up their apprenticeships. I looked for candidate families by starting the search with Joel Russell.'

Search for family members with less usual names, as they can be easier to identify with confidence.

Keen to read further smashing brick wall tips? Read family historian Peter Day's full research article in the June issue of Family Tree

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How to solve a family history puzzle: 7 steps to success

Brick wall step 1: Get to know your ancestors

Brick wall step 2: Watch out for variations

Brick wall step 3: Study a map

Brick wall step 4: Discover your surname origins

Brick wall step 5: Grow your tree online

Brick wall step 6: Broaden your search

Brick wall step 7: Archives and books

Discover the Family Tree set of simple seven steps to help you to break through a family tree brick wall.

Once you’ve started researching your family history, you’re likely to find some of your ancestors very easily, but others will be more elusive. However, don’t give up now, because when you’re breaking through your family history brick walls this can be where family history gets really interesting. Our tips will help you gain the knowledge you need to make these intriguing new discoveries.

Brick wall step 1. Get to know your ancestors

Spend some time looking carefully at the details that you do know, as this can help you spot family matches in unusual locations.

Brick wall step 2. Watch out for variations

Nowadays we are very precise about our personal details (such as the spelling of our names, our birthplace and our birthdays), but our ancestors may have been much more vague. Look out for similar entries, as they could provide leads.

Brick wall step 3. Study a map

Your ancestors may come from an area that you’re not familiar with. By looking at a map you can get to know the names of neighbouring towns and villages – which could be possible places that your ancestors moved to or from.

Brick wall step 4. Discover your surname origins

If the trail goes cold and you’re not sure where to look for your ancestors next, research their surname origins. Many surnames originate from a specific location – and so looking in such an area could increase your chances of finding your ancestors by that name.

Brick wall step 5. Grow your tree online

There are many online tree websites to choose from. The advantages are that many of them offer ‘tree-matching’ tools – which will link you to fellow family historians who may share your ancestors. They may already have solved the brick wall and be willing to help you.

Brick wall step 6. Broaden your search

If you can’t find your ancestors in the parish registers, for instance, perhaps try looking in the Nonconformist registers. Or if they’re not showing up in the census records, perhaps they went overseas so search for them in the passenger lists.

Brick wall step 7. Archives and books

The internet is a treasure-trove of information for family historians, but it doesn’t contain everything. If you can’t find the records you need online, you will need to look elsewhere. Record offices, archives and family history societies could be your next port of call.