Breaking Down Brick Walls

We’ve all been there. You’re looking for information on an ancestor and you know it’s there, somewhere, but you can’t find it. You might find a hint of something but the data is incomplete or wasn’t what you were hoping for. Or, you find some great information and then all of a sudden the trail of information just stops.

That’s called a brick wall. Here are some ideas on how to get past the dreaded brick wall.

1. Adjust your search criteria

Are you working with surnames that were commonly misspelled? Try using a variation of the spellings or wildcard characters such as *, ?, # and !.

This article from explains how to use wildcard characters.

Not sure of birth or death dates? Try using a range of dates. You might know that a relative was born or died on a specific date but not all records will also be using that exact date, either by an error in the original document or when it was indexed.

Are you assuming that your ancestors lived in a specific location? Try broadening the search area. Maybe there were a county or even a state over from where you assumed they were?

If you start to lose track of the search criteria that you’ve been using, create a spreadsheet with what you’ve tried and note what results returned so you don’t start repeating stuff that you’ve already tried.

2. Take a break

Sometimes the best thing to do when facing a problem is just to take a break and walk away. Go take a walk. Work on another project or another person in your tree. Maybe even take a nap. Do something to get your mind away from the seemingly impossible task that has you stuck.

During your break, you might have a chance to do some brainstorming that might trigger a memory or come up with another resource or method to explore.

3. Try another research database or resource

There’s an endless amount of genealogy research sites that contain searchable records. If you think you’ve exhausted your search on one website, try another. Not every site has the same amount of content. Many data sources are becoming digitized and indexed on a daily basis and becoming searchable.

Make sure you signup to receive email notifications when new records become available as well so you don’t miss anything.

You might even need to go visit a local (or not so local) library or genealogy center. Make it a weekend trip and take the family!

4. Reach out to the social media community

There are endless amounts of Facebook groups and pages regarding genealogy and ancestry topics.

The groups are often specific to topics regarding heritages, regions, DNA results and general overall genealogy. Reach out to these groups and ask. You might run into a cousin or distant relative you didn’t know about on these pages. Someone might also be able to answer a question about your DNA and all those confusing numbers.

Reach out to these groups and ask. You may never find the answer you’re looking for if you never ask the question.

You might run into a cousin or distant relative you didn’t know. They might be looking for or have found the same thing that you are looking for.

5. Reach out to a local historical or genealogical society

Have you looked at the local library or genealogical society for your research area? This is often an untapped resource full of local or regional experts who may know where certain records are or someone that does. Check out this

Check out this blog that explains what a genealogical society is and how they can help you.

6. Read blogs

There are many genealogists who write a blog in conjunction with their own genealogy research. They’ve been where you are with brick walls. They’ve worked through them and they write blogs that detail their experiences to help others. Check out this

Check out this blog that highlights two genealogists who write about the research that they do. also published this list of genealogy blogs to check out for motivation, inspiration and learning some new tricks.

7. Think outside the box

There are a lot of things that your ancestor did during their lifetime that include places not traditionally searched for genealogical information.

Have you searched through school yearbooks? You can trace your ancestor through their educational career and learn about the hobbies and sports that they were involved in.

Do you know where your ancestor was employed? Does that employer still exist? Maybe they have their own archive of company newsletters? This could be great in leading you to articles that may have been written about or included your ancestor.

Was your relative on a church council, participated in a local heritage society or another organization? Records like these might not be available online but could be accessible by calling or visiting their offices.

Have you found a possible resource not typical to genealogical research but haven’t contacted them? Don’t be afraid to call or contact them to ask them if they have records involving your ancestor. They may understand your situation and may be more than happy to help you. They have a family too!

Have you ever hit a brick wall? Were you able to break it down? How long did it take? What methods did you use? Tell us about it in the comments!