Brick Walls
in Family History Research

Have you ever come up against 'brick walls’ in your family tree research? You reach a point where you just can’t get any farther back in a particular ancestral line, because the information you are looking for just doesn’t seem to be there?

Or you cannot locate that ancestor’s birth records, or find them in the census records, even though you know that they have to be there - somewhere?

A dead end, or a 'brick wall': a most frustrating experience, but one shared by all family historians at one point or another. And oh, the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment when it’s finally resolved, and that wall comes tumbling down!

Solid Brick Wall. Wikimedia Commons
Solid wall

I have helped a number of individuals to break through their 'brick walls', in stories which, as it turned out, had some very complicated twists and turns. However, I still have a few of my own that are unsolved, although I managed to chip away a bit at one of them recently.

In my experience, these situations often involve a child being born to an unwed mother – which, up until fairly recently, was something that was very much frowned upon. Women (and often the children they bore) would do their best to hide the fact that this had happened, resulting in some degree of difficulty on our part, a century or two later, sorting out the tangled web to get at the truth.

Often, women in these circumstances would move to a new area of the country and start over, in some cases leaving the child with the unwed mother's parents, and in others, taking the child along, but indicating that she was a widow.

In other cases, the husband died, and the wife remarried, followed by the children being listed under the new husband’s surname in the census and other documents.

In the UK, at least, the name that a person used on the documentation at marriage generally was the name by which he or she was known, and not necessarily the name given at birth. Which, of course, makes life interesting (?!) for us as family historians! (See my page regarding surname variations and name changes for more information).

A Few Examples of Brick Walls

In one situation I dealt with, the family indicated that the father one day kissed his daughter goodbye, walked out the back door of the family home, and disappeared. They never heard from him again. They did not know whether he had been a victim of foul play, or just what had occurred.

This was just one piece of a very large puzzle which a fellow researcher and I worked on. It was the last "loose end" that needed tying up in that story. I found a record of death for a man with the same name and year of birth in another part of England, some 25 years after his disappearance.

Every detail I subsequently managed to find about this second man seemed to point to a conclusion that it was the man who had disappeared. However, as there was nothing that would solidly link the two together, I felt that I could not be absolutely certain that the two were the same person until I was able to contact one of the descendants of his second family, from the time period near his death. Perhaps they would have some stories, or documents, which would identify the two as the same man.

I knew that ‘my man’ was born in one part of England (Location A), but that he and his mother had relocated to another part of England (Location B) at some point, when he was fairly young.

I posted a message on a message board, where I knew that one of his grandchildren had begun a family tree, stating that I wanted to get in touch with the descendants of this man and his wife. I made no mention of Location B.

Several months went by. I recently had a response from his granddaughter, who mentioned in passing that she had always been told that her grandfather was from Location B. Bingo!!

We are in the process of arranging to speak with her father over the telephone, who knew his father-in-law well, and has a number of memorabilia.


I spoke with the granddaughter and her father, by telephone. They subsequently provided me with a copy of the grandfather's birth certificate, which was in his possession when he passed away. This birth certificate completely and unequivocally erases any doubt, and establishes that the man who disappeared and the man who died in another part of England 25 years later are the same person. Eureka!

One of my Brick Walls

One of my own ‘brick walls’ involves the identity of my grandfather's father. My great-grandmother, Marian Rosetta James, told her son what was supposedly his father’s name, and the names of his paternal grandparents: Matthew Rufus Foster, son of Spencer and Flora Foster. It seems that his grandfather, at least, was aware of his existence, and had visited him a few times. However, I have searched in vain for any record of a family grouping with those names.

I have also been unable to locate my great-grandmother in any of the UK census records between 1851 and 1881, or to find her birth registration or christening record. While there do seem to be a couple of family groups with the names she gave for her parents and her, I have ruled them all out, on various grounds. Some women names Marian James died in England, prior to my great-grandmother's death in Canada; others were listed in the 1891 or later UK census documents, while she emigrated to Canada in 1884.

Other family members have also tried, over the years, to solve this one. Apparently, one even hired a professional genealogist, who also came up empty-handed. However, this was before the availability of on-line searching tools, which considerably shorten the time required to do a particular search, and allow both for variation in the names used in those searches, and for a broader area of search.

I recently found my grandfather's christening record, which had eluded us all for years, in the Surrey, England area. His mother had him christened under the forenames Joseph Henry, rather than under William Henry (which is what she later told him his 'real name' was), and thus it was difficult to find. Her name was on the document, but there were a sufficient number of discrepancies between that document and what we as a family had been told that I almost passed it by as not being the right family grouping.

Brick wall with cruciform pattern, Croatia.
Wikimedia Commons.
While the pattern with holes is intentional, in the context of this article, it could be seen as an example of a brick wall beginning to open up and reveal a bit of what is on the other side - i.e., some bits of information previously inaccessible.
Brick wall designed with holes

The document on its own was not sufficient to prove that these were my relatives. What clinched it was the infant listed immediately before them in the christening records, shown as living at the same address.

That infant's family name made my heart skip a beat: it was the married name of the sister of the man my great-grandmother eventually married. Further investigation revealed that the father of that infant was, indeed, the nephew of my great-grandmother's eventual husband. The parents of this infant are listed as the witnesses on Marian's marriage registration. The two records together proved the case for me.

I have yet to find the actual birth registration. He was christened six months after his birth, so he could have been born anywhere in the greater London, England area. But that's one little dent made in the brick wall, and I'll keep hammering away!

Hopefully, one day, my brick wall will look as delapidated as the brick walls in the photo below, and I will be able to knock it down with just a push or two!

Derelict House near Dyke, in England.
Wikimedia Commons
Derelict house in England

Summary and Conclusions

It takes a great deal of patience and slow, pain-staking detective work to break through these brick walls. I have been working on the second situation above, off and on, for the past ten years.

It is a most frustrating situation to be able to break through others' very thick brick walls, but not to be able to break through my own! Nevertheless, I learn a great deal from looking at those other situations, which I can apply to my own brick walls. I am sure that, with perseverance, and with help from others along the way, the pieces will eventually fall into place.

I'm hoping that this brick wall ultimately will fall, and I'll be able to link those ancestral lines up with others, or get farther along in my research involving those branches of my tree!

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Tell us about your Brick Walls!
(or offer suggestions on mine!)

Tell us about your brick walls, whether solved or not. Your solutions can be inspirational to others, including me, and provide new ideas for breaking down their walls; your unsolved brick walls can be the subject of comments and suggestions from others.

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