Every family historian will, without exception, at some point in their research hit the proverbial “brick wall”.
1. Get organized.
Keeping your information organized allows you to spend more time on research and less time looking for things, figuring out where you left off and determining what to do next. Before you dust off that old brick wall, create a genealogy cold case file using a three-ring binder. Binders offer portability and stability, and make it easy to see the facts laid out before you. You can grab one and go, easily flipping through your materials without risking the items spilling.
Create tabs in your binder for the following categories: What I Already Know, Supporting Documents, Questions to Answer, Steps Taken, Timelines and History, Interviews, Narratives, and Summary. You can modify these or add more tabs as you see fit along the way. Having tabs like these makes it easy to jump to the information you need and provides a place to make notes along the trail.
In addition to your binder, you’ll need a mobile, digital format for taking notes, clipping web pages, recording
interviews and snapping photos. The free Evernote program and its mobile apps are an ideal solution. Evernote allows you to collect, sync and retrieve notes no matter what internet-connected device you’re using: desktop computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet. You’ll be poised to capture notes every step of the way.
1. Define the problem.
Write down the problem or question. For example, “My DNA test shows I’m related to a guy who has a Kolbeck ancestor in Idaho who was born in the same German town as my Kolbecks. But I don’t know how his Kolbecks are related to my Kolbeck third-great-grandmother, or the Kolbeck who married my great-great-grandfather’s sister.” Yes, this is a real-life problem from my research.
2. Review what you know.
Go back over all your research related to the problem you’ve defined. Make sure each record really is for the person you thought, and that your interpretation of what the record says makes sense. This will confirm your findings and refresh your memory. You might find clues you’ve forgotten about or didn’t understand when you first discovered the record.
2. Retrieve all pertinent case information.
In genealogy, you start with what you know. The same goes for cold cases. Start by generating fresh versions of all the major reports and charts from your genealogy software on the people connected with your case, such as family group sheets, individual summary reports, pedigree charts and descendant charts. Printed reports and charts make it easier for you to see where the blanks are. Also retrieve all your pertinent files, books and any other documentation you have that’s associated with the genealogy mystery you want to solve.
3. Create a timeline.
As you review your research, create a timeline for the person or family. Each record documents a person in a place and time; your timeline should list the date and the person’s location for each record you’ve found. This is another way to spot mistakes (how can a child be born here when his parents are over there?) and long stretches when your relative is unaccounted for.
3. Re-examine the evidence.
Cold case investigators review every piece of evidence and all interviews from the beginning to the end of the file. They keep their eyes peeled for anything that might’ve been overlooked the first time around, and for opportunities to apply new technology to the old case.
To begin reacquainting yourself with the case, re-examine the evidence. Rather than jumping directly into the ancestor in question, start with her descendants. Comb through what you know about her children and grandchildren, retracing how you originally found the brick-wall ancestor. Meticulously read everything you have as if you were new to the case. Re-examine source documents, interviews and anything else remotely related.
Keep notes in your binder on questions that come up as you evaluate the materials and “facts” that need rechecking. You likely will generate new ideas for sources you’ll want to investigate as you identify gaps in your research.
After a thorough review, write down your brick wall dilemma or questions in just a few short sentences. Breaking down your brick wall into manageable questions will help you focus and stay on track. In addition, you’ll enjoy the smaller successes along the way as you fill in the blanks.
Invest substantial time in this step. You may think you’re very familiar with the case, but you may have forgotten certain details over the years. In particular, re-examine your sources. You probably know more now about the case, and genealogy research in general, than you did when you first reviewed these sources. Chances are good that you’ll spot something that now has meaning, but didn’t resonate with you before.
During your review, take this opportunity to identify which so-called “facts” have only one source, and locate at least one more, preferably a primary source. The more sources, the better. Ensure that all sources are cited properly. Double-check that you didn’t make an error in transcribing the information from the source documents into your genealogy database. This is your chance to clean up those errors.
4. Research the whole family.
You might hear this called “cluster genealogy” or the “FAN club” approach. (The “FAN Club” is genealogy author Elizabeth Shown Mills‘ term for your ancestor’s friends, associates and neighbors.) Look for records of your ancestor’s siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, coworkers and others. Our ancestors traveled with, settled near, witnessed records of, married and worked with with people they knew. Cluster genealogy records might reveal hidden connections.
4. Reinterview the witnesses.
Even if your witnesses are no longer living, review their journals, interview transcriptions or recordings, and any other details or records they left behind.
5. Re-examine the physical evidence.
When cold case detectives reopen a file, they not only revisit their paper file and call in their witnesses for reinterviewing, but they also reexamine the physical evidence. Your case may include physical evidence, too. Way back when, you may have based some of your assumptions about your brick wall on a photograph, family heirloom, artifact or gravestone. Reinspect all physical evidence with a magnifying glass.
But don’t stop there. Forensic scientists use microscopes and alternative light sources to reveal details not obvious to the naked eye. If you have photos where you can’t clearly make out all the details, digitize them at a high resolution and apply an alternative light source with a photo-editing program. Use your computer’s photo-editing software or check out free programs such as Gimp and Picasa that include tools for adjusting brightness, contrast and sharpness.
5. Create a plan.
Instead of searching aimlessly, create a research plan for how you’ll approach this problem. Figure out what you need to know and what records might provide that information. In my Case of the Confusing Kolbecks, I need to find each Kolbeck in the town’s church baptismal records and look for his parents’ names.
Make a list of the records you need and where they’re located (online, at a library, etc.). Check off each record one by one as you consult it.
6. Ask for help.
Whether it’s a person in your genealogical society or a professional, another researcher might notice clues you didn’t and offer new suggestions. You also can search on Facebook for genealogy groups and local societies. For example, I belong to a genealogy group for the area where my Kolbecks came from, so I can ask there for people who’ve researched the same family.
7. Map out the bigger picture.
Criminal investigators rely on understanding human behavior. People typically travel the same routes and rarely stray from their usual habits. Therefore, plotting out where crimes occur can be invaluable in determining where a criminal resides or will strike next.
This theory also applies to genealogical cases. By taking the time to plot on a map known ancestor locations and movements, you can see patterns emerge. Download the free mapping program Google Earth and learn how to get started by watching the free “Google Earth for Genealogy” video at GenealogyGems.com.
This is also a great time to learn more about the time, place and people surrounding the case. Study local, regional and social histories, newspapers and biographies. Learning about the historical events, geographical boundaries and migration patterns of your ancestor’s time may lead you to look for clues in places you hadn’t considered before. Google Books <books.google.com> is a great place to start looking for local and regional histories and other historical books, as many old volumes are digitized and available for free.
8. Round up the suspects and identify new witnesses.
At the end of the classic film “Casablanca,” Capt. Louis Renault picks up the phone and declares, “Major Strasser has been shot … round up the usual suspects.” You know who the usual suspects are in your research: the folks you suspect are relatives, and all the others circling them and lurking in the shadows.
All good detectives start by looking at the family first and then broaden the search to include friends and acquaintances. In your genealogy research, look carefully at siblings and neighbors, and then spread out even further by looking into others who share the surname in a given area.
Once you locate a genealogical document with information on an ancestor, it’s easy to fixate on the page and stop using the search index that brought you there. But the search feature remains a valuable tool. When I found my great-grandfather in the small mining town of Gillespie, Ill., in the 1910 census, I went back to the search tool and did a search of all German-born residents living in his neighborhood. I knew he’d recently immigrated and probably knew very little English. These were the people he was most likely associating with. As it turned out, one of those Germans showed up as a witness on his naturalization papers. Another was a key player in enticing him to go to settle in Gillespie upon arrival.
Just like a cold case investigator, continue the search for new witnesses. These are the witnesses to your ancestor’s major life events, such as baptisms, marriages, naturalizations, land purchases and so on. As you review all your source documents, make a list of all witnesses and then search on those witnesses’ backgrounds to see what other connections they might have to your ancestor.
Your ancestors are surrounded by a community, or cluster, of potential leads. Just take a walk in your local