Sunday, May 7, 2017

Field Notes: Writing Out A Brick Wall

I started a new series recently. Brick Wall Ancestors. Thought it'd be good to release them out into the wild and do a little crowd-sourcing. If they are brick walls for me, they may be for someone else too. Well, wouldn't you know it, seeing as they are Brick Walls and all, truthfully I had not really looked into them recently.  Sure, I revisit them about once a year - mostly just looking for any new records that might have cropped up. Well, things change when you start to write a blog about it! Or maybe I should say, when you start to write about it. Period. Laying it out linearly, putting into words what I had and had not discovered just threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing! In a good way, mind you.

The thing with writing, with telling a tale, the story needs to progress. Getting from point A to point B needs logical explanation. Different than records only. Records confirm a fixed place in time. Handy to verify someone was somewhere sometime. BUT how did they get there? And why? Telling a non-fiction tale like we do with our ancestors requires research, logic, a knowledge of (then) current events and even laws of the time.

So, as I set out to write up my first Brick Wall Ancestor in story form I realized I had very little 'meat', which made me dig. And question. The facts that I had amassed (or not) would not adequately depict what I was trying to convey.

I began to think in new ways.

Which lead me to new discoveries.

Which broke my Brick Walls.

No, not all of them - but the first three I originally had planned on writing about gained parents, or a place of death, or two new generations of ancestors! Plus a whole slew of new places to travel to to really dig for additional clues. (Because we all know, only a fraction of records are available online!)

Here's what I learned:
  • Gather ALL your information before you begin writing. It's as much about debunking or negative evidence as it is about acquiring new positive information. 
  • Check the online databases frequently - you never know when some new record set will be digitized and available for viewing.
  • Utilize social media and online genealogy research groups. If you are researching in Ohio for example, but live in Kansas you could travel to Ohio yourself (you should, eventually) or you could find an appropriate online group and post your research questions there. Most of the groups are filled with people who have experience researching in that group's particular area.
  • Do you have three conflicting sources of birth location? Make sure the county boundaries didn't change, or the town itself didn't get renamed. (see below)
  • Use maps. Old maps, Google maps, county maps. I have a tab with Google maps open all the time when I research - I put in point A (say, Cleveland OH, for example) and point B (say, Chautauqua NY) It sounds like quite a distance in my head, but when I look at it on Google Maps I see it is a 135 mile straight shot. Not out of the question for 'commuter' travel in 1850. In my research case, Cleveland may have been the  closest big city to obtain goods and services. I also use the heck out of  the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries.
  • Fill in the years between the census with City Directories. Your ancestor might not turn up every year, but it gives you a clearer picture of their movements. And their occupations! Also, notice the neighbors. Immigrants especially tended to live near kin or countrymen - always another clue!
  • Check land records, marriage/church records and wills. Quite a number are digitized now, if you are unable to travel to your research location. FamilySearch has a great number of unindexed records to scroll through - from home - and even more if you visit a Family History Center in you area.
  • FAN research! Friends, associates and  neighbors. Sideways research always, always brings me new discoveries. 
  • Don't leave out newspapers and other forms of social context. Depending on where you are researching, newspapers can pre-date some other types of documentation.
  • Military records! Pensions, widow's pensions, muster rolls, battles - they all can hold a clue.  
  • Family lineage and Town history books. Google Books, Internet Archive, FamilySearch, Ancestry, WorldCat - there is a vast number of books that might contain the information you seek. My Faulkner lineage was 'hidden' in a book on the lineage of the Bull/Wells family. (Which I initially learned about from an online genealogy group
  • Question everything! Always ask 'why?' or 'How?'. Why did they attend church 50 miles and two counties away from their farm? How did they arrive where they did, and why did they leave?
  • Now, WRITE IT OUT! Write out everything you know. Tell a story. Start with the facts and fill in the blanks. You will end up with a more solid idea of where to research next, and you might just discover a hidden clue or two that will bring that Brick Wall crashing.  

I'm not going to say that this is necessarily easy - or quick. But if you have the desire to really break through a Wall or two then putting in the time, the 'leg-work', the hours of travel you will undoubtedly take down a rabbit hole or two is well worth it. Not to mention the personal satisfaction that comes from solving a 'cold case'.

Bring a flashlight  .... and snacks.

©2017 Anne Faulkner -, All Rights Reserved

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