Hit a brick wall? 20 reasons why you can’t find your ancestor

Can’t find your ancestor? Getting frustrated?

We all hit a brick wall in our genealogy research now and then.

Or, as we call them here in New Mexico, adobe walls, lol!

Hit a brick wall? Getting frustrated? Need some fresh ideas? You've come to the right place! Click To Tweet

Take a look at these reasons why you can’t find your ancestor.

Some of them may lead you to a brick wall breakthrough… or, if nothing else, give you some insight:

  1. The record doesn’t exist — some never existed to begin with (like my grandma’s birth certificate), or they are lost to time or natural disaster (like the 1890 census, which was largely lost to fire). Or, maybe you are looking for civil records, when your ancestor was a Quaker and you really need to be looking at the Society of Friends’ meeting minutes.
  2. The record exists, but it’s not online (yet?). There is still great value in visiting libraries, cemeteries, and other repositories of genealogical records! The one you need may be literally sitting on a dusty shelf in the basement of the city hall where your ancestor lived. (Ask me how I know.)
  3. The record is online, but it’s not indexed (yet?). Thus, it is not easily searched for and found. Volunteering on Family Search to help index records won’t help you find your ancestor, but it will help other people find theirs.
  4. You haven’t yet recognized or accepted that the “wrong” surname spelling might, indeed, be your ancestor! (There are enough reasons why this happens to fill an entire new blog post. )
  5. There’s a typo (or other error) in the index, transcript, abstract, database, family history, or other derivative source. Check the original record if you can.
  6. Terrible handwriting, and misreading of perfectly good old-fashioned script, causes errors at every level (original document, transcription, indexing).
  7. The record or index used initials only. (Ugh!)
  8. Your ancestor truncated, Anglicized, or completely changed his name… but not because they forced him to at Ellis Island, because that’s a myth.
  9. Your ancestor went by a middle name, or a nickname, and all you know is their first name….or vice versa…and they switched back and forth over time. Or, whoever reported or recorded the data did.
  10. It’s an original record, but it’s wrong. Who supplied the information? Would they necessarily know? How close in time to the event — birth, marriage, death, etc. — was the record made?
  11. The census taker interviewed whoever answered the door (whether or not they were the best person to ask); he wrote down what he heard (without concern for spelling); or he was tired or confused (or drunk!) and skipped that street altogether.
  12. The census says your ancestor was black, when you know they were white (or vice versa) because the census taker reported what he saw, or was told. (I have an ancestor who was reported as black, white, and mulatto in different census years….and she was a slave owner, too…the plot thickens…)
  13. People were living together in combinations you didn’t expect. (Who are these people with whom my great grandfather is living as a child? Ohhh….I see…his father died, and his mother remarried, that’s all.)
  14. On the Ancestry search form, you have too much data in the search fields. Delete some of it. Or add an educated guess (e.g. a good estimate for a parent’s birth year is 20 years before first known child’s birth year) to see if it helps generate results.
  15. You are looking for records of your female ancestor’s birth, but you are using her married surname. (In Ancestry, if you have her in your tree by her married name, delete the married name so Ancestry doesn’t think it’s her maiden name. Better to leave it blank if you don’t know her maiden name yet.)
  16. Your ancestor may have been married multiple times. Which surname, or spouse, or children still living at home, would apply to the time frame you are seeking to know more about?
  17. Your ancestor may have moved. Or, in one case, it turned out mine didn’t move at all, but the county lines kept changing around him from one census decade to the next.
  18. You are looking only for vital records (birth, marriage, death). Try something new like land records, pension files, and newspaper articles.
  19. You are focused only your ancestor. Try broadening the search a little, learning more about their FAN club (Family/Friends, Associates, and Neighbors).
  20. You have made an error somewhere and are now off climbing someone else’s tree. Oops!

What other reasons can you think of? I’ll bet we can think of 20 more!

Have you ever broken down a genealogy brick wall? How did you do it?

Join the conversation by leaving a comment!

And let me know if any of these ideas help you, OK?

Copyright 2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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  1. Seana Turner on June 26, 2019 at 6:38 am

    I can get easily discouraged by brick walls. I don’t do ancestry work, but can certainly relate from other ventures. I think your approach is so helpful. First step back and take a breath… then get some perspective. Then go back in and look at the tiny details. I just watched a detective show last night and this was what they did. Tenacity can be tedious, right?

    • Hazel Thornton on June 26, 2019 at 10:31 am

      Seana, you’re so right that perspective is important no matter the type of project! And taking breaks helps. Also, there’s a fine line between tenacity and perfectionism. The time spent trying to make a project “perfect” can have diminishing returns. But sometimes I feel people give up too easy, when a little more time would allow them to reap the satisfaction of figuring something out.

  2. Janet Barclay on June 26, 2019 at 10:59 am

    I’m not at this stage yet, but I can vouch for #4, as my ex-father-in-law and his brother spelled their surname differently. Even in my own generation, there were a brother and sister and my school who spelled their surname differently!

    • Hazel Thornton on June 27, 2019 at 9:27 am

      That’s funny to have a difference within the same nuclear family!

      • Janet Barclay on July 1, 2019 at 10:24 am

        The brother kept the traditional Dutch spelling complete with apostrophe and a second capital letter, but the sister simplified it to one word no caps and no apostrophe. My mom figured she intended to change it once she got married so why bother fussing with it in the meantime.

        As to my in-laws, it was a Ukrainian name so I guess there would be different ways of spelling it in English, but I don’t think either of them spoke Ukrainian so I have no idea how that all came about!

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