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Breaking down the "brick walls" of genealogy

How do you solve a genealogical dilemma? What do you do when you are looking for a specific piece of information? Do you know what steps to take to find it? Some information will come easily, but some will require a little more effort.

I take a very systematic approach to finding specific bits of information about a person. When I have a genealogical dilemma (more affectionately called a "brick wall" in genealogy circles) I take the time to go about the investigation the right way.

I start a new file folder and a new research log. A research log will help keep your thoughts on track; and it will keep you from wasting time by looking at resources you have already investigated. I write up everything I know about this particular individual and what information I am lacking. I prefer to work on one vital statistic at a time, like a birth date, but as long as you are only working on one person at a time you can go after more than one piece of information such as the birth date along with birth place and parents.

I might have something like this:

James (unknown middle name) Simmons

Born: 14 Aug 1764 in SC (unknown town/district)

Died: 10 Jan 1843 in Perry Co, MS

Buried: Augusta Cemetery, Perry Co, MS (no longer exists)

Parents: Unknown

At this point, I wouldn't worry too much about writing down what I know about his wife, marriage and children. If I did, I would have too many unknowns to work with at one time.

I can see that I need to look for James' parents, his full name and where in South Carolina he was born. I need to devise a logical plan. I can list all of the resources I want to check on my research log. As I check them, I can record the results of the search. Documenting negative results is as important as documenting positive ones.

One of the first things I would want to know is when James arrived in MS. If I know that, I won't waste time checking records in the wrong state. It just so happens that I already have the time narrowed down by when and where his children were born. James, already married, came to MS in approximately 1803.

The next thing I would check would be the 1800 South Carolina census. I would document all of the James Simmons' living in South Carolina. This would narrow down the counties I needed to search. I could further examine the census to see if the James' on the census records were the right age and had children the right age to be my James, but you have to be careful doing this. Children die and census takers make mistakes.

You continue this logical progression and document everything along the way. You can put your research down for months at a time and come back to this dilemma and pick up right where you left off if you have documented everything correctly. I will be showing you more on how to work through brick walls in later columns.

Web posted on Thursday, September 23, 2004

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Updated: 04-Nov-2010 10:01


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