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Thinking Outside the Bricks

By Daniel Hubbard | November 21, 2010

I’ve seen some pretty impressive walls in my life. I admit I’ve never visited the Great Wall in China but I have seen Hadrian’s Wall. It was built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian to separate Roman Britain to the south from the tribes living in what is now Scotland—short on the scale of the Great Wall, but amazing by just about any other standard. I saw the Berlin Wall as it was being rapidly torn down in 1990. I even have a decent sized chunk of that wall that I broke off myself. This month marks the twenty-first anniversary of the end of The Wall.

Genealogical Walls

What is meant by a wall (always brick) in genealogy? I’ve never heard of an ancestor that “suddenly appears in the records in 1410” in the context of a brick wall. You can’t really call it a brick wall if there is not likely to be much, if anything, on the other side. Nevertheless, that actually seems to be more the sense that was meant by the earliest figurative use of wall in something like the genealogical sense. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a reference to being driven to the wall, meaning pushed to the point of reaching some impenetrable barrier, already in 1546. That earliest figurative wall seems to have been the ultimate limit, where none can go passed.

Clearly, a wall in genealogical terms is not a limit but something that separates what is on one side from what is on the other. When we call something a brick wall we’re clearly implying that we expect something to be on the other side. Something we could integrate into what we have if we could only get passed the wall. To really be able to say that you’ve gotten passed a brick wall, the research needs to be significantly easier on the other side. You probably wouldn’t say that you had broken through a brick wall when you find a piece of evidence after a long struggle, if that evidence only leaves you equally stuck but with a bit more knowledge.

I’ve never actually liked the expression “brick wall” in genealogy. On the plus side it implies something suitably dramatic when one is “broken down.” On the minus side, there is one dominant analogy for making progress—breaking down the wall. Dramatic yes, but it makes it sound as if butting your head against the problem is the only thing necessary or effective. Do that long enough and with enough force and the wall will break. Sometimes persistence is all that is needed. It can pay off. Sometimes though we just become persistent in doing the wrong thing. Sometimes it pays to think outside the bricks.

Thoughts from Outside the Bricks

You can go around a wall. If you have reason to think that you have found a cousin of a troublesome ancestor, then you have reason to believe that you have found someone who shares grandparents with your problem person. You may be wrong but if you invest a little time in tracing that possible cousin back and grandma and grandpa turn out to be helpful folks who lend you a hand proving they are the grandparents of your ancestor, then you’ve gone around your wall.

Hadrian's Wall

Some barbarian hoards might try brute force to get through the wall but your craftier barbarians will check the lay of the land first. Looking at the terrain can help a genealogical hoard (or researcher) decide where best to attempt an assault on a brick wall. For example, if the problem is too many people fit your description and you can’t figure out which John Doe married Jane Smith, check the terrain. The John Doe who lived just downstream is more likely to be your guy, or rather her guy, than the one on the other side of the mountain.  As the crow flew it might have been a toss up but the lay of the land might point you strongly in one direction.

Serious walls often come with extra obstacles—ditches, moats and guard towers have been popular choices and anyone trying to get passed the wall would be wise to look out for them. No sense in making an attempt to get passed the wall right at a guard tower. Our brick walls are guarded by towers made up of unmicrofilmed census pages, burnt courthouses and shifted county lines among other things. Just knowing that a certain record for a certain place is likely to be lost or stored elsewhere will keep you from running headlong into one of the obstacles that guards your wall. Even if it isn’t a well documented problem like a burnt courthouse, just keeping an eye out for skips in page numbers and dates can help.

The Berlin Wall with Guard Tower and Memorials

Look carefully for a door. You might want to study the blueprint for the wall. No one is going to hand you that blueprint but you can rough it out for yourself. If there is no place on the wall’s design drawings marked “missing probate records” then you might want to check to see if that part of the wall has been built. You may find that there is no such part of your wall. You may have found the door.

Other times we gather more and more evidence but nothing solves our problem in an easy way. No one record or pair of records is enough to breech the wall. Try really thinking about your collection of evidence. An argument built on indirect evidence can allow you to put a lot of evidence that doesn’t do the trick on its own into a nice tall stack that puts you over the top.

Tunneling under a wall has been popular for a long time. You can escape that way and in Medieval times it wasn’t uncommon for an army to raise a racket not so much to intimidate the people defending the castle walls but to keep them from hearing the miners digging underneath. When digging that way, you get rid of what, from the point of view of the tunnel, doesn’t belong. That dirt over there can stay, but this dirt here needs to go. The tunnel isn’t so much a thing as an absence. One way to make progress on a brick wall is to give up for a while on proving and concentrate on disproving. You look at something that might be interesting and instead of wondering how it fits, disprove the possibility that it fits. If you can do it, you’ve just lengthened your tunnel. You’ve gotten rid of something that was going to get in your way and confuse you. You’ve gotten rid of something that, from the point of view of your tunnel, just didn’t belong.

Whose Wall Is It?

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much the wall that is in our path but that we’ve made a wrong turn and the wall in front of us isn’t even our own. A bad assumption that John Doe #1 was your ancestor could be your problem. John Doe #1 himself might be a big problem. Just make sure he is your problem. I can’t imagine that it is a good feeling to get passed a brick wall only to learn enough to prove that the wall wasn’t yours in the first place. John Doe #2 just might be the one you want.

Sometimes our walls are of our own construction. Check your hands for mortar. What might you find? Maybe you’ve mixed evidence about two people into one person who doesn’t make enough sense for you to be able to trace him back. Maybe a while back you made a very good hypothesis that would be right 99 times out of 100. You just happen to be working on that 1 time in 100. It might be time to go back and think about what should normally be true that might not be true in your case.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Thinking Outside the Bricks”

  1. Mavis Jones Says:
    November 25th, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Great post!