By Daniel Hubbard | February 23, 2014
When I was a kid there was a group of jokes that consisted of nothing more than the titles and authors of fictitious books. One of my favorites was Viewing the Grand Canyon by Eileen Dover. If you don’t get it, just say it out loud, you will.
Brick Walls and Cliffs
Sometimes in genealogy we reach the edge of a cliff. After following a nice level plain of documentation, suddenly we reach a time and place where the records simply stop and we lean over and look into the abyss. Somewhere down there is a new level of solid ground. Sometimes it is not actually so very far, sometimes “abyss” really feels like the right word.
Genealogist often talk of brick walls. They occur when we get stuck on a particular line but have a reasonable expectation of getting back farther. Being unable to find the parents of someone born in 1890 probably counts as a brick wall. Not being able to find the parents of someone born 1590 probably does not. What about the cliffs when there is a general break in the records, a discontinuity that does not just disrupt one line for one researcher? Sometimes these breaks are not so dangerous. I remember coming across the title of a presentation on American genealogy that was something like “You Can Get Back Before 1850.” You certainly can. There is, of course, a discontinuity there. Beyond that point the Federal census gives much less information but it is not a very long drop down to the base of that cliff. With other techniques research in America can realistically go back more than two centuries.
Its All Relative
What fascinates me about these cliffs is that they depend on so many things. If you are American and think of 1850 as a discontinuity in the census, then you are probably of European descent. If you were African-American you would think of the census discontinuity occurring in 1870. In fact 1870 is the beginning of a much larger cliff. Before the records of the Freedman’s Bank and Civil War records relating to the U.S. Colored Troops, contrabands and refugees, the African-American researcher faces a serious cliff in the terrain that they might not be able to descend. Other genealogists won’t need to peer over that edge at all. Irish researchers face a different set of cliffs—the earliest complete census (1901), the earliest civil registration (mid 19th century), the earliest surviving church records (often early 19th century). Who, where and when you research determines the cliffs that you might encounter.
I’ve found some of my English ancestors in parish records from the first half of the 16th century, back in the time when parish registers first started to be kept in England. There I must stare over that English cliff. Some lines can be traced past that point but it is a very different business. That cliff might indeed have no bottom for me to find. It is a strange feeling to lean over an edge and wonder if there is a possibility of donning a helmet, attaching a rope and repelling down the rock face to that next level. Of course, the only way to know is to try.
According to one of the myths of Hercules, he placed two pillars at the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean world comes to an end and the Atlantic begins. Later tradition held that they were inscribed with the words Non plus ultra, meaning “Nothing beyond.” They marked the end of the world and warned sailors to go no further. Of course, there was a great deal beyond. It just had to wait for people who would look.Twitter It!