New Thoughts on “Brick Walls”



Brick Walls

A couple of weeks ago, I read a blog post by James Tanner Analyzing Brick Walls — a genealogical myth or reality? and saw a presentation given by him. It was a video of a live presentation. I couldn’t find a link to that video, for which I am sorry. It was a great presentation.

After working through Mastering Genealogical Proof (MGP), DearMYRTLE’s study group on that book, and a dialog with Elizabeth Shown Mills (Evidence Explained) I think I am going to stop using that term. In fact, I rarely use it, but see it a lot on Facebook and other places where Family Historians hang out.

I know that IF I hit my head against a brick wall, I am going to get a headache, or definitely warn out. It’s exhausting just running up to that brick wall, only to be pushed back.

When working with a friend about their “brick wall”, I observed that they were so focused on that brick wall, that they didn’t see the answer, right in front of them.

In Mr Tanner’s August 25, 2011 blog (link above) he said:

“Let me give my definition of a “brick wall.” I consider a brick wall to be a researching situation where records should exist and a person should have been recorded, but for whatever reason is not found and records are not easily located. This rules out the end-of-line situations where you can no longer find records back in the 1500s or so.  “

Isn’t that like Exhaustive Research, that we talked about in the study of the Genealogical Proof Study in Dr. Jone’s book?

It’s like, to me anyway, the difference between Negative Evidence instead of Negative Findings, as Elizabeth Shown Mills taught me.

When I run up to that Brick Wall, I am starting to STOP, and see if there is a way around it. Or, Look somewhere else. Another Genealogy friend, Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist has a category on her Blog on Methodology. I have heard her speak in person, and each time reminded of “other” places to look.

In cleaning up my genealogy database, my clean up is focused on my Sources, putting them into the correct, Evidence Explained!! format. A long project, but so worthwhile. I was doing this clean up for one reason, formatting of the Reference Notes, that what I found was a number of pieces of information that I had over looked the first time (OK, couple of times). Right there in front of me, was the piece of information that I was looking for. It wasn’t a brick wall after-all, I just didn’t look enough. I think that a number of folks in the MGP Study Group had the same experience. Of course, I have learned much about research since that first time I looked at those sources.

In another example, I was trying to prove or disprove that a gentleman served in the Civil War. That’s when I learned about Negative Findings instead of Negative Evidence. I had been looking at this one document, a couple of other helpers looked at it, but missed the one small piece of information that was in the Log Book. To make a long story short, the County was wrong for MY person. Right state, wrong county.

Learned Lesson: I am going to change Brick Wall to Keep Looking and sooner rather than later.


13 Responses to New Thoughts on “Brick Walls”

  1. Lisa Gorrell says:

    I have a talk about brick walls and you’re right–the main thing is to keep looking–the answer is likely to be out there! Thanks for validation of what I was already thinking but hadn’t articulated as well as you!

    • Russ Worthington says:


      Thank you.

      My comment to “the answer is likely to be out there!” would be “when you least expect it” and it may take some time before the answer shows up.

      I am trying to change my conversations about “brick walls” to “another research opportunity”.

      Thank you for your comment.


  2. Teri Chaffin says:

    very nice blog post cousin Russ!

  3. Great post Russ! No more Brick Walls just Keep Looking! I love it and will be doing the same.

    • Russ Worthington says:

      Thank you,

      and the headaches from hitting my head against the brick walls are going.

      now, return to your regularly scheduled searching.


  4. As ever Russ it goes back to setting the right research question and working out how you are going to find the information you need to answer it. Maybe those people with Brick Walls have just not asked the right question or found the right information to answer that question.
    As ever if you can’t answer the question go back to see if you asked the right question.

    • Russ Worthington says:


      You are so right about asking the right questions.


      be patient and not expect the answer to appear RIGHT NOW. Although you want it NOW. The answer may appear when you least expect it, or when you go back and look at what you already have.

      Thank you,


  5. Great ideas! I’ve started calling mine “Not There Yet!” Makes me feel so much better…

  6. […] long ago, I made this Blog Post: New Thoughts on “Brick Walls” I still think that is true. When I started to do my Family Research I kept running into […]

  7. Russ,
    I want to take a deep breath and stay calm and think “what have I missed?”
    I have two MAJOR road blocks (since we aren’t using brick walls 🙂
    The answers to the parents of these two direct line ancestors have eluded me for 15 yrs. I’ve hired two professional Genealogists for one of them and still no answers.
    I honestly do think the answer for this particular one (it’s my Gould line) is circling right in front of me. However, even DNA hasn’t revealed the answer ….. yet.
    I’ll keep looking and reviewing just like you suggest. These men did not drop out of thin air and we’re talking birth years of 1833 and 1863, so not impossible.
    Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Russ Worthington says:


      DNA is one of those places that may help. The question there is, did I test or have my results on the SAME DNA Testing company as the “cousin”.

      A Facebook friend of mine reminded us that records have been burned. I totally get that.

      In a recent Wacky Wednesday with The Archive Lady, we talked about School Records. IF if hadn’t been for those school records, both were found at a School not online. I might not have been able to find two of my grandparents. Their parents had died while they were you. Those two school records pointed me to where they might be in that next census record.

      Good luck with your research.


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