When you’ve been going genealogy for many years, there are some brick walls that you’ve just about given up on because you’ve spent so many fruitless hours tearing them down. But it can be useful to re-evaluate them periodically. Not only will there be new sources available online, but your own skills will have grown too.
In my own pedigree, I had a brick wall ancestor in the eighteenth century whom I had been stuck on for about twenty years. I invited a genealogy friend to look at the case with an extra pair of fresh eyes. Together, we drafted a research plan. Did I consult the original sources for all known facts? Did we know who the witnesses were and how they fit into the family? Had we found who the guardians were of the orphaned children? The witnesses in the original records turned out to be the key to solving the puzzle. Within days, the empty branches of my tree could be filled in.
Looking back, I realize why I had been stuck on this branch for so long: I had mostly been searching, not researching. All the online indexes make it very easy to find many pieces of the puzzle. In many cases, those pieces fit together to create a picture of the composition of the family. If they don’t fit, it is tempting to leave that branch and continue with another line where the results come tumbling across the screen. To be honest, in all those years, I had only found what could be found using search engines and had never really done any actual research into this family. There have always been easier branches to pursue so I never really sat down and looked at what I had.
An experienced genealogist knows when to switch between being a searcher and being a researcher. As a searcher, you build on the works of others: the author of an article, the compiler of an online family tree, the volunteer who indexed a record. You just find things that have been found before.
Research goes a step further. You not only look how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, but also think about which pieces are missing that should be there. What agencies dealt with this person? Which events left traces in the records? You get out your finding aids, dig through catalogs, chat with an archivist and determine which sources could help you advance your research. You consult the sources and analyze each piece of new information for evidence.
I challenge you to look at your own brick walls. Write down what you know, and especially what is missing and where you might find that information. Let go of just searching in databases and do some original research into the missing data. And please leave a comment to let me know if it turns out as well for you as it has for me!