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Use your head to help knock down those research brick walls

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 06:20 AM

The term "brick wall" was coined many years ago to describe the obstacles that stop us dead in our tracks.

But when it comes to genealogy, are those brick walls real or illusions created by sloppy research and analysis?

By the time researchers cry "Brick wall!" they often have all they need to clear the hurdle - they just don't realize it, experienced genealogists say. So home is the logical place to begin tearing down that wall.

Look for indirect evidence

Face it, when most of us began our ancestral quests, we were clueless about how to research effectively. We didn't always understand all the tidbits we found. We spent most of our time looking for direct evidence that clearly stated a fact about an ancestor. We didn't yet understand that we can answer many genealogical questions by accumulating and analyzing pieces of indirect evidence.

A good example of direct evidence is a marriage record logged at the local courthouse showing rites conducted by a justice of the peace. A young researcher, having been told that the courthouse burned those records, may think he can't prove the marriage.

Ten years later that same, but now more experienced, researcher revisits his files and has one of those V-8 moments. He looks at all the wills in the county where he knows his ancestor George Smith married. He looks at the wills of all the men who lived near George and finds the estate files of a Thomas Jones who names his daughter, Mary Smith, in his will. Thomas also names his son-in-law George Smith as his executor. The will doesn't state directly that Thomas' daughter Mary married George Smith, but it does say so indirectly.

Clean up sloppy work

Sometimes we get tired and sloppy. I'm no different, and here's my confession.

One of my Confederate ancestors, Thompson Gunter, died of disease after his capture at the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. His military service record gave his date of death but did not state where he was buried.

As I reviewed his files, I saw I had checked at the Cedar Hills (Vicksburg City) Cemetery where many of the Confederate dead were buried. I had checked the Georgia cemetery where other family members rested, hoping fellow soldiers had brought his body home. Many graves in that little country cemetery are marked only with field stones. Perhaps Thompson lay there.

Eventually I gave up my quest for his grave and went on to other challenges. Years passed. My experience grew. I decided to re-examine the Gunter research.

In 1892, his widow, Mary Ann, applied for a pension on his Confederate service. The law required that she reapply every year - and she did that until she died in 1903.

I had read the first several applications word for word, as she repeatedly explained how he had died of disease during a prisoner exchange. That's when I got sloppy. Assuming each would be the same, I didn't read all 11 applications.

Reading them all in review, I found that one year she wrote that he had died aboard a steamer during a prisoner exchange, and his body was committed to the waters of the Mississippi. For 20 years I had that information languishing right there in my file!

Taking someone's word for fact

The bricks in some walls consist of erroneous information from other researchers. Relying on secondary information can put us on a wrong trail that quickly grows cold. Review the files, locate information from others, and then look for the original documents - for example pull the deeds, marriage records and wills and read for yourself what they say rather than accept the work of a published abstract.

Look at collaterals

When information isn't available on a specific direct ancestor, records that his siblings created may offer indirect evidence or clues. For example, although it is secondary information (details that don't come from firsthand knowledge), a death certificate often provides the maiden name of the deceased person.

When Joseph Wilson died in 1928, the person who supplied the information on his death certificate did not know his mother's maiden name, so officials left it blank. Is that a brick wall? Only if you let it be.

Look for death certificates of all of Joseph's siblings. On the certificate for his sister Susie Wilson Black, her mother's maiden name is listed as Mary Ann Young. Prove Susie's mother, prove that Joseph and Susie are full (not half) siblings, and you have proved that Joseph's mother is the same as Susie's mother.

Of course the parental information on the death certificate is not primary information and other sources should be sought to confirm it - but the brick wall falls and the road to research opens again.

Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or


stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.

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