Sunday, May 3, 2009

Taking A Fresh Look At Brick Walls

Have you ever been stumped by a problem, asked someone unfamiliar with it to have a look, and had that person come up with an obvious solution? “Why didn’t I think of that?” you may wonder. It happens to all of us. Typically the problem is that we are too close to the problem—perhaps even part of the problem. Another individual has the advantage of a fresh perspective, only looking at the bare facts.

Sometimes this is a helpful approach to problems solving in our family history research. We may be unwittingly clinging to ideas that aren’t quite based on sound research. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

They Were There All Along
So you’ve found an ancestor in two consecutive U.S. federal censuses living in the same city. Clearly they were there all the time, right? Not necessarily. When you think about it, ten years is a pretty long time. In the course of that time, your ancestor may have left the city for greener pastures, only to return home a few years later. Perhaps the employment he sought didn’t pan out. Or maybe he or she had to return home to help care for a sick family member. Perhaps that’s why you’re still unable to locate the birth record for that one child born between those censuses. City directories and state censuses can help you to bridge that ten year gap and ensure that your ancestor did indeed stay put throughout the decade between censuses.

My Ancestors Were All . . . [Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.]
Even if your ancestors were predominantly devout members of a particular religion, don’t assume that that everyone in the family shared the same faith. Your ancestor may have converted, or perhaps they attended the only church that was available in the rural area in which they settled. Conversely if there were several choices available to them, they may have been part of a congregation that wasn’t the closest to home, but which had a shared ethnic background.

We’re Italian (or German, or Polish, or...)
Years ago, I met a woman at a genealogy conference who told me about some of the obstacles she had to overcome when she first began tracing her husband’s roots. She started by diligently asking him everything he knew about his ancestry. He “knew” his family was mostly Italian, and thought there might be a little bit of German too. Being a fan of his family recipes for marinara and other Italian dishes, it made sense--until she started actually collecting records. As it turned out, there was absolutely no Italian connection, and that little bit of German? Well that was more like 100 percent.

When it comes to ethnic origins, family legends should always be taken with a grain of salt. Keep them in mind but don’t limit your searches based on the family tale. The same holds true for the often told story of the Cherokee princesses, the three brothers who parted ways at Ellis Island, or any other tale that was passed down. While there may be a pinch of truth in the story, it’s best to go step-by-step and let the records you find guide you, rather than letting the story dictate your path.

Relationships and Family Structure
Pre-1880 census records, where relationships aren’t spelled out, can pose a perilous trap for family historians. When we see a man and a woman of comparable age, with children who are of an age to be their children, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and say we have found Dad and Mom and their children. But could one of those children be an orphaned niece or nephew? Or perhaps the woman is the man’s spinster sister who came to help out with the children after the mother had passed away. Even in cases where relationships are spelled out, they are sometimes incorrect. When Emma Tobin was enumerated with Emma and Emile Chouanniere in 1880, she was listed as “niece.” She was actually Emma’s daughter from a previous marriage. On the back of her marriage certificate, a note revealed that she went by her stepfather’s name of Chouanniere, but her real father’s name was James Miller.

They Came Through Ellis Island
Ellis Island’s prominence as “the gateway to America” is well known and has been woven into the fabric of many an American story—sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, and sometimes it’s only part of the story. First of all, look at the time frame. Ellis Island opened in 1892 so earlier immigrants may have come through New York, but not Ellis Island. And while New York was the most popular port of entry, don’t overlook the arrival records for other ports. Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, were other popular eastern ports. Many immigrants made their way to Canada and entered the U.S. from there. Perhaps your Midwestern ancestors arrived through New Orleans and made their way inland via the Mississippi River. Keep your mind open to all the possibilities.

When John Szucs came through Ellis Island in October 1902, it might have been tempting to stop looking. However, some further searching also finds him arriving in July of 1902 through the port of Baltimore. Don’t assume your ancestor only came over once. With steamboat travel, travel between Europe and America was much easier and many immigrants made several trips before finally settling down.

Anything is possible. Fortunately with so many immigration records now available online in the collections at, we can easily search the records of many ports at once, making it much faster and easier to get the entire picture of our ancestor’s immigration to the U.S.

Just the Facts, Ma’am
Try taking a fresh approach to your family history brick walls. Write down every thing you “know.” Then list supporting records for each fact. When you take a fresh look, you may find yourself instead thinking, “Why didn’t I think of this sooner?” Taking A Fresh Look At Brick Walls
by Juliana Smith
04 May 2009


Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Discovery copyright 2009, The Generations Network, Inc.

No comments: