Ryan Taylor Get past those brick walls


About Ryan Taylor

Dave Obee's
tribute to Ryan

Ryan's Columns

Ryan's Books

Devonians in

Back to

By Ryan Taylor

One feature of family history research is the unsolvable problem. Every line seems to lead to a dead end eventually.

I have my share, but I also tell people that you shouldn't give up. New resources come to light, or we become more skilled in our work, and find an answer.

Family Chronicle, a genealogy magazine published in Toronto, has received hundreds of letters from subscribers describing how they solved their problems. They have now published 500 Brickwall Solutions to Genealogy Problems giving some of the best.

The problems are ones we have all faced: missing death records, lost documents, names that don't match. Hearing how other people sorted out the difficulties can help us plan a strategy for our own research.

One man went to great lengths to determine where his great-grandfather was buried, despite missing death certificate, obituary, undertaker's record and gravestone. His only clue was a notation that the man's son had bought a grave one day after his father's death. It must be the missing lot.

By measuring grave-lengths from existing stones, he determined where the grave should be. Then an aunt made the journey to the cemetery, had a look, and told him he was right, "because I stood beside that tall gravestone at his burial." Eye-witness confirmations are a great help, but why don't they step forward earlier and save us a lot of work?

Another researcher thought she had found the right person in the census, but the father's name did not match the birth certificate. She compared the family's entries in subsequent censuses, until she was able to match a known relative with the family.

But how could she explain the discrepancy in the father's name? Further detective work showed that the birth certificate used the man's middle name (which he used day-to-day), while the census taker had written down his first name.

Small differences in names in the census are common, and cause great difficulties for genealogists, especially if they are using an index to locate people.

Each case study has a brief headline, some of which sounded familiar. I certainly saw "The Advantage of an Unusual Name" and can recollect "Friendly Ladies and Lots of Walking". "Read the Neighbours' Tombstones Too" is good advice. Read the neighbours' census, land records and diaries as well.

Many of the problems centred on illogical assumptions, or seeing 'facts' in records when none existed. They prove once more how important it is to keep an open mind.

500 Brickwall Solutions roams all over North America describing records and research techniques that can help any imaginative researcher. It's not a book to sit and read through all at once-if you did, I think your mind would be whirling with the ideas and methods on offer. But it would be fun to dip into it over coffee on a cold day, or sitting lazily on the lawn some afternoon. The entries are also short enough to be read while a television programme takes a lengthy commercial break.

It can be purchased for $30 from the publisher at Family Chronicle, from Amazon.com or your local bookstore.


If you are looking for a Jewish family in Britain, a new database provides access to a variety of resources in one place.

Among the records are United Kingdom marriages 1838-1972, census records, and directories of businesspeople, particularly in London.

Since many eastern European Jews emigrating to North America travelled through Britain, often stopping there for a time to raise funds or have a baby, it could be worthwhile having a look at this database. Your relations may show up unexpectedly.

Posted February 4, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

Sponsored by Interlink Bookshop and Genealogical Services and hosted by Islandnet.com