The bane of any genealogist is the famed brick wall. Our family has our share of them. There are a plethora of articles describing the how-to and rules-of-thumb for breaking through them, and I am constantly clicking on headlines pro porting to provide innovative methods to cracking them. But, alas, many of these articles don’t offer anything significantly different from each other and sometimes the brick wall is beyond the 1850s requiring a little more advanced research methods.
They all start with step 1 for working around the lack of vital records and census clues; look beyond the norm by using directory, tax, property, and probate records. Luckily, with the boom in online ancestry research and the ever-growing number of digitized record collections, even these methods are becoming as easy to access as vital records. Of course, some counties and states are more accessible than others, so it’s still a hit and miss method for us homebound genealogist. Also, the further back you go in time, the fewer surviving records exist.
When I think about every hurdle I have encountered in my research, I was able to stumble through it by accident, which ended up being one of these less thought of records. Those weren’t that tricky when I think back, just a matter time and a little dumb luck (not experience).
Cluster research is step 2 and is probably the best method. You’ve probably noticed me write about it in almost all my blogs. However, many how-to articles and guides will suggest researching siblings or other known family members or associations as part of the cluster method. What about those ancestors who moved away from their family and left no evidence of a close and continuing relationship back home? What if you don’t even have siblings or cousins to research and a Will only mentions children who you have already thoroughly researched? And you don’t have their wife’s maiden name? Step 3, start networking.
I have had two instances where I had no leads and no siblings, and I am working on my third. For John Rhoads, it did start with a tenuous lead provided through networking with other genealogists. Joseph’s descendant was the one who took the leap in reaching out to a descendant of John (me). And she did so because she just happened to notice their similar travel patterns in the census (cluster). It was fortunate that she took this initiative because it was she who had evidence that Joseph came out of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. I had known of Joseph’s presence in Indiana, but he lived in a different county and had no records in the county I was focused on for John. So, I had no reason to believe there was a connection, especially after I had learned of how many separate Rhoades lines there were, even in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I started looking at Joseph a little closer, I began to see other correlations between the two. Once I got to Westmoreland County, I had to switch things up a little with advanced cluster research and DNA.
What about when you’ve run out of records to look through, exhausting the traditional method of cluster research with no new leads? When networking fails, try single surname research.
My second brick wall, Edward Coomer, is different from John. There were few Rhoades’ in Indiana, and they lived far enough apart to suggest no relation (yes, I was wrong, so very wrong). The Coomer’s, on the other hand, are found in large numbers across multiple neighboring counties as are their associated family, Tarter (Edwards wife was a Tarter). Reaching out to other Coomer researchers yielded the same dead-end. If they were related to Edward, they had no leads on his parents or siblings. If related to other Coomer’s, they had no known connection to Edward.
I saw a couple of references in newspapers identifying one Coomer or another as a cousin to Edward’s sons. This prompted me to approach his puzzle a little differently. Instead of cluster research in the traditional sense, I started a single surname research. It is a method of cluster research, but I call this advanced cluster research because you start by “collecting” families with the same surname in the same area before you know how they are related, then try and find the connection between them all. This helps to narrow down potential parents and siblings. I am making some fairly interesting connections with the Coomer’s and am chipping away at their wall, little by little. Short story, Edward is looking more and more like he’s related to the Coomer’s who came from Stokes County, North Carolina.
My newest brick wall involves William Emery, the father of Carrie Emery Gage. I confirmed his name through his other daughter, Calista, as well as the maiden name of his wife, Merrifield or Merryfield. He was born around 1814, probably in Massachusetts. Online records are sparse for this state and timeframe, and census and military records have yielded numerous William Emery’s. And now a new delimma has presented itself for me, which is a combination of issues I faced for John Rhoads and Edward Coomer; there are many Emery’s in Massachusetts, AND there are many William Emory’s who married women named Hannah or Ann/Anna and moved to New Hampshire. After such promising leads coming out of the Coomer research, I decided to give the single name research a try here too.
So, give the tried and true methods of breaking brick walls a chance. Research probable relations (just in case), and when all else fails, try the single name research. If you do not get leads from that, at least you’ll have sorted out who’s who in the county and surrounding counties. Don’t forget to look in newspapers.