My How-To: Demolishing Brick Walls

Sorry, family – you may want to skip this post. I have written about the lines I am using as examples numerous times, and there is nothing new. This post is not about the subject ancestors, but about the process. WARNING: Demolishing a brick wall is not a quick and easy process. It’s a days or weeks long process; maybe even months.

I have written before about some of my brick walls and how I have tackled them.  And in those instances I have referenced many how-to articles and advice from various well-known and respected genealogists in the industry.  If you have read my previous musing you will be familiar with my one complaint, existing How-To articles on brick walls give the exact same advice without really helping me to apply it to my specific situations.  Their advice and guidance are great, don’t get me wrong.  But what about those brick walls where you are just starting with the bare minimum name, approximate birth year, and most likely birth location?  All advice tells us, look at the FAN (family, associates, and neighbors) club and utilize those lesser-known and harder to access records.  They promise us that our ancestor’s always relocated in groups and their spider web of associates will be the key to finding those lesser-known records.

Ok.  Easy enough, right?  Not so fast.  Here are two examples of brick walls that were problematic for jumping right into the tips and tricks identified.

Example 1: Edward Coomer.  I could only confirm his wife’s name and his children.  This was conveniently due to a family ephemera recorded by one of his daughters.  BUT…he was born and lived in frontier country, he was not a land owner, he does not appear to have inherited property, he did not leave a will, he has not been found in any known criminal or civil legal actions, the family did not seek intestate resolutions, all of his children were grown adults at the time of his death, he moved around, and he and his wife were members of a very large and prolific family spread across several counties in Kentucky.  His FAN club is just as problematic to sort through as he was.  Add insult to injury, Kentucky has a lot of issues with burned counties, lost or unrecorded birth’s and marriages, and a population that was poorly education (not stupid, just illiterate so they weren’t good at recording things).

Example 2: Eleanor Jane Newell.  Her marriage to Joseph Stockford is estimated between 1844 and 1851 somewhere in the state of New York (I came up with these years as the time between Joseph Stockford’s arrival in the United States and the birth of their first known child).  Her maiden name was provided in the death certificates of two of her children.  A couple with the same surname as her maiden name signed as witnesses for Joseph Stockford’s will in 1885.  Joseph Stockford and a son are buried next to one of the will witnesses. The trail of the will witness, Joseph Newell, was stalled because I don’t know where to look in New York and there was more than one man with the same name and age in New York.  

While I was able to apply those already published how-to trips and tricks successfully, I had to get my ducks-in-a-row first to figure out where to focus my search and where to look for a FAN club.  I think I have finally perfected these steps.  Much of this can be done online, and if successful, could save you a trip to a brick-and-mortar record repository or help you be more focused once you can make that pilgrimage.  I am not writing about any new method or trick, I am just presenting tools that worked for me in identifying FAN clubs and focusing research before applying the greater published brick wall-demolition methods.

Step 1.  Stop and take a step back

Clear your calendar. Put away all your unrelated research and rabbit holes. Gather your family folder for one brick wall subject, open your family tree software or webpage and open to your subject brick wall, collect your notes. Take a deep breath.

Step 2.  Use software, or a big whiteboard/cork board/chalk board, or Post-it notes on a wall

Build a single view census chronology or linear timeline of your known family group.  Excel spreadsheets, OneNote, Evernote, etc. are all good software to list the records in a one-view method.  If you’re low tech and have a big wall, use a board or simply Post-it notes on your wall to easily move family groups around. Ancestry trees online, FamilySearch’s OneTree, and other family tree software are not good for analyzing.  These are only good for collecting records for your evidence file OR spot checking to see if other researchers made similar connections. Tree software also only looks at research with tunnel vision – one person or immediate family view at a time.

  1. For 1850 and later, include all the household members, their ages, place of birth, and occupations. 
  2. For 1840 and earlier, include all household headed by a family of the same or similar names, and the tick marks for each age and gender.  Identify the most likely head of household based on the tick marks. As you identify the family’s presence in later census, you can replace “tick mark” with the most likely name for that tick mark.
  3. For all census, note their placement (image #, page #, line #, household #).  It helps to place them in the order they are enumerated by location.
  4. Check the census before and after for each location to make sure you don’t have multiple families headed by persons of the same name.  Continue until you don’t find your target family in the previous or next census.

Example 1:  Edward Coomer was found repeatedly near William Coomer and his wife Mariah Ashbrook, Andrew Coomer and his wife Eliza Tarter, and two Cooper families.  It also produced four parental candidates based on ages and origins.

Example 2:  Eleanor and Joseph Stockford first appear in 1860 at Henry County, Ohio after their marriage and birth of first child somewhere in New York.  There are no other Newell’s in Ridgeville Township, Henry County in 1860, but there is an Ira Newell and family in Florida Township, Henry County, Ohio of the right age to be a brother.  Joseph Newell and family do not appear to arrive in Henry County until the 1870 census.

Step 3.  Check the census of neighboring counties.

  1. Know your geography.  Where in the county are your target ancestors located (nearest county line)?  Check the nearest neighboring county first, then the rest.  Look for people of the same surname and record them on your single view collection. 
  2. Know your county formation history.  When was the county formed and from which county was it formed.  If your ancestor appears in the first census of a county, check the previous census in the parent county.  If your ancestor disappears in the next census, check to see if a new county was formed or if a neighboring county gained land from the county you were originally looking in.  See Mapofus.org.
  3. Know your county history.  When was it settled and by whom?  Where did they come from?  Was there a mass settlement over a short time?  What families were a part of any rapid mass settlements?
  4. Step back and analyze the single view.  Do you see a pattern?

Example 1:  None of the neighboring counties or other counties heavily populated by Coomer families had households headed by a person of the same name.  The county lines changed nominally in the course of the targeted time period and did not impact the research.  The Coomer and Tarter families are both overwhelmingly large and prolific, and they are both affiliated with the same families – which are also large and prolific families living in the same counties as the Coomer’s and the Tarter’s.

1840 county lines for Kentucky. The highlights indicate the counties where Coomer families are found. Note Pulaski and Wayne are neighboring counties. Coomer’s were not found in Adair in early census but have since become numerous in that county. Mapofus.org

Example 2a:  There are other Newell families in surrounding counties and were bookmarked for future research. Since I have a strong lead with Joseph Newell and second lead with Ira Newell who lived nearest to Eleanor, I researched them first.

Migration of Newells from Colden, NY to Ohio and Michigan. Note the proximity at left between Blissfield, MI, Ridgeville Corners, Henry County, OH and Adams Township, Defiance County, Ohio. Google Maps.

Examples 2b:  Read Step 5 first. After completing Step 5 below, I had to return to Step 3 to further research parental candidates.  One pair of parental candidates for Elizabeth Newell may have been living in Jefferson County, New York.  Jefferson County was formed in 1805 from Oneida County.  Subsequently one researcher has the birth location for a sibling candidate as Sackets Harbor, Jefferson County, New York but another researcher records his birth at Hounsfield, Jefferson County, New York.  Sackets Harbor was established in 1814 from Hounsfield.  Hounsfield was established in 1806 from Watertown, NY.  The two conflicting locations could simply be a difference of opinion but are close enough to be for the same man.  

Step 4.  Filter, Add, Analyze

Filter out your target family/head of household and start adding military, taxes, voting, property, church records, court records, newspapers, or any other under-utilized record.  The census chronology should help you target where to focus your search for certain records so you don’t have to cast your net as wide.

  1. Make a different kind of single view chronology – a timeline that puts all of the events in order by date and location.  It’s best to make the date one column, and the person’s events in the next column.  Save columns 3 and on for associates identified in Step 5.
  2. Include the town, county, and state the events occurred. 
  3. Step back and analyze the chronology.  Do they make logical sense?  In other words, are the records making your ancestor appear like they are jumping around many locations to fast?  Are the records occurring in the same locations or nearby as the census chronology?
  4. If there are illogical jumps, you may have identified unrelated records.  Pull out the illogical records.  Don’t toss them, just put them aside.
  5. Keep an eye out for other residents with the same or similar surnames, especially when that surname is not common in the location you are focusing on.
  6. Are these records crossing paths with any of the other families recorded in steps 2 and 3?

Example 1a:  In some instances researchers have identified Edmond Coomer of Adair County, KY as the same man who died in Boyle County, KY and as a son of William and Mariah (Ashbrook) Coomer.  Edmond Coomer of Adair County left a plethora of records in Adair and married a woman named Mary.  Edward Coomer is enumerated in the same years as Edmond, but in Boyle County and is married to Darthulia; however she is identified as Mary in two of the children’s death records.  Edmond and Edward’s birth dates are several years apart; Edmond’s occurs after the marriage of William & Mariah and Edwards occurs before.  Edmond and Edward’s family members are different.  

Example 1b:  Edward lives very near to William & Mariah in two consecutive census early in his life.  He is also living near Andrew & Eliza (Tarter) Coomer, and at one point Andrew & Eliza are in Edward’s household.  In the 1840 census, there is a boy about the right age to be Edward living with William & Mariah.  Because William is barely old enough to be Edward’s father and doesn’t marry Mariah until several years after Edward’s birth, it is plausible for William to be a brother.

Example 2a:  The burial records in Henry County, Ohio for Elizabeth Newell’s proposed brother, Joseph Newell, report that he was a Civil War veteran of the 193rd New York Volunteers.  The 1890 Veterans Schedule for Henry County, Ohio supports the same information.  None of his fellow veterans in Henry County served in New York units.  Military records only identify Joseph Newell’s place of birth as New York, but it provides his place of enlistment in the 193rd New York Volunteers in April 1865 at Boston, Erie County, New York.  There was only one other Newell who enlisted in Erie County at Tonawanda and three from Jefferson County. GO BACK to Step 3. (Example 2b)

Example 2b:  A Nathanial Newell was found in Henry County marriages in 1875.  This man did not stay in Henry County very long and came from Dundee, Monroe County, Michigan where he returned after his marriage.

Example 2c:  Children of Joseph & Mary Newell in Ohio, moved to Dundee, Monroe County, Michigan and got married, divorced, and died there.  The records they left behind identifies Henry County, Ohio, and parents Joseph & Mary.

Starting with Eleanor’s timeline, then identifying potential family members nearby.

Step 5.  Build the initial FAN club.  Analyze the records that you have gathered and kept. 

  1. Identify repetitive names in the neighborhood, witnesses on records, informants, people with the same or similar surnames, and business partners or employers.  
  2. Actually look at the record images; don’t just rely on indexes or search result based on transcriptions.
  3. Conduct a cursory investigation of the FAN members.  Where are they from? Who are their spouses?  Who are their parents?  Who are their grandparents? What records did they leave behind and who were the witnesses or informants on those records? Does their chronology look similar to your target ancestors?
  4. Add a select few of the most promising associates to the chronology from Step 4.
  5. Did you find a lead to follow?

Example 1:  Newspaper articles tie Edward’s children as “cousins” to other Coomer family members.  These cousins live in the county that Edward came from, and in Boyle County.  Their families have parallel events and associations to Edward’s.

Example 2a:  Automatic research into Joseph Newell already started a FAN lead for Eleanor Newell in Step 4.  The Monroe County, Michigan connection prompted a return to Step 1 and identified potential relatives in the same area from New York.  Only one lead has ties to parents in Jefferson County, New York.  Those parents appear to have ended up in Erie County, New York.

Example 2b:  Further research into Nathanial Newell in Monroe County, Michigan identifies his mother as Catherine (Millis) Newell who was the wife of Joseph Newell from New York.  Her place of birth is recorded on her death certificate as Erie County, NY, and the informant was Nathaniel. 

Nathanial also has a brother named Lafayette.  Before appearing in Michigan the family of Joseph, Catharine, Nathanial, and Lafayette are found in Concord, Erie County, New York.  In Michigan, Lafayette enlists during the Civil War and dies in Georgia as a prisoner of war in March 1865 (remember, Joseph of Ohio joined up in April 1865).  Catharine Millis’ obituary reports that she was never the same after the death of Lafayette.  

Joseph Newell of Michigan/Erie NY disappears after 1860, Joseph Newell of Ohio/Erie County enlists in 1865, [re]marries in New York, and moves to Ohio after the war where he appears by 1875 with a new family. To me this looks like both Catharine and Joseph fall apart in 1865, ending their marriage.  Joseph, in grief and anger, returns home to Erie County and enlists – could he be seeking revenge?  His enlistment records state he only served 2 months and 20 days before being discharged from duty at Elmira, New York under General Order #77 (reduction in force). Incidentally, the fact that Catharine Millis remarries twice and identifies herself as a widow causes some confusion on the whereabouts of her first husband, Joseph.  If these two Joseph’s are the same man, I suspect they might not have formally divorced.

Placing events from key FAN club members starts to paint a different picture when it can be seen side-by-side, something family tree software does not do. The matching color blocks show where events from one person cross over to another, creating a series of seemingly unrelated events when viewed by one individual only.

Step 6.  Look for additional family candidates

Hopefully, by now you have some parental candidates or new sibling candidates.  Research these new candidates and determine where your ancestor fits into their lives.  Do their paths intersect?  Keep looking until you have exhausted your possibilities.  Do this for all parental candidates to rule out candidates and narrow down the possibilities.  If nothing promising turns up, go back to step 1 and follow a different lead.

Example 1:  The process has produced three parental candidates for Edward Coomer and placed him as a probable brother to four other Coomer men.  Further comparisons have narrowed down the parental candidate to one very good candidate, Bryan/Bryson Coomer whose proven children have corresponding events and locations to Edward’s.  Still not discounting the orphan theory held by my mother-in-law and taking into consideration that William may have had custody or guardianship of several younger brothers, Bryan could also be an Uncle.  I need to implement Step 6, or return to earlier steps to pull the string on a different lead.

Example 2:  The process has produced two parental candidates for Elizabeth Newell and I returned to Step 4 to pull the string on these candidates.

Step 7.  DNA for validation.  

I left DNA for the last step, because I am not convinced that DNA is proof of anything except that you have a shared common ancestor to someone – who may or may not have sound genealogical research.  So, if you find a candidate you can check to see if you match any other descendant of that candidate (within the 5-7 generations allowable by atDNA).  The more living descendants you match from independent branches, the greater the chances that you are on the right track.  Double bonus if you match Y-DNA or mtDNA and can reasonably validate their research.

We may never find records that definitively states “Ancestor A is the child of Ancestor Z.”  However, these steps have helped me (and maybe you) target specific records at brick-and-mortar repositories.  If visiting these locations is still problematic, there is the option of requesting records via mail or enlist the aid of look-up volunteers for those areas.  At a minimum, these steps could help formulate a defensible theory based on logical sequences and associations.  

Example 1:  I have recently obtained a DNA sample from my father-in-law and he has atDNA matches to a validated descendant of Andrew Coomer who has not identified a parent of Andrew.  Two atDNA matches leading to descendants of James M. Coomer has done little to clarify potential parents.  There are several distinctly different men named James Coomer in the Kentucky Counties of interest.  One atDNA match claims his James is a son of Ammon (one of my identified candidates) and the second claims his James is a son of Bryson (my primary candidate).

Example 2:  Uncle M has atDNA matches to descendants of five of Eleanor’s siblings.  Cursory validation of two of these lines has not found any discrepancies in the Genealogy research of these matches.

Research is never complete

I am still sorting out the various James’ connected to Edward Coomer, so I have not yet come to a full conclusion.  For Eleanor Newell, I feel that I have reasonably reached the conclusion that Eleanor was a sister of Joseph, Lafayette, Ira, and John Jr.  Genealogy is, as always, a work in progress, therefore my string of circumstantial evidence on Eleanor could someday be disproved.

Disclaimer:  I was able to collect all this information using purely online sources.  Not just Ancestry or FamilySearch.  Sources used include (but was not limited to) the Monroe County Museum Obituary Search database, Newspapers.com, Henry County Genealogical Society records database, Mapofus.org, Google Books, Hathi Trust, and Archives.org.  Due to time and cost restrictions I wrote to local repositories for copies of any undigitized records of interests identified from online indexes.  Because I can save a lot of money by writing to repositories instead of traveling to them, I can pass on some of my savings as small donations in addition to the research fees.  These donations often result in receipt of additional records from the local researcher as happy surprises.

Seek and you shall find.

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