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Brickwall Solutions: A Sampler

Solutions from genealogists and family historians who overcame research obstacles.

The following brickwall solutions stories are excellent examples of how genealogists and family historians have used inspiration and hard work to find solutions to their genealogy problems.

These stories show how making educated guesses, revisiting known information, doing on-site research, paying attention to the smallest piece of information, interviewing friends and family, maintaining an open mind and staying abreast of the latest technology can help break through genealogy brickwalls. This advice, along with numerous research techniques, have resulted in great successes for our readers.

Family Chronicle’s latest special publication, 500 Brickwall Solutions to Genealogy Problems, contains these stories and hundreds of others which will astound and inspire. All stories shown here are Copyright 2003 Moorshead Magazines Ltd.

They Were Always on Her Mind
Kimberly Muldoon-Staley’s brickwall kept her up all night, until she revisited the information she already had.

Fortune Rewards Those Who Never Give up
Alison Forte’s brickwall was solved by persistence and good luck at the Family History Center.

An Unlikely Source to Knocking Down Brickwalls
Networking worked for Agnes Rysdyk.

Alvin's Legacy
Barbara Sutphin Witwer’s brickwall solution lay in the recollections of her relative, Alvin Weaver.

Keep an Open Mind
Bob Nichols shows how an educated guess was the key to his success.

Checking Family Lore With Newspapers
Rebecca Kenneison turned to the local newspaper for the story about her distant relative’s untimely end.

Helping Other Researchers
Good deeds returned rewards for Tina Marie (Patterson) Hansen.

The Missing Veteran
Kim Policastro’s quest for her grandfather’s father, a man he had not seen in 70 years.

A Connection Between Variations in Spellings
Vickie D. Peterson finds family in the 17th century.

Going Out on a Limb
Judy McAuliffe solved her brickwall by trying something new on the Internet.

Kimberley Muldoon-Staley solved her brickwall by referring to a file folder she kept containing cemetery transcriptions of people she thought might be related, but she was not sure how.

They Were Always On Her Mind
My brickwall story involves the Baine family on my father’s side. It was strange to hit a brickwall with this family because they had been in Hamilton, my home town, since at least 1871, but I was having less trouble researching my other families who lived much farther away.

From the 1871 census, I learned that my third great-grandparents, John and Mary Baine, were born in Ireland, both around 1835. At the Hamilton Public Library I looked up funeral records, cemetery transcriptions and city directories, but I found too many couples named John and Mary Baine to pinpoint which were my ancestors. I recorded all the information I found, even though I wasn’t sure which of, or if any of, the people I found at these sources were related to me.

A few months went by and I continued researching my other families, but the Baines were always on my mind. I took a chance by assuming that John and Mary Baine were buried in the Hamilton area. I called the Catholic cemetery and found more information that had not yet been transcribed. One of the John Baines that seemed to fit had passed away in February 1902. I was sticking with this person because his age and other information sounded right.

All night I couldn’t sleep, wondering where to look next for confirmation of my hunch. I got up and went straight to my file folder. There was a section at the back of the file folder where I kept the information I had collected on the many Baines I found in funeral records, cemetery transcriptions and city directories. This was where I stashed the information I had on people who I thought might be related, but I was not really sure how. Pieces from all these sources fit together to give me the confirmation I needed. The funeral records listed a John Baine whose death information matched that of the cemetery. Looking at the city directories is what really made it clear. The one address similar throughout all my different sources of information was listed for both John Baine and his family, but also members of the Hinchey family. John and Mary’s daughter Johanna married Edward Hinchey.

Since then I have found many other sources to confirm what started as a hunch. From census records, death registrations and newspaper obituaries, much has been discovered about both my Baine and Hinchey families.

I hope my story will help people to realize that it’s important to write down everything you find that could relate to your family, even if at the time you aren’t really sure how. By piecing together bits of information from different sources you may overcome a brickwall in your research.

Kimberly Muldoon-Staley, ON

Alison Forte found her ancestor through a bit of luck — when distracted while scanning through a microfiche of birth indexes she hadn't planned on checking, she came back to find the name she was looking for right in front of her.

Fortune Rewards Those Who Never Give Up
My research hit a snag when I started trying to put together my grandfather’s family. As you’ll see I didn’t use a highly technical or fancy research technique to solve this mystery. Perhaps it was just a little bit of good fortune.

I had been able to find my grandfather Fred’s birth entry in the English birth indexes and I had sent for his certificate, which revealed who his parents were, his date of birth and the address where his family lived when he was born.

Fred was born in 1905 and his parents, William and Elizabeth, were married in 1902. I looked through the birth indexes from 1902 to 1912 for George Thomas, which was the name of Fred’s brother. I sent for all the birth certificates for Georges that I could find. My mother wasn’t sure if George was his name, but I decided to start there. I was hoping it would lead to a new discovery. Unfortunately, one letter after another kept coming back with the same results; it wasn’t the George I was looking for. I kept trying to think where I could look next but found I was always getting sidetracked with other lines that were progressing nicely.

Several years passed and I still hadn’t got anywhere with this problem. I volunteer at the FHC and while there on my shift I decided I was going to give it one more try. I pulled open the drawer of the birth indexes and I noticed that there was only the third-quarter of the 1908 indexes, followed by 1911, 1912 and so on. I was going to start at 1911, when I hesitated for a minute and the next thing I knew I was going through the 1908, third-quarter index.

I was putting the fiche into the reader, when I was called to the aid of a patron. When I returned to my fiche I had forgotten where I was. I stared at the screen and found I had left it at the Thomas surnames. I was about to move to G, because the fiche was left on W, when I saw the name George. It said William George. Could it be? I read on, “Devonport 5b 298”. That was the right registration district. It made a lot of sense as his father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s names were all William.

I sent for the birth certificate and received a response. I couldn’t open the envelope fast enough. There before my eyes were the words “William George Thomas, born 23 August 1908”. To the far right of the certificate were listed the parents. The names were right. I had found my mother’s uncle!

My roadblock was removed by just being at the right spot at the right time, which is not a fancy or technical research technique at all. I am so glad I didn’t give up and decided to try one more time. Now the doors are starting to open. I am determined to carry on.

Alison Forte, AB

An Unlikely Source To Knocking Down Brickwalls
A brickwall came tumbling down, but I can’t lay claim to my knocking it down. A librarian in Dutchess county, NY, came upon the information and passed it along, not really realizing what a find it was for me.

For years we have been looking for my husband’s third great-grandfather’s parents and his birth records. He shows up in the 1800 census in Orange county, NY. His death certificate stated he was born in Holland, but I’ve found death certificates aren’t always correct. A fire in the local Orange county courthouse destroyed records that could have been helpful.

In the 1790 census, a man with the same surname was a reverend in Dutchess county. He had a son listed in the right age bracket, who could have been our ancestor, but no records of his birth or baptism were there, though only some of the reverend’s children were listed.

What the librarian found was a book that had a country doctor’s record of his daily visits to his patients. In 1790, he treated the reverend and his wife and family and one of the names listed was my husband’s ancestor from Orange county.

This bit of information put his ancestor in Dutchess county, the right age for the 1790 census and is the only proof the Reverend could be my husband’s fourth great-grandfather. A very big brickwall was knocked down.

Agnes Rysdyk, NY

Alvin’s Legacy
In the early 1990s, while visiting an elderly relative, Alvin Weaver, he told me a story of a man who attempted to walk cross-country to his son’s home several miles away. Apparently, the man got caught in a fence he was trying to cross, fell and was found dead almost two weeks later.

Several years later when I was more interested in obtaining some family history, I decided to visit Alvin again and ask him about some of the family. His mother was a sister to my husband’s grandmother. Their maiden name was Kieffer and their mother was Sarah Kreider. Although Alvin was now in his 90s, his memory was very keen. As well as remembering details, he also remembered dates by relating them to other events. For example, he knew my husband’s great-grandfather died during the flu epidemic in 1918. Alvin also was able to supply some stories and details about my husband’s mother’s side of the family. He was full of stories about people in the area. Again he told me the sad story of the man who died after getting caught in a fence. I asked what the man’s name was and he told me Daniel Kiefer. Somehow in my note taking, I wrote Kreider instead and then placed the note in my miscellaneous file, as I was not yet researching the Kreider family.

It was such a joy to visit with Alvin that I went several times over the next couple of years. A few times he would repeat a story or fact, but for the most part he gave new information. Some stories related to the families I was interested in and some related to people he had known in the same communities where relatives lived.

In researching the Kieffer family, I became confused at times because I had four different spellings in the same general vicinity. Church records, census records, newspaper obituaries and stone markers at the cemeteries didn’t always agree. Brothers, whom I knew were brothers, each chose a different spelling even to the present generation. Perhaps they were all separate families after all.

While visiting one cemetery to take pictures of stones, I met another woman there and we talked. Her maiden name was Kiefer and she proceeded to direct me to the front part of the cemetery where her relatives were laid to rest.

“Momma always said these two were the first to come to America.” These two were Daniel and Barbara Kiefer. After getting her address and telephone number, taking pictures of the stones and making notes of what she had told me, I decided it was time to visit Alvin once again.

Yes, Alvin was familiar with Center Cemetery where Daniel and Barbara Kiefer are buried. In fact, his grandfather and grandmother, Jacob and Sarah Kreider Kieffer, are also buried there. He also told me that many more of the extended family are buried there as well. He was not sure just how this Daniel and Barbara fit into the family, but he thought that they were probably connected in some way.

“I remember my Grandmother (Sarah Kieffer) took me to a funeral the year I had the accident with my hand. She said Daniel Kiefer was my grandfather’s (Jacob) brother and it was very sad because he had died in a field and his body was not found for several weeks.”

Now I had more questions. “Was the man’s name Kreider or Kiefer?”

“Oh, it was Daniel Kiefer,” Alvin said.

“What year did you have the accident where you lost some fingers?” I asked.

“That would have been in 1908 in the springtime of the year. I still had the cast on my arm,” said Alvin.

Armed with this information, I searched the local newspapers and located an obituary for Daniel Kiefer in July 1908. With an exact date now, I wrote for a death certificate. There, very plainly written, were Daniel’s parents’ names Daniel and Barbara Moon Kiefer. The obituary listed the sons of Daniel. Putting all this information into my history gave me the opportunity to connect the families of Kieffer, Keiffer, Kiefer and Kufer surnames in this locality. And, in connecting this family, I obtained stories and information about others.

Alvin Weaver died on 25 September 1997 at the age of 101. I still miss visiting him and hearing his stories. Not only did I learn interesting facts about family that I was researching, but I realized that we need to listen very carefully to all the things our older relatives tell us and not leave any stones unturned. So I’ve also learned to ask more questions about names, relations, places and events.

Barbara Sutphin Witwer, PA

Keep An Open Mind
My third great-grandfather was a Seminole War veteran and farmer by the name of Emanuel D. Mott. From two family Bibles, I knew immediately upon commencing my family history research that he was born in East Florida on 16 March 1800 and died in Jacksonville, FL on 28 October 1858. Emanuel was unique in that he was born a non-Spanish, native Floridian of such vintage as that of the Second Spanish Occupation of Florida (1783-1821). There were factors in my favor: the excellent record keeping by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine of non-military inhabitants of East Florida and Emanuel’s somewhat-rare surname. However, I still could not prove his parentage.

I did find Emanuel in the Spanish land grant records. These were grants that the US would honor, with proof, after Florida became a territory in 1821. These records and testimonies proved his early life in, or near, St. Augustine. Several possibilities existed: the Jacob C. Mott family of Long Island, NY that had invested in land and citrus crops in Mandarin, FL; a Matthew Mott who arrived in 1793 from VA; the widow Hannah Mott who came prior to 1786 from SC and a Jonas Mott of London who arrived in the 1760s when Dr. Andrew Turnbull settled his Smyrna Colony.

Despite some promise in each of the four Mott families, none provided a proven, direct connection to my Emanuel. However, one of the four had to be that of my ancestor. I read and re-read the Spanish records of the Basilica written by the priest, but the name of Emanuel (Manuel in Spanish) just did not appear. Years went by and hours were spent on old East Florida Papers of Spain’s Second Occupation; but no further proof of Emanuel’s family emerged.

Finally it dawned on me to revisit the Basilica’s records for children baptized on or immediately after Emanuel’s known date of birth. I found him and opened up the trail of his ancestry back to 16th-century England. Emanuel was there, not as Emanuel D. Mott, but as Manuel Joséf Resoy, the illegitimate son of Manuel Resoy, a Cuban Army soldier and Anna Maria Mott (spelled “Moot” in the record). Manuel’s date of birth matched exactly the date in the two family Bibles.

Never take too literally the exact name or spelling of the name of the person for whom you are searching.

Bob Nichols, FL

Checking Family Lore With Newspapers
My mother, my aunt and their cousin all told stories about their grandmother Guy’s brother, Job, who had, according his gravestone, “Departed this life by a kick from a horse” at the age of eight. The stories varied, from the sparse to the fanciful.

So at the record office at Lewes in Sussex, I decided to check this. I knew, from a photo of the gravestone, when this event had taken place and, from family lore, where (Chalvington). I found the film of the Sussex Express newspaper that covered the relevant weeks and soon found it: “Chalvington: Child killed by a kick from a horse.”

There it was, the whole story taken from the inquest, including quotes (or the clerk’s rendition thereof) from the boy’s mother. It was nothing dramatic, just a tragic accident, but it was satisfying to have a few facts.

A few hours later, I packed my papers and drove to the churchyard, through fields where my line had worked for generations.

It was an amazing experience, finding that grassy grave, with Job on one side and his parents on the other. It was when I knew I was hooked on family history!

Rebecca Kenneison, Surrey, UK

Tina Marie Hansen's ancestor George Patterson, husband of Ellen Armstrong.

Helping Other Researchers
My brickwall has been one that has lasted since the beginning of my research. According to every document and census I found my third great-grandmother was Alice Ellen Armstrong. But I did not know her mother. She was the daughter of Wheeler Cuffe Armstrong, yet there was another interesting problem; Ellen first appeared living with Wheeler’s parents, simply as one of the children. Her age did not match up with being John and Eliza’s child. In a family history written for a local township, I discovered a relative who said she was Wheeler’s daughter. According to family legend, she was an illegitimate child. The Armstrong family was a very wealthy family in Peterborough county, ON, and any notes on them had their son as never married and no children.

I later tracked down Ellen’s death certificate, which listed her as the daughter of Wheeler Armstrong. I found Wheeler’s will which had him leaving his property to her eldest son Wheeler Patterson. In 1861, Ellen married a George Patterson. George and Wheeler worked together settling the lands of northern Peterborough and Haliburton county. There was never any mention of Ellen’s mother’s name. I searched for birth records, but being in the early 1840s, records are hard to find.

My first break came when I decided to transcribe a set of marriage records for Peterborough county. As I went through the records I came across the marriage record for George Patterson to Ellen Armstrong. Again, her father’s name was Wheeler C. Armstrong. This time a mother’s name was listed: Mary Ann. Mary Ann’s last name was so badly written I only knew it started with a D. At least, I thought, this was a start.

However, for years I couldn’t get past it. I even tried using a scanner and graphic programs to isolate her last name and at least get an idea. I consulted fellow genealogists. We came up with the possibilities of Dwyer, Dever, Duire and Dwven! Frustration had reached its peek and I had all but given up.

I joined an Internet site called Helplist Canada. Using the resources I had at home, I could help people around the world with local genealogy questions.

I started helping a gentleman in Australia research his family in Peterborough. He asked me if there was anything he could do for me. I thought this was unlikely as he was in Australia and all my research was in Peterborough county. I sent him the information and sure enough months later he had spoken with another gentleman via e-mail who researched old letters of the Peterborough county pioneers. The gentleman told him in one of the old letters from the Armstrongs there was mention of the maid who had a child by Wheeler. Her name was Mary Ann Dwyer!

She being Catholic Irish and the Armstrongs being Protestant Irish may have something to do with her being omitted from the family history or was it because she was the maid? From there my friend in Australia also discovered her baptismal record in Asphodel township in Peterborough county. Something I had searched high and wide for!
In helping others, it is not just rewarding in itself but also can unearth those lost ancestors!

Tina Marie (Patterson) Hansen, YT

Armed with determination to help her grandfather find out more about his own father before it was too late, Kim Policastro convinced the Veterans Administration to help her overcome the usual delays and red tape.

The Missing Veteran
When my grandfather was nine months old his maternal grandparents took him from his parents. His mother had two more children with her husband and then left him. None of the children had any further contact with their father’s family as they grew up. My grandfather looked his father up as a teenager and visited him at his place of employment. That was the extent of their relationship.

Fifty years later I began working on our family history. I asked hundreds of questions about my great-grandfather, but got very few answers. Grandpa remembered that his great-grandfather’s name was Samuel Zane Wilson. He had lived in Martins Ferry, OH in 1922 when my grandfather was born and he had served in the army during WWII.

So I began at Martins Ferry. There was an entry in the city directory for Elsie Wilson, my great-grandmother, but not for Samuel in 1924. I wrote to the NARA for his service record. While I waited for that answer, I checked with Ohio vital records for a death date and came up empty. I checked courthouse records in Martins Ferry for deeds, wills or any legal action but found nothing. I talked to some of the older members of the local historical society who lived in the area during the time Samuel had lived there. One man thought he might have been a mechanic during the 1940s, but wasn’t sure he was the right guy.

In the meantime the answer on his service records came. They had been among the records lost in a fire. They were able to forward a copy of his Final Statement, which gave me his rank and induction date as well as where he joined the service. A helpful file clerk had attached a note that he had a Veterans Administration claim number that may be of help to me. Maybe Samuel’s records could be accessed through the Veterans Administration. By using his claim number I was able to use another route to find out about my great-grandfather.

I wrote to the Veterans Administration and explained the situation. My grandfather was 74 at the time and had never been able to find his father’s final resting-place. He wanted closure and I was determined he was going to have it. After I explained that all I wanted to know was where Samuel was buried the Veterans Administration became very cooperative. I received a copy of the Application for Burial Allowance that had been completed by the funeral director in Fairmont, WV and was signed by Samuel’s sister and a copy of his death certificate. Samuel passed away on 20 June 1949. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Fairmont, WV. After two years of letter writing and phoning local veterans’ offices, I had found my great-grandfather.

My grandfather was able to stand at his father’s gravesite and say goodbye.

Kim Policastro, PA

A Connection Between Variations In Spellings
My grandmother, Maude Conkwright Perry, died in 1946, and my grandfather died when I was nine years old. I was never able to trace my grandmother’s line back because when I started doing this research; the only census in Oklahoma which was indexed and available was the 1850 census and I had no way of knowing where her family came from. In the meantime, I wrote down every Conkright and Conkwright I could find in every record I came across. As indices for each census came out, I did the same. I also moved a lot. I lived in several different states and had access to several different libraries and historical societies. Everywhere I went, I wrote down anything related to anyone with any of these spellings. This was pre-computer days, but I kept all this data in the hopes that someday something would come along that would help me sort all this data.

Then I came across a note in a Kentucky historical journal that said that all Cronkrights, Conkwrights, Cronkhites and Cronkites were related. I started piecing together all the data I had gathered from all over the US and was able to trace the line back to New Amsterdam to Harck Syboutszen and Wyntje Theunis, who were married in 1642. They were Dutch and their sons went by the Dutch patronymic Herricksen, however, they acquired the surname Kranckheyt, spelled numerous ways later in life, most likely as a way to appease the English. The will of their son, Jacobus, allowed me to link all the descendants together.

So not only have I found her line, but I almost have enough documentation to prove that all Cronkhites, Cronkites, Conkwrights and Conkrights (and many other spellings) are all descended from the same couple.

Vickie D. Peterson, OK

By sending e-mails to three random people with the surname she was researching, Judy McAuliffe found out about a published genealogy of her ancestors.

Going Out On A Limb
My Treichel line was a real difficult one. All that I knew took me as far back as my grandmother had been able to tell. She didn’t know from what town or village the Treichels had originated, only that they came from Prussia. She could take the family back as far as her immigrant grandparents who were my second great-grandparents.

On a lark, one day, I decided to be radical. I went to my web search browser and plugged in the name “Treichel”. I received several commercial websites, each associated with a person named Treichel. I decided to pick the first three and send them e-mail messages asking them about their family names. One of the three was a nuclear physicist working in Switzerland, but he took the time to reply to my letter. He said his father, living in Berlin, was interested in family matters and he would give him a call soon. It wasn’t long after that I heard back from him. He told me that his father had a book about the Treichel family and he wanted to know which Treichel family I was searching. I wrote back about the information of my immigrant Treichels that my grandmother had given me. Within a couple of days, he wrote back to tell me they were in the book. It even said that my second great-grandfather had “ausgewandert nach America”.

Many letters and conversations later, I now have a major breakthrough in my Treichel line and now know exactly where they lived in West Prussia. All because I thought I would go out on a limb and contact a stranger.

Judy McAuliffe, CA

This article appeared in our May/June 2003 issue.

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