Living with Brick Walls

Genealogy Brick Walls are problems that you may need to live with for many years. By their nature they will not be quickly resolved. There are many techniques that can both help you possibly solve them but also enable you to put them away and then get started again without having to begin back at the beginning.

This article was the basis for my popular lecture, Living With Brick Walls The lecture includes a variety of additional examples and a large selection of sample records along with showing the resolution of two and the progress on another of the brick wall examples.

2015 - DNA testing and many new online records are helping to solve or at least reinforce the solutions of some of the old problems.

      • Procrastination has become a useful tool

      • Y-DNA tests at the Johnson project are actually helping to reinforce the Johnson line that I chopped down.

      • Collaboration with researchers in Nicaragua and Denmark have helped to extend the Bockman/Neuhaus research and helped to solve a major name and age issues. It has also been a major motivating factor.

Living With Brick Walls

By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Originally published in Heritage Quest Magazine, Issue #82 - July/August 1999, page 24.

Brick walls. Every genealogical researcher has one or more of them. Every researcher has read about or attended lectures on “Scaling them”, “Tearing them down”, “Breaking through them”, “Going around them”, and “Running into them.” They come out all excited, rush headlong into their wall until they are bruised and then go back to New England research to rebuild their confidence and ego.

The brick wall is to the researcher what the “Road Runner” is to “Wile E. Coyote.” Rather than wishing to blow up the wall, the researcher really needs to learn how to live with the wall, plan how to get the elusive information, and then prepare for life without the wall because by the time you eliminate it, it will be a part of you.

I grew up in Chicago, IL and one side of the property was the fifteen-foot high brick wall of an office building. My parents could have wished that it wasn’t there or complained about it. Instead they, along with a few friends, painted a mural of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph, and a Paris street scene. The brick wall and a rubber ball provided me with many hours of baseball pitching practice. After our property was torn down for “Urban Renewal” that painted brick wall looked rather strange all by itself. We then moved across the street from a six story high solid brick wall of a theater. This was even better for playing ball and was actually a nice backdrop behind the trees. After the theater was torn down we really missed that wall.

Unfortunately you cannot paint a genealogical brick wall because it is really more like the “Colgate Invisible Shield” or a polarizing filter. Everything on the other side is perfectly clear, only what you want to see is missing. You can become very frustrated if you think that you will just blast through it. Your research will need to be well planned with good record keeping to be successful. It will be more of methodical process like digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall or a prison wall.

Wile E. Coyote can run into brick walls, slide down, get up and head after the Road Runner day after day. Only a few genealogists have that much fortitude. Most will move on to easier lines. You really need to plan if you are going to catch your elusive ancestor.

Other articles in this issue and sessions at workshops will give you clues to solving your brick wall problem. What do you usually do with those clues? Get all excited; think that I can use that to find so and so the next time I go to this library, the FHC, etc. It is then often just forgotten.

The following will help you use those clues to solve your research problem as well as help you keep from becoming too frustrated. Remember that there are no easy answers. Clues will tell you where to look and what to look for. It is going to take research, probably slow methodical research to solve your problem.

Systematic research requires good planning and very good record keeping. With good documentation you will be able to take a break every once in a while, to go to a workshop, research other lines, or live a life, without having to start all over again when you come back to work on this line. In addition to the normal documentation, brick wall research requires a few new types of records. For each brick wall problem you should create:

  • LIST OF KNOWN FACTS to help you work from “Known to Unknown.” Create a chronological list of all known facts including the sources. Both the list and copies of the source material should be reviewed each time a new fact is found. You may already have some of the answers sitting in your file, but you just didn’t know it when you filed it away.

  • LIST OF CLUES to keep track of handed down stories, rumors, assumptions, hypothetical families, etc. This could also include some of the secondary unsubstantiated information from the known primary sources. Make sure you or anyone else can tell that it is not FACTS.

  • TIMELINE: A combination of Facts and Clues in chronological order along with important “real world” events: wars, migrations, disasters, etc. This will help you try to see: What were they doing. What else was going on? What might they have been doing? What records might have been created by these activities?

  • TO DO LIST (the real important one) is good for the ego since the answer to your problem could be that next item on the list. Nothing on the list is an indication that the problem has been solved or that there is no hope. New sources and ideas from workshops should be put on the list before they are forgotten.

    • Include on the To Do list: What you will have if you find the record, the source you are looking for, where it can be found, and a rough chance of success.

Managing your expectations is one of the best ways to live with brick walls. If you set a goal to find grandfather you will be frustrated until you do. You need to set attainable and realistic goals such as, review the WWI draft registrations of the four draft boards in downtown Chicago. You can then come back satisfied knowing that you have accomplished that. You can then plan to expand your search the next time. (The odds of finding his parents in these records are very low. Could get an address).

Review and redefine what you are looking for. You do not need a birth certificate or proof of birth if you know the person existed. What you need are their parents.

    • RESEARCH LOG is a list of resources that you have already checked and what you were looking for. You need to know what you have already checked since this type of search could take a long time and you don’t want to waste time. You should also note the condition of the record, the reader, and the setting, along with your mood, etc. You may want to review some of the sources under better conditions in the future when the kids, your spouse, the parking meter, or hunger are not telling you to hurry up.

    • CHECKLIST is used for the real methodical searches. It is both a To Do list and a Research Log. You need to know what you have already checked. If someone else is doing some of the research for you, note who did it.

      • As an example: Looking for 19 year old Alvar Bockman, Bockmann or VonBockman in the 1910 Census. He possibly came to US in 1908 via Central America and Lived in IL in 1917. He could have lived with a possible brother.

      • Goal: Checklist of States: IL, TX, LA, and the states in between. Look by soundex and Alvar. Look by soundex as living in household of someone else with same last name. Check with B255 or V512.

      • 1910 Federal Census

      • Alvar Bockman

      • State B255 – Alvar B255- family V512 – Alvar V512 - family

      • IL No 1/98 No 2/98

      • LA No 9/98 No 9/98

      • TX No 9/98 No 9/98 (a)

      • a. Poor quality film and in a hurry

GOOD RECORD KEEPING is vital for the “Get All You Can Get” approach to some problems. Collecting everything available about James Johns(t)on of Campbell County VA (supposedly married to Rebecca Jones on 30 Nov. 1808) in the early 1800s trying to find a clue about the correct family can generate more files that your “known” family. You also Need to keep the “known” family records (paper and electronic) separate from the “research” family.

ORGANIZED PROBLEM SOLVING is required. Brick wall research is similar to putting together the “blue sky” part of jigsaw puzzle. Organize: Outside of the puzzle area (separate known from research) you need to sort out all of the blue pieces by the number of “outies”, picture side up, with one of the “outies” pointing to the top. Work from Known: Start with one of the upper inside corners where you can tell if you need zero, one, or two “outies”. . The puzzle edge was put together because the one flat side was a known. Review carefully what you have: Look to see if the shape of the “innie” or “outie” is unique, so that you can easily find the match. Methodical research: try each piece that could fit into the space and put the piece back (good record keeping). Set a realistic goal of finding the next piece. Now it is just a matter of time before it is put together (Perseverance).


Having chopped down the Magna Charta and DAR portions of my Family Tree after running into the Johnson brick wall based upon a supposed “family Bible, I worked many years to prove a claimed Mayflower connection. It had also been based upon another unseen Bible.

I used published Mayflower and New England records down to a Jared West in Western Massachusetts and obituaries, cemetery records, and death certificates to get back to Esther Olmstead (his wife?). An 1838New York City directory showed Esther West (widow of Jared). There were, however, two Jareds (the one from MA and one from NY). An 1880 Federal Census of Chicago had their daughter Jane, then 63 years old, state that her father was born in MA. The pieces finally fit together. Last year [1999] my aunt died and I was finally given my grandmother’s genealogy papers in which I found pages of Jared and Esther West’s family Bible. They had post documented their births and marriage but it listed the birth of all of their children, and the following generations all in different handwriting and ink in chronological order. They had no reason to “fake it” in the early 1800s. While discussing this connection one day last summer I ran through all of the pieces to put it together forgetting totally about the new Bible records.

I am glad that I have the bible pages but like a jig saw puzzle the satisfaction came from putting it together not just seeing the picture on the cover or having someone else put it together for me.

Brick Wall / Problem Solving Checklist

• Organize First

• Work from Known to Unknown.

• Really look at what you already have.

• Look for small clues and review often.

• Set realistic goals (manage your expectations)

• Stay current with record keeping and filing.

• Take a break and live a life.