Monday, January 05, 2009

Who Are Our Brickwall Ancestors, and Why Aren't We Blogging About Them Regularly?

Tombstone Tuesday. Wordless Wednesday. The carnivals. Memes and challenges. As a group, we Genea-Bloggers are pretty good about posting our ancestral stories and photographs on a regular basis. BUT...why aren't we blogging on a regular basis about our brickwall ancestors?

Oh, I realize that many of us have mentioned them in passing. We'll write about someone and say "He/she is my brickwall ancestor," but we won't give very many details.

What if we were to blog about them on a regular basis? Maybe not every week, like Tombstone Tuesday or Wordless Wednesday, but once or twice a month. Not in carnival style, because that would mean a lot of work for one person to put it all together. We wouldn't have to designate a certain day of the week or date of the month. It would just be nice if we could all commit to writing a detailed post once or twice a month about a brick wall ancestor, and include the following:

1. A title of "My Brickwall Ancestor: [Name], [dates, if known]"

2. List what we want to know: "I want to discover solid evidence of who Levi E. McCLELLAN's parents and siblings were, and when and where he died and was buried."

3. A chronological list (timeline) of known information. For instance:
1850 Federal Census - living in China Twp., St. Clair Co., Michigan as the head of the household. Levi "McCLENAN," age 27, laborer, born in New York.

The following were also living with him:

Probable wife Clary McCLENAN [Clarissa Mary CLEVELAND], age 18, born New York

Unknown household member Elizabeth FISH, age 14, born Canada

Probable mother Rachel McCLENAN, age 53, widow, born Ohio

Probable niece Emy McCLENAN, age 5, born Ohio, attended school within the year

Probable brother Rubin [sic - Reuben] McCLENAN age 28, laborer, born Ohio

I could then go on to list other census information (1860, 1870, 1880 Federal Census; he's deceased in 1890 Union Veterans Census) or documents (1862 Enlistment in Co. C, 27th Michigan Infantry; 1866 Civil War Veteran's Pension Index Card; 1880 Detroit City Directory) in which I've found Levi, in chronological order and with details.

4. List positive and negative searches in detail. Obviously, any information in the timeline would be from a positive search. But we could list where we've searched and found no information, or our attempts to trace collateral lines. In this example, I would say the following:

I've attempted to obtain Levi's death record (I know he was deceased by the time the 1890 Union Veteran's Census was taken) in the following places, with no results:

Michigan State Death Records 1867 - 1897 on FamilySearch's Record Search, using Levi as a first name and McClellan, McLellan, McCollum, McClenan, McLennan as surnames. I've also used the "Exact & close match" and "Exact, close & partial" filters. I've searched for deaths for all Levis in Michigan between 1880, when he was last known to be alive, and 1890, as well as all those with the initial L.

I would then go on to tell how I've searched online obituary and cemetery transcriptions for the area.

5. List any possible resources you can think of that you haven't checked. In the above example, I've ordered Levi's Civil War Pension Record, which I hope will provide me with more information. You can also list your suspicions. In the same Army company in which Levi served during the Civil War, there was a man named William J. McCLELLAN. I would then describe my attempts to find out more about this individual, whom I suspect is a brother or cousin to Levi.

As a Genea-Blogging community, we would agree to post helpful comments to each other's Brickwall Ancestor columns, but refrain from vague recommendations. In other words, the following would not be helpful: "Miriam, have you checked [name of resource, database or website]?" Obviously, my post will list what I have or have not checked! I would hope that you would instead say, "Miriam, I know about this [name of resource, database or website], and I've checked [this information] for you. Here are the results."

Yes, this is a lot of work. It means we need to be organized! But think about this: How many times have you told yourself that you'd give anything to break down a particular brickwall? Anything? Invest time organizing, analyzing, checking our sources, and writing about our challenging ancestors? Hunt down every detail to death until we know we've come to the very end of what we know to do? And (yikes!) keep track of our searches? But isn't this what doing quality research is all about?

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak brought genealogy synergy to a whole new level with her Unclaimed Persons project. Why aren't we tapping into it? It occurred to me--after consulting with Henk van Kampen about Dutch resources, Anna-Karin about my Swedish line, and Janet Iles about resources for Markham Twp, York Co., Ontario, plus having Colleen McHugh find and send me the above-mentioned 1850 census record for Levi--that we have some fabulous research skills and knowledge to learn from and share with each other! We need to be utilizing these! Wouldn't it just be fabulous if we could knock down a bunch of brickwalls in 2009? I hope you'll join me.


Diana Ritchie said...

FANTASTIC idea! What I really appreciate is the detailed outline you’ve given rather than just saying, “Let’s post about our brickwall ancestors.” As a total neophyte to blogging I’ve been somewhat concerned that I was going to run out of things to say before too long. (Of course anyone who knows me is laugh hysterically right now.) This is just another great thing to add. Also, I’m quite sure this will really help focus my research by having to detail exactly where I am and what I’ve done.

Thanks for suggesting this – I’m in! Twice a month it is :-)

Randy said...

Well, I've tried it and it can be seen here:

The only problem is I've not been (thus far) using my blog for genealogy.

Kathryn Doyle said...

Brilliant, as usual, Miriam. Leave it to you to figure out what we should have all been focused on all along! I think that this post just pushed me into a decision that I have been grappling with for quite awhile - starting my own personal research blog. I know that my first brick wall post will be about William Hainey BRIGGS (1818-1902) of Huntingdon Co., Pennsylvania. Now all I have to do is find some time!

Donna Hague Wendt said...

Terrific post, Miriam. I am inspired to start putting up some of my brickwall ancestors on my blog. (as soon as I get back from Nicaragua!) I like the format you identified and will try to get something going on my end. Also I'd be glad to try to help others, it just seems that everyone else is so proficient already. But, remember I did mention to you, long ago, that there were Midkiffs in Hawaii:-) - And don't forget the Willards.

Cherie said...

I really like this idea!

I had been thinking of making posts about some of my brick walls, but I tend to put it off because I need structure. I think this will be a great help to me!

Anonymous said...


Great idea! Although, I've never really considered any of my ancestors to be "brickwalls" - just research opportunities I haven't had the time to get to yet. But, I understand your intent and will certainly put a few tough problems out there!


Julie said...

This is a great idea! It might also present opportunities for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. If I see that someone is looking for something near where I live or a place I am planning to visit, I can also do a search for them!

Daphne said...

Awesome idea. I plan to make this a regular part of my blog (as soon as I get off my rear and start posting again...). Thank you for the inspiration!

Greta Koehl said...

You are absolutely correct and have stated the case very well - this is one of the main things we can be using our blogs for and the wonderful Genea-Community for. I did something like this for my "big" brickwall ( There are still probably more details I can include on the periodic updates you recommend, especially the complete list of searches done. I should mention that I received a very helpful e-mail from a member of the Genea-Community in response to the post.

Colleen said...

Great idea. Count me in as poster and helper (I hope!). My current brick wall, though, is figuring out once and for all just how to get Izzie to STOP BARKING.


Susan said...

Love this idea! Who better to bounce our projects off than other genea-bloggers who have good ideas to help. I'm with you!
Sue E.

Jasia said...

Great idea, Miriam! You've got a winner here!!! I'm sure this will become very popular with all our blogging buddies. There's nothing like a simple form/outline to help clarify and organize our thoughts and progress to date. THANKS!

David said...

Darn it, Miriam, you stole my thunder for something I'm about to finally post! ;)

I've blogged about this stuff before without getting too deep into some of the roadblocks, but I think it generally came off as a little whiny, or that's how I kind of felt. I mean, who doesn't have brick walls? If everyone is going to do it, though, I'll feel a little better, haha.

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

This brings to mind an entire post that Steve Danko once did to help me out with my Italian research. Just today I received an email from Janet Iles with help on my Nameless Faces post. I hope this catches on. I like working on other's problems, sometimes I've been able to help. And since one brick wall usually leads to another we should have plenty to write about.

Miriam Robbins said...

I'm overwhelmed by the response from all of you! The idea hit about a week ago and it was a "Duh!" moment for myself. Why wasn't I blogging about my brickwalls? We're such a helpful group and I think our mandate for 2009 can be, as in the words of Ronald Reagan, "Tear down this wall!"

Kathryn: I'm looking forward to reading another blog from you.

Donna H.W.: The Midkiffs in Hawaii are related, and I know how they connect. However, they probably do not know (or care) that they are related to my hubby!

David, sorry to steal your thunder.

Apple, you know the old adage in genealogy: The answer to one problem is two more!

Thanks to all of you for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

my Heritage Happens said...

How could such a great idea take so long to come up with? Miriam, you came up with an awesome idea! I love seeing the stories where one blogger has helped another! This community is a great community for supporting and helping one another, this can only be a benefit. I still find it hard to believe it hasn't been done before!

Bill West said...

Count me in! I've got a couple,
at least, I can post, including
another try at the Elusive John
Cutter West!

Sheri Fenley said...


See, this is why you are the Queen of the genea-bloggers! It is a fantastic idea and intend to participate at least on a monthly basis.

TheGeneticGenealogist said...

Miriam - brilliant idea! Blogging about these brickwalls is much more helful than just feeling frustrated. This is a great way for geneabloggers to interact and help one another.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Miriam,
Count me in! One of my goals for 2009, which I posted about, is to break through my William Ryckman brickwall. I like the specific guidelines you included as well.

Miriam Robbins said...

All right, folks, I'm going to start getting to work now on my Berber "Barbara" J. (DeJONG) VALK post. I hope to have it published within the next two weeks!

Thomas MacEntee said...

Very good Miriam - and I'll reiterate what other's have said - you went above and beyond just exhorting people to post about their brick walls, you actually gave structure. You can tell from the new genea-bloggers that this helps!

Thomas MacEntee said...

I posted my first one last night and funny thing: even though it has been what seems like my perpetual brick wall, it forced me to look anew at certain facts.

Carolyn said...

I've thought about blogging about my brick walls, but hesitated as being seen as begging for free genealogy help. :) Didn't want to presumptuous upon my new genealogy friends. Thank you Mariam and others for permission to add my brick walls to my blog. Lately, I have actually had a brick wall about something to blog about. You've, helped me to have some ideas of what I can share on my blog. Thanks for your great blog.

Terry Thornton said...

MIRIAM, Thanks for such a super and logical suggestion. I will start blogging about my brickwall Thornton ancestors this week and will gradually built up a complete workup following your suggestions. Thanks.
Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi
BRICKWALL: Richard Thornton (about 1790 - about 1865) and Agnes Thornton (about 1795 - about 1885) late of Fayette County, Alabama

Anonymous said...


Thanks for this great suggestion. I finally got my first one posted and it was an eye opener: missing a major piece of documentation and then I had to hunt around of some other information that should have been at my fingertips.

Thanks for a wonderful article,
Margaret (geneadiva)

Judith Richards Shubert said...

I concur with everyone. Great job, Miriam. I have several brickwall ancestors as well. I like your suggested format and have thought about creating a weekly calendar for my posts. I tend to forget things easily! I'm sure all the rest of you are totally organized. Ah well.
Thanks for sharing your talent. I plan to place this on my monthly calendar!

Anonymous said...

I have been posting about mine Susan Markham off and on for the last month. I have gotten a lot of help.

One thing I found as I typed it out is some of the notions I had about her weren't true. Once I had to back up what I said with sources, I found a lot of new research avenues.

Miriam Robbins said...

Thanks, generationsgoneby for your comments. I agree, looking carefully at an ancestor, citing every source, putting their events in date order, and checking out all their locations helps in the analyzation process and often yields more clues or sometimes even solves a riddle!

Virginia Hill said...

Miriam, thanks for the fantastic idea and the template. How helpful it will be for so many. You're awesome!

Family Curator said...

This idea is bearing fruit! I missed it in January, and was so glad to find it through Past is Prologue -

It would be great to tally the brickwalls that have crashed using this tip! Thanks, again.