04 February 2020

What to Do When Your Family Tree Is Stuck

See how working around your missing ancestors can lead to useful facts.

The sad truth of genealogy research is this: Sometimes the documents you need will not be there for you. A disaster destroyed the vital records for your town. Or they were never recorded. And there were no local newspapers when your townspeople were illiterate.

I'm facing this now as I try to help a client get further back in his family tree than his living ancestors can recall. I'm also facing it for myself. I have a branch from a town with missing records. I can't go as far back as I want to.

When the documents aren't there for you, what can you do?

Imagine you want to walk down a main path in New York's Central Park. But you can't go directly from where you are (the William Shakespeare statue) to your destination (the Bethesda Fountain). The path is blocked. What can you do? You can follow some of the other paths. It's a longer route, but eventually you'll get where you want to go.

When the straight path is not possible, take advantage of other avenues.
When the straight path is not possible, take advantage of other avenues.

And that's how you can make progress in your family tree. When the documents you want are blocked, go around.

I want to learn the name of my 2nd great grandmother Maria Luigia Muollo's mother. Maria Luigia was born in about 1843. Her birth record is not available. I even sent a professional researcher to the town church, but they didn't have a lot of records. The town just shrugged it off, or so it seems.

But I have a plan to get around this blockage. I'm examining available records for everyone in town with her last name. It might help to find someone around her age who had the same father's name. It would be fantastic to find her death record. But I've discovered she was still alive in 1902 when she reported the birth of her grandchild (my grandmother's 1st cousin Vincenzo). Now I know she died during the years when no death records are available.

I'm continuing to look at everyone named Muollo in this little town. I'm piecing together their families. I'm hoping to find the connection between separate family units. It's a roundabout path, and I may get lost. But much like Central Park, I know the views will be worth it.

I found his grave before I knew who he was. Now his birth record gives me a big clue.
I found his grave before I knew who he was. Now his birth record gives me a big clue.

At the same time, I've got this client in mind. I can't seem to find records for his direct ancestors. But I'm hunting down every document for people with the right last names. One death record may be all I need to add another generation to his family tree.

Keep this in mind when you're frustrated by your brick wall. You can't seem to get through it after all your trying. But have you tried to go around it? Have you investigated what's near it? Try to fill in some of the surrounding blanks. You may get lucky after all.

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5 comments:

  1. My father's side is Polish. I don't have his birth certificate. He tried to get one in the early 2000s to apply for his Canada Pension Plan benefits, but with no luck - a friend of his was in Poland and did everything he could, but given that my dad was born in the area of Poland that is now part of Ukraine, just before WWII means that those records disappeared. Interestingly enough, I have documents my grandmother filled out for my dad, and she used two different DoB - 1935 on some and 1936 on others. My uncles say it was '35. So that's what I use. At some point I'm hoping some Polish/Ukrainian baptismal records from the 30s will come online.

    Further back, the Russians kept good records - I've only researched back (so far) into the period while Poland was partitioned and occupied. Many records are indexed and some have been scanned. I use the indexes available online, but again, some are missing...so I do what you said, try workarounds by researching every aspect of my ancestors' lives and that of their relatives. It's what makes genealogy interesting (and frustrating).

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  2. Excellent post. I’ve used similar methods in my research on two very big brick walls. No luck so far, but I’m ever hopeful.

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    1. I remain hopeful, too. I did learn, by casting a wide net, that someone I had identified as an ancestor died as a baby. So the real guy may be a younger brother or come from an entirely different family. At least I've proven I had the wrong guy.

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  3. I ran into the same problem years ago researching my maternal side in Puerto Rico. The church burned to the ground and with it went all records. During hurricane MarĂ­a many churches flooded and their records were transferred to 2 other churches in nearby towns. During the recent earthquake those churches suffered serious damage, and now no one can figure out where the church records transferred 2 years ago are.

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    1. That's awful and so heartbreaking. The damage done to Puerto Rico -- and her records -- is unfathomable.

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