Stories That Inspire: Dead Ends and Brick Walls—Some Tips and Tricks That Just Might Help

September 16, 2015  - by 

Sometimes, finding new information on an ancestor may seem like quite a challenge. Situations that appear to be dead ends and brick walls don’t need to stay that way. Instead of trying to push further and further back on a family line, progress may come by learning more about the family and extended family. By learning a few techniques I’ve developed over the years, you might just be able to help others, or yourself, get around those dreaded dead ends and brick wall barricades!

A few weeks ago a friend showed me his McClure family in FamilySearch Family Tree. He is stuck on his paternal line with a man who was born about 1809 in Tennessee and died in Illinois in 1874. Although McClure was not an extremely common name in the area, there were enough around to make the research a little difficult. He had already attached each US census of 1850, 1860, and 1870 as sources in Family Tree. Finding a person in each census taken during his or her lifetime often reveals information that might be missed without this attention to detail. My friend was off to a good start but not sure how to discover more.

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Look for Discrepancies

Looking at the census details from 1850 and the information added to the Thomas McClure Family Tree, we noticed some discrepancies. Two daughters listed in Family Tree were born two and four years before the parents married. Seeing one child born a little early isn’t unusual, but to have two children born before the parents’ marriage raises some questions. The 1850 census also showed two girls living with the family who had a different surname. It looked like the marriage in 1844 listed on FamilySearch Family Tree may have been the second one for both Thomas and his wife. That was a big clue.

Check Marriage and Death Records

A general search of all collections on FamilySearch for a marriage of Thomas McClure in Kentucky revealed a few possibilities. To be sure which marriage really fits this family, we then checked the death certificates for each of Thomas McClure’s children for the mother’s name and maiden surname. Death records before 1900 are less likely to include the mother’s name. Some states or countries included different information in different time periods. The death or burial information is still worth obtaining regardless of the time period. This approach can be especially helpful if tombstone and other graveyard records are also available for searches.

Brick Wall 2












Use FamilySearch Record Hints

Next we looked at the details page for each child—it is easy to click on the Record Hints or Search Records links on the right side of the FamilySearch individual records page to see if a marriage or death record is available. In this case, it was necessary to find the marriage of daughters first since death records are normally indexed by a woman’s married surname.

We were not able to find all of the marriage and death records for the Thomas McClure family. Some of the deaths that were found did not include parent’s names. By checking for the death record of each of Thomas’s children, however, we found the youngest daughter’s death certificate showing her mother’s maiden surname and birthplace. It also showed her father’s name and his birthplace. This proved to be a huge breakthrough.

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Don’t Give Up

The details in Ella McClure’s death certificate about her father were recorded fifty years after Thomas died and more than one hundred years after his birth. So, next we verified this information by searching additional records such as birth, marriage, and death or burial records in Kentucky. The exciting thing for us was that new records have been posted and new searches can now be made for additional information. That’s the beauty of FamilySearch; close to a million new records are posted online every day, so keep checking!

Go Back to the Records

There are many times when people are stuck with their genealogy and a few basic searches can change everything. FamilySearch makes it simple to do many of the basic searches for an individual and his or her family members.

Start with census, birth, marriage, and death records. The death records are often neglected. One genealogy guru tells people that the first thing they should do is find death information for their ancestor. The reason for this is that information about parents may be included. It is also productive to work back in time from the latest event in a person’s life. Important clues will be found along this path.

In many countries, individuals and families can be found in census records with a small amount of effort thanks to online indexes. Once you get the family in the earliest available census, finding more information may get a lot more difficult. In the United States, the 1850 census is the earliest one that names everyone in a home. Vital records kept by the state or county are very helpful, although more indexing is needed to improve the ability to find individuals—but don’t overlook these important documents.


By branching out to find details for all of the children rather than just the direct line, we were able to find extremely useful information that pointed to new places to search. This new information added to and enhanced what was already in FamilySearch Family Tree, strengthened what was known about the Thomas McClure family, and broke through a dead end. More searches can still be done, especially on Thomas’s two oldest daughters. I am anxious to visit my friend and together discover more about his family. Try some of these tips—you’ll be amazed at the doors that will be opened when you just take the time to try them!


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    1. Looking for my greatgrandma owllooking she is a northernpiegantribeshe was bornin1881 in blackfeetnation on the blackfeetindianreservation.yeah I know what you meam my name Delea I am the great granddaughter of owllookingborningallatinmontana

  1. I am stuck at my grandfather Shoob. He has been dead for many years and was born in Russia. I am trying to find out if he had any siblings that went to England. I have cousins there and they do not know any thing or how they arrived in England. I seem to be the only one doing the genealogy here. There is a cousin in England who I am in touch with who is doing the genealogy over there. He really is not to sure if he can help. I know more than him. Because of the wars in Russia it is difficult to get information. Many of the records are lost. I am considering doing DNA but have to find out about the cost.

    1. Have you tried the UK Naturalisation Certificates? For example Sam Shoob from Yanova, Kovna, Russia, aged 31, a cabinet maker in London became naturalised in November 1902. His parents were Morris & Pessah. He was married to Sarah, of the same age and also from Russia, and had seven named chldren, aged 3 months to 10 years.

    2. Hello Judith, I am married to an English Shoob and am very much involved in genealogy, having researched the Shoobs as much as I can. Could we share information?

  2. Searching for Michael Rooney from Ireland. came with wife Jeannette had a son, James, born in NJ in 1788. Settled in Berkeley County Virginia

  3. I’m stuck now, but I haven’t given u p because I went back to an interview on a delayed Hawaiian birth application where a possible link to my father’s side can resolve some questions of linking to another family he mentioned several times while alive as his first cousin. Noticeable discrepancies in the testimonies of others as well as her has prompted some other searches on this website. At this point, I also found a common ancestor that might shed some light on this person my father called his first cousin. In her descendants there was an adoption as well as the other family who also has an ancestor with an adoption around the same time–also around the same age of my father. Along the searching, another name surfaced, which I also found among the notes my brother had made before he passed. I’m inclined to believe that this is a probable lead as I continue to look at the details of the picture pedigree chart and adoption and foster parent names in this person’s other surnames as well as marriages. Thank you for posting this article. I really needed to hear this for myself.

  4. Thank you for being there and helping people try to find there ancestors. I had just about given up hope on finding my Great Grandmother and i found out more on Family Search that helped me find out where she is buried.

  5. we have been at a dead end trying to find a William Lee’s parents. Such a common name and his birthdate appears as others do with same date. His Civil War papers reveal nothing. His death record nothing as well. Sometimes you reach a dead end no matter what.

  6. Thanks for the article on Dead Ends and Brick Walls. It was very helpful to me. Simple ideas, but powerful.

  7. I enjoyed reading this article. I too have begun going through the children of my great grandfather, to locate their death, marriage and births. I need to build a bridge of primary sources to my great great grandfather, whom I know is correct but lineage societies want primary sourced. It is quite amazing how many surnames can be in a geographical area.

  8. I have hit that proverbial brick wall recently while compiling my paper work for joining DAR. My great grandmother Evelyn Hutcherson Steele. In 1905 my g-grandfather William A. Steele made his Will on Jan 14 and on the 15th he passed away leaving her his property and if Evelyn died it would then pass to my grandfather Lela Steele. I can’t find her after this. They were living in Madison Rockingham Co., North Carolina. Any help would be appreciated. Fran

  9. Dear Dr. Williams,
    Our Stake is having a Discovery Day and I am going to teach a Solving Dead Ends and Road Blocks class. May I have permission to quote your artiicle and use your words in my lesson. I am going to use my own examples but want to follow your outlne of steps. I will also give you credit and give the steps to find your article on since it was not easy for me to find it again.
    Sincerely, Margaret Call