• Devon Noel Lee

The ULTIMATE Genealogy Brick Wall Blue Print


The only way to bust through a difficult genealogy research problem is to have a proven action plan.


During a recent live stream, viewer Suzanne McClendon asked:


How do I determine if the woman listed as a servant in my 2nd great-grandfather's great-aunt's house in the 1880 Census, with the same name as my 2nd great-grandmother, is my 2nd great-grandmother?


I read this question several times, which led me to realize that with every genealogy brick wall, the first step is not what most professional genealogists suggest.


Step 1: Visualize the Case


For thirty years, I've heard that you have to start with a research question. I have come to realize that is the wrong place to start. I believe you have to visualize the research you've gathered thus far to understand the questions you should be asking.


To do that, I recommend utilizing clue webs. Clue webs are similar to mind maps. However, instead of a web of topics to research, you draw clue bubbles. Then show how each fact relates to the others. Imagine a clue web like the board with maps, sticky notes, strings, and photos that television show detectives use to solve crimes.

visualize genealogy research clues

I map out the family tree to the 2nd great-grandfather's great-aunt's house for the sample problem.


I can then add any other details to this research vision board to help me understand the research I've gathered thus far.


Step 2: Generate Specific Research Questions


The most challenging genealogy research projects involve a complex series of questions. It's rarely one question that will crack the case. What series of questions are you trying to answer?

  • Who are the parents of 2nd great-grandmother?

  • Who are the siblings of 2nd great-grandmother?

  • What did 2nd great-grandmother do before marrying 2nd great-grandfather?

  • Who are the parents of the servant?

  • When did the servant marry?

  • When did the servant die?

When you know the answers to these questions, you may find more evidence to answer the overall research roadblock.


Step 3: Define Research Challenges


While developing research plans based on our research questions, I realized we need to define the challenges we'll face while researching. They may include:

  • Migratory ancestors who frequently moved for work.

  • Ancestors who lived on the coastline and interacted with people from around the world.

  • Enslaved ancestors with few genealogically relevant records.

  • Female ancestors in a culture where ladies rarely appeared in records.

  • Servants in cities who do not live near their kin.

  • Cultures that have few records and rely on oral tradition.

  • Wars, famines, and other disasters often disrupt families and record keeping.

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Step 4: Implement Quality Research Strategies


In genealogy research, we work from the known to the unknown. We also research things we have already viewed before. We also utilize proven methodologies to investigate our cases. For example, in the case study mentioned above, we could do the following:

  • Reexamine previously found records for the 2nd great-grandmother.

  • Conduct an exhaustive search of records for 2nd great-grandmother.

  • Conduct an exhaustive search of records for 2nd great-grandmother's known relatives, namely her spouse and children. If parents or siblings are known, research their lives.

  • Conduct an exhaustive search of records for the servant. Search for her in:

  • City directories

  • Newspapers

  • Death records

  • Conduct an exhaustive search of great aunt's life for every mention of the servant in the 1880 census.

Once this intermediate genealogy research is complete, it's time to do some advanced strategies. These include:

  • Same Name Rule Out - Search for females with the same name as the 2nd great-grandmother and the servant. Do cursory research to determine which same name individual can not be the servant or the 2nd great-grandmother. Then, eliminate these individuals from your research hit list.

  • One-Name Studies - Conduct a one surname study for the area where the servant and great-grandmother lived. Build family clusters for the surname to determine how the 2nd great-grandmother or the servant fit into those groups.

After conducting all of this research, you may have some theories about whether the two women are the same.


Ideally, you're looking for the 2nd great-grandmother to 'go missing' in 1880, and the most likely option is the great aunt's home. You're looking for the servant to 'stop existing' after the date the 2nd great-grandmother married your 2nd great-grandfather.


Brick wall busting isn't easy. If you'd like to hire an experienced genealogist to tackle your difficult research questions, I recommend my friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. Tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.


Step 5: Test Hypotheses With DNA


With genealogy brick walls, we can often use DNA to help to verify or refute our theories. To do that, we find descendants of each person and see if they share DNA in the exact location on chromosomes to confirm their relationship. This research often requires a chromosome browser available on 23andMe, MyHeritage, and GEDmatch.


However, we can utilize the What Are The Odds (WATO) tool to test our theories using shared cMs and statistics to make predictions.


If we have name possibilities and family trees that we can build with our hypotheses, we may be able to leverage Ancestry ThruLines to see if we share a family tree with our cousin matches.


We can use many tools to test our hypothesis IF the descendants with whom we or our known relatives share DNA have taken a test and made their results public.


With the case mentioned above, there is one small problem.


Unless you can connect the servant to her relatives, it could be nearly impossible to confirm your theories with DNA. This investigation leads us to one last step.



Watch the video to see the whiteboard discussion about the following set.




Step 6: Evaluate Inferences


Even with the ability to use DNA, we might still lack the 'smoking gun' to confirm a relationship and resolve our genealogy brick walls. So the final technique is to make some reasonable inferences. Recognize, that when we make deductions and infer conclusions, we can still be wrong. However, we can make a good case that remains unsolved but pointed in a possible direction.


For instance, with 2nd great-grandmother and servant, we might discover the following:

  • There were five females with the same name living in Collins, South Carolina.

  • Of the five, three were about the same age to eventually marry 2nd great-grandfather.

  • According to newspapers, the great aunt advertised a servant position the same month as when 2GGF married 2GGM.

  • After the marriage, no additional records document the servant.

  • No death records appear for the servant in South Carolina without a married name.

  • Great aunt hired a younger female a few years after 2GGM married. This female has the same surname as the servant.

  • The two female servants seem to be sisters and appear in an 1870 Census record in their likely father's household.

  • Autosomal DNA evidence suggests that the descendants of the servant's likely father match relatives of 2GGM.

  • Thus, it's likely that the servant and my 2GGM are the same persons. It's also possible that 2GGF met 2GGM while she was working with his great aunt.

Now, I intentionally kept the names disguised so that you would focus on the theory rather than an actual case. Additionally, Suzanne has more research to do, and we hope she'll be able to resolve the question satisfactorily.


Success Is One Plan Away


If you follow this 6 Step Plan for Tackling Your Genealogy Brick Wall, you may not always bust through it. But, you will have taken the research as far as it can go without divine intervention. At that point, you can move on to the next challenging research project you have.



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