Brick Wall Busting is Not for Beginners

Brick Wall Busting is not an easy task. It should be something that beginners do not set out to do on their first attempt in genealogy sleuthing. It’s critical that you learn how to research with basic records that are readily available and the foundation of solid research before attempting to bust down the barriers. If you don’t learn the foundational research skills, you’ll give up on genealogy and fail to use your talents to solve mysteries.

As the internet brings more record collections to my home while I’m in my pajamas, my amateur genealogist skills are rapidly improving and speeding up the solving many family history cold cases.

Although my discoveries are taking less time than the ‘old days’, I could not have cracked through many brick walls straight out of the gate. A noted genealogist, Tom Jones said he spent the first 15 years of his genealogy career-making mistakes and the next 25 years cleaning up those mistakes.

I believe I spent the same percentage of time making mistakes, though I’m in my third decade of research. Don’t be foolish to think you will do better than others have on your first attempts.

For several years, I have shared the process of searching out the details of my 2nd great-grandfather William James Townsend’s life. Information about the Townsend family has been passed down since the 1860s to many descendants. Sometime in the 1970s, letter exchanges formally record the family facts onto group sheets and pedigree charts.

Always missing on these charts was the death date of William Townsend, along with his middle name. Although many relatives lived near the Obetz Cemetery in Ohio where William and his children are interred, few paid a visit to his gravestone and recorded his history. Few of his descendants remembered that William participated in the Civil War and was blinded by ineffectual surgeries to alleviate mumps.

When I started looking at William’s lack of information in the early 1990s, I wanted to be the one to find the information to crack the case. As a teenager, I lacked the resources to travel from Texas to Ohio to solve play Sherlock Holmes.

As vital records such as birth, marriage, and death records became available in online databases, I had naively high hopes that William’s information would be quickly and easily discovered. As it turns out, William’s spanned a time when record-keeping on a state and local level was lacking or non-existent. His life was not found in any online record collection. When the census came online, I found him and his wife in two censuses (1870 and 1880). I could not find anything conclusive to tell me where he was in 1860 or 1890 and beyond.

Gravestone discovered in Obetz Cemetery has started to open William’s story.

Thanks to FindAGrave, a volunteer shared a photo of my 2nd great-grandfather William’s gravestone. I finally had a death date for William and why he was not recorded in the 1900 Census. If the 1890 Census had survived, he would not have been entered there either.

Through genealogical conferences, I learned that he might have Civil War Service and Pension records. I found a genealogist who could access these files faster than the gov’t, and I discovered the life-changing impact this war had on him. Today, I could use RootsBid and hire someone to look-up the record with more ease.

Once I had the pension file, I knew more about William, but I still did not have anything that would tell me his siblings or parents. I was stuck.

Then I attempted a One Name Place Study. As I did this research, I had to apply indirect evidence to make determinations about the Townsends who lived in Franklin County, Ohio. Indirect evidence hurt my brain in the beginning. Or did it just rattle my confidence? What if I was wrong? There was no hard evidence on documents to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that my conclusions were accurate. This research is advanced genealogy for sure! And yet, this study revealed where William’s unmarried daughters were ‘hiding’ in 1880. Those reasonable determinations lead to the discovery of a likely brother and more likely siblings.

Attempting to discover the details of a man I have never met or heard stories about is not something that is for the faint of heart. I doubt my conclusions every day that ends in ‘y’. I want to make accurate conclusions but, I could still be wrong even though the logic supports my theories.

The next stage of my research involves searching in unindexed newspapers, and digging through courthouse, land and probate records that are not accessible in Texas from Ohio. Although many of these collections are coming online, the process is slow and invariably the years that I need are not available yet. Access to brick wall busting resources are not always within easy reach of most family historians, and the patience to save for a research trip or wait for more online availability takes stalwart persistence. When I began my genealogy journey, I lacked that fortitude.

If you’re new to genealogy, I welcome you to the fold. This hobby is a wonderful adventure but be forewarned. You have to choose where you begin wisely. Don’t make it your goal to prove or disprove a family legend that has persisted for decades at the onset of your discovery process. Instead, build your skills slowly and steadily so you can eventually work on the mystery that keeps calling your name. When your skill set and unique talents match the detective skills needed to go Sherlock on the mystery, you will crack the case.

When you do, the genealogy community will help you celebrate, or at least I will when you share your discoveries with me.

Further Reading:

  1.  A tombstone discovery

  2. What I learned from William’s Civil War Pension File

  3. The results of One-Name Place Study for Townsends of Franklin County, Ohio

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