In the field of genealogy, we use the term “Brick Wall” to identify an unsolved family connection. We try not to use conclusive terms like “dead end” or “unsolved mystery” because a genealogist never stops looking for the connection and when we finally find it, we can state that we “broke through” that brick wall. We view it as a temporary obstacle, not an ending.
Most genealogists begin their research online. When they’ve exhausted all online sources, they explore works published in repositories, libraries, state agencies, etc... Even the most thorough search can’t guarantee you’ll find the evidence you’re looking for. After all, records have been destroyed by fires and other natural disasters, have been discarded in error, improperly stored, or just don’t exist for certain generations.
Once you’ve exhausted all formal sources, you turn to informal sources. You call or write distant relatives in hopes that they have information or know someone who does. You remember at the last holiday party, you’re Aunt telling you about her 3rd cousin, twice removed that knew about your family history and you search for their living descendants in hopes that their stories and documents were passed on and that their kids found it important enough to hold on to.
This is where DNA testing can help. If you test your DNA through one of the primary providers such as Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA or 23andMe.com, you can compare your DNA with the thousands of members in their database and identify who you share DNA with (see part 2 of this series). In addition, you can upload your raw DNA results to several 3rd party websites and you will be matched to their directory as well. From there, you can compile a list of individuals who you are related to.
Once you have your list, you need to try to identify which branch of the family you are a match to. The first thing I do is scan for familiar surnames. If I find a surname that matches the surname of my brick wall or their spouse, I contact them first. If not, I look at my closest matches, meaning I explore 2nd – 3rd cousins before I look at 4th-6th cousins. I also look to see which DNA testing service the match used and whether or not they have a family tree published online that I can explore.
Most of these sources provide contact information for your matches. The next step is to contact them, provide some background on your family including surnames and see if you can identify the connection. Once you do that, you can share information and if you’re lucky that person may unlock the mysteries that allow you to break through your brick wall. The best approach is to provide them the most information with the least amount of documentation in your first contact. Provide your name and kit number, tell them what testing service you used, the specifics of your match and some background about your family.
People often ask me “When do you know it’s time to give up and stop researching a brick wall?” The answer is that you never stop. You never know when that missing document is going to be discovered, when a record is going to be digitized, or when new family connections will have their DNA tested and join an online community. Genealogy is a journey of discovery, there is no end.
For help discovering the benefits of DNA testing or find family matches, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .