Brick walls are frustrating. I’ve broken through dozens, but I have even more that I’ve been staring at for years. In this quick video, I’ll share one method of breaking through a brick wall and provide an illustrative example.
Quick version: if you run into a dead-end with your direct line, research their siblings, or even people you just suspect might be their siblings. Records associated with the sibling may help you make new connections.
If find this useful in a few different scenarios.
One is trying to determine an ancestor’s maiden name: sponsors or witnesses at baptisms tend to be family members, especially before the 1800s. If a surname crops up repeatedly, it’s a good guess that those are the mother’s siblings, aunts, uncles or even parents.
Another scenario is trying to bridge geographical gaps. It was the rare exception before 1900 that someone immigrated alone.
Ethnic Germans, for example, tended to immigrate to Colonial Pennsylvania in a group with others from their village. If you can’t trace your ancestor directly, their family in Pennsylvania may have a better trail back to Germany
Irish Catholics migrated in chains, so even if only a couple individuals were on a given ship, they already knew someone at their destination, whether it was a sibling or cousin or even a former neighbor.
Let me give you an example: a George Schlauch who died in Pelham, Ontario in early 1812. His will listed his children clearly, and a variety of evidence indicated that before moving to Canada, he lived in Berks County, Pennsylvania where he married a Catharina Gieg and started his family.
But George Schlauch was otherwise a brick wall. In 2015, one of George’s descendants, Liz Tice, asked me to help figure out who George’s parents were. There were quite a few hypotheses, and all of them could easily be disproved.
Trying to find a baptismal record for George was a pointless exercise. You can speculate that he was born between 1736 and 1740 by assuming he was in his mid- to late-twenties when he married in 1764. That also put him in his mid-70s when he died in Canada—a reasonable age for the time. But there were at least three men with that name born in Pennsylvania around then, even more in Germany.
Still, any birth year between 1720 and 1745 would fit those marriage and death years as well. And there were dozens of baptismal records for George Sloughs in Germany and Pennsylvania in that twenty-five year period.
Liz had a new hypothesis, though. That George was somehow related to a Michael Slough because of this property map which showed the two living close to each in Brecknock Township.
We couldn’t find any records tying George and Michael together, but there was a third person that seemed to connect the two: a Barbara Schlauch. When she married in 1761, her father was named as Michael Schlauch. When her son was baptized in 1783, the sponsors were the George and Catharine Schlauch we were researching.
Of course, there wasn’t much about Michael or Barbara to indicate who their parents were or where they were born either. Michael’s death in 1808 suggested he and George were of about the same age, but that was it.
But Liz had found a June 1808 record of Michael’s death and burial, which noted he was seventy-seven years and about eight months old. See the “etwa” there? That’s German for “about.” That put his birth in the fall of 1730, late October-ish.
And in the village of Gomaringen, near Tubingen, Germany, there was a record of a 2 November 1730 baptism of a Michael Schlauch born to Michael & Maria Schlauch. There were plenty of other baptismal records for Michael Schlauch in Germany, but none in the fall of 1730.
Michael’s father had several other children, including a George born in October of 1738, and a Barbara born in 1744.
Finally, in 1747, a Michael Schlauch immigrated with his family to Pennsylvania aboard the Restauration.
We couldn’t find a way to trace George’s ancestry, but by following the document trail of a potential brother, we could put the entire family story together.
Of the dozens of potential George’s, his brother led us to the right baptismal record in Germany, and broke us through that brick wall.