Brainstorming Through a Brick Wall

Solving a genealogical problem works best when you have a plan to tackle it. When you have a family legend mixed in, it's even more important to keep on track. Here's how I recently brainstormed a research plan.

Brainstorm through a genealogy brick wall


Reader Angus McIntyre contacted me with a problem that he has had researching his wife's great-great grandmother Emma Dusenberry. Here's what he sent to me:

  • Emma was born in New York in Sept 1836. We have the family Bible.
  • She was married George B. Youngblood in December 1853 at St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church in Jersey City, New Jersey; we have the marriage certificate. George died in 1869 in Michigan.
  • Emma's second husband was Hiram Francis. We have very little info on him.
  • Emma died in 1913 in Michigan. We have the death certificate. Her parents are listed with their last names only; we believe her mother's maiden name is incorrect.
  • I do not know her religion or where she was baptized or where she went to church or school.
  • I have a guess who her father may be, but my research on this has been fruitless to this point. I do not know if she had brothers or sisters. 
  • She is not listed in the 1850 US census. However, she is listed in the New York 1855 census under her married name. 
  • My wife's grandmother and aunt stated that she is related to John Paulding through his daughter Nancy, who married Nathan Dusenberry. According to online record, they only had 4 children (1 boy and 3 girls). However, I found under the Letters of Administration there was another son. Have been unable to locate anything on either of these gentlemen. 
  • I found an Emma Dusenberry living in the William Dusenberry household in New Jersey in the 1850 census, but in 1860, she was listed as Emma Dusenberry and a "spinster." This could not be the right Emma, as the Emma I'm looking for was married in 1853. 

Ok, let's start to unpack this.

Getting Started 

The first thing to do when trying to solve a genealogical problem is define what the problem is. What are you trying to find? 

Angus didn't come out and say it, but it sounds like he's trying to answer who Emma's parents are. That's what I'm going to base my plan upon. What course of action is most likely to answer that question? 

Let's think about the records most likely to list the names of the parents:

  • Birth certificate/baptism record
  • Marriage record
  • Death certificate

What About Emma's Death?

Let's start with what we're most certain about: Emma's death. Angus mentioned that he has Emma's death certificate. I looked it up on and found that her parents are listed as "Dusenberry" and "Spaulding," with no first names. 

Portion of Emma Dusenberry Francis's death certificate.

It's a bit unusual that the informant (J.H. Hoffner/Heffner/Haffner) knows Emma's parents' surnames but not their first names. Suggestion #1: Identify J.H. Hoffner/Heffner/Haffner. Who is he and how is he related to Emma?

The death certificate states that Emma was buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Tombstones and cemeteries sometimes have additional information. I couldn't help myself -- I looked up Emma on FindAGrave. Her tombstone only has her name and years of birth and death. However, Elmwood appears to be a large, active cemetery. Suggestion #2: Contact Elmwood Cemetery to see if they have additional information about Emma Francis. (Use her married name since that's the name she was using at the time of her death.)

We have a date and place of death for Emma. Suggestion #3: Look for Emma's obituary. It may not list her parents (or you might get lucky and it does!), but it might list her siblings. "Survived by brothers, X, Y, and Z, and sisters A and B." Research the siblings and you're likely to uncover the parents. 

About Those Husbands...

(Not George Youngblood or Hiram Francis.)

Emma was married twice. Her first marriage was to George Youngblood in December 1853 at St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. Angus mentioned that he has the marriage certificate. If Emma got married in a church, there should be two marriage records: the civil record and the church record. (The church record could have more information than the civil one.) Angus didn't state which one he has. Suggestion #4: Look for the other marriage record for Emma and George. On both of the marriage records, look for witnesses; they're often related. 

What about the marriage to husband #2, Hiram Francis? That marriage record could contain more information. Suggestion #5: Look for the marriage record(s) of Emma to Hiram Francis. If Emma is living in Michigan in 1869 when George died, I'd look in Michigan, as well as Ohio, Indiana, and Canada. I wouldn't rule out her going back east to New York or New Jersey. Just like on the marriage to George, pay attention to the witnesses.

George (and probably Hiram) appear to be the age to be Civil War veterans. Suggestion #6: Determine if George and/or Hiram served in the Civil War and, if so, obtain their pension files. Pay close attention to the people filing affidavits on behalf of Emma. They are likely related. 

We know that George died in 1869 in Michigan. What about his probate? Though he probably doesn't name Emma's parents in his probate, the executor or administrator of the estate could be related. Suggestion #7: Look at George's probate and identify the executor or administrator. Look also at who is buying items from the estate and, if applicable, who is named guardians of George and Emma's children. 

Emma's Birth

Angus believes that Emma was born in New York in September 1836. Unfortunately, New York didn't keep civil birth records at that time. However, we know that she was married in St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church in Jersey City, New Jersey... which is right across the river from New York. Could Emma have been born in New Jersey? Unfortunately, New Jersey wasn't keeping civil birth records in that time period, either. However... what about a baptism record? Was she baptized at St. Paul's? Suggestion #8: Look for a baptism record for Emma at St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church. ​

The Other People in Emma's Life

Emma lived in a world that had more than her husbands. We need to identify the other people in Emma's life. As we talked about, look at the people listed in her obituary, in her husbands' probate (and possible Civil War pensions), and as the witnesses of her marriages.

We can't overlook the neighbors in the census. The first census where she has been positively identified is the 1855 New York state census. Suggestion #9: Identify the neighbors in the 1855 New York state census. Not just next-door, but also several (10-15) houses on either side. Are there any Dusenberrys living nearby? ​Even if there aren't any Dusenberrys, you don't know (yet) if any of those neighbors are somehow related to Emma. 

Take those 1855 neighbors and track them in 1860 and again in 1870. Are any of them living near Emma? Even if the surname isn't Dusenberry, there's the possibility that it's a married sister. ​(Pay close attention to the ones who make the move from New York to Michigan.)

What I Didn't Focus On

​Angus mentioned that there's a family story that Emma was related to John Paulding. (Interesting that Emma's mother's maiden name is listed as "Spaulding.") While intriguing, there really isn't enough to go on with this. 

The mantra in genealogy is "work from the known to the unknown." We know quite a few things about Emma. It's going to be more productive to research from her standpoint than to try to research John Paulding and try to make some sort of connection, which may or may not exist.

Thank you, Angus, for letting me feature your research problem here!

What about you? Do you have any suggestions for Angus? Do you have a question about how to brainstorm your brick wall problem? Leave a comment below!​

Brainstorming Through a Genealogy Brick Wall

Brainstorm through a genealogy brick wall

Posted: February 17, 2017.

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  • A look at the estate administration documents for Emma (will, bonds, appraisement, settlement) might provide clues. A bequest to a sibling, a niece or nephew, or other surprises. Deeds can also yield surprises, such as ‘for the love and affection held for their daughter, Emma’.

      • Still having trouble finding the father of Lloyd Lewis Bryant. 1910 Census shows him and brother adopted by Russell W. Moore. It also shows his mother as Sally Moore. help Phil Bright

          • His death was 1975 in Macon, Ga. I have no official death record from Ga. He was married to Ella Mae Arnold. Have no official record of there marriage. Just getting info from some family members. Some say His mothers name was Sally Posey. His military records say he was born in Jefferson, Ga. But I’m still on the hunt. Phil Bright

          • Did Philip F. Bright ever find the father for LLoyd Lewis Bryant? I too am searching for his father. He is the great grandfather of a friend and she has been searching as well.

  • Look for a wedding announcement or related article in the local newspapers. These often list parents as well as other relatives & friends of the bride & groom..

    • This is not the type of family that would have a wedding announcement, I think they were trying to hide. Just think this was Georgia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Phil

      • Phil, I was speaking about searching in general (the subject of the article), not replying to your comment. I’m in Georgia & think we might be in a couple of the same FB genealogy groups. Have you tried posting there?

        • I was not trying to be nasty, some families want you to find there ancestors, but don’t give you much help. It can get a little frustrating at times. Phil

  • I found this very interesting to read through. It is similar to the steps I have taken to identify the parents of my husbands second gr grandfather. All I have is indirect evidence but feel I am correct in my conclusion. He was baptised under his mothers surname since his parents did not marry until the following year. This occurred in England in the 1790s before civil registration.

  • Thank you Amy for this great post. It has given me some more ideas on how to try to break through my brick wall for my GGgrandfather William Thompson. He along with another million William Thompsons came from Ireland and all lived in Brooklyn NY. I hadn’t thought about Obituary. He is a Navy vet and I do have his widows pension file but they couldn’t find other records, I just discovered on the enlistment papers it showed he was also on another ship so now I will try for those records.

  • Angus says he has the Marriage record. If it is the one issued by the church, a certificate suitable for framing, it probably doesn’t contain all the information available in the church record books. If this is the case, he needs to contact the church or church archives to find out what is written in the church record book, which often contains parents’ names.

  • Thank you for this information. I have not been able to verify my paternal greatgrandmother’s Cherokee heritage. She was from East Tennessee and her portrait certainly looks Native American. Do you have suggestions for finding more information on her and her family?

    • My piece of advice for anyone trying to determine if their ancestor was Native American: research them fully like you would any other ancestor. Be on the lookout for clues about Native American heritage, but don’t base everything on that. Compare time periods and locations. Was she in East Tennessee when the Cherokee had a presence there? Is there anything in census or other records that point to that? What about her parents and siblings? What do their records say?

  • Emma’s death certificate has her father’s surname as ‘Dusenburg’, rather than ‘-berry’.
    Spaulding is also found as Spalding and Paulding, etc. (people who are hard of hearing can’t hear the “S”). There were Spaldings in Dutchess County New York and throughout New England.
    Youngblood in German can be found as Jungbluth, Youngbluth, etc.
    Good Luck with your research!

    • I can see where you’d get Dusenburg from that. I see it as -berry. Shows the importance of considering variant spellings and trying to analyze handwriting!

  • Also research the city directories for Detroit. This could narrow down the time frame when Emma married Hiram Francis.

    I also looked at the death certificate and thought the name read Dusenbury, and there are Dusenbury, Dusenburg, Dusenberry, etc, in Orange County 1855 New York state census.

  • Hello Amy, Thanks for the interesting read! I have a similar brickwall in my 1800s Stewart family of Ohio. I am trying to find the parents of Martha L. Stewart (married Henry Morrison- born in PA)- at least I know what I want to discover! Here’s the rest:
    – Martha was born 1832/34 according the 1850 & 1860 US censuses for Ohio.
    – she married by 1852 as she had her first child that year (from 1860 census)
    – the family was living in Pease Township, Belmont County, Ohio in June 1860. Henry was a “businessman, Foundry.”
    – by October of that year they had moved across the river to Wheeling West Virginia when the WV census was enumerated.
    – her husband Henry was dead by 1864 when she is listed as a widow in the Wheeling WV city directory. I cannot find a death record for him. I do not believe that he was in the Civil War.
    – back to Martha: family stories say that her father was James STEWART and that he was born in Ireland in 1804. I have looked for this family in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and found a John Stewart and family that could fit:

    1850 census (8th October) in North Slipperyrock Township, PA,
    John STEWART: 53, male, farmer, real estate valued at $5200, b. in Ireland
    Mary, 25, farmer, b. Ireland
    Hugh, 23, farmer, b. Ireland
    David, 8, at school, b. Ireland?
    Martha, 16, b. Ohio
    Sarah, 12, b. Penn
    John, 22, Saddler, b. Ireland (actually born on ship during the crossing)

    This 1850 record is the only one in the country, apart from an already-claimed Wellsville Ohio family, to have a J Stewart as father, born in Ireland, and a Martha Stewart, daughter, born in Ohio. She is also of the appropriate age.

    From examining the neighbors of this family in the 1850 census, and comparing to landowners in the 1877 atlas for the county, I think the farm was in the central part of the present-day Washington Township, PA. BUT, there were several Stewart families & neighbors with similar names in the former twnsp of North Slippery rock- so I can’t prove this was my family. I’ve looked into the siblings a bit, but not sure how definitively link them all. A request for local land records did not turn up anything.

    Suggestions on how to proceed?!?

  • Hi Amy, I am a new follower, but a 35+ year researcher. I just wanted to tell you what a great article this was. Very well written and easy to follow for those who are new.
    One day, I’d like to see an article on the difference between a genealogy researcher and a genealogy collector.

  • Thanks for the article. As a newbie to genealogy I found it informative and look at documents with a new light. However, I do have a question. I’m searching for my great grandfather’s birth of origin or certificate. I have found all documents of events that occurred in the United States: his obituary, death certificate, tombstone, children’s birth certificates, marriage certificate and church records, U.S. census, first papers (he didn’t continue the process) and the passenger list for his immigration. All documents just state Germany as his homeland, nothing more. His death certificate stated parents were unknown and we don’t know of any relatives living in the United States from his side of the family. I know he left Bremen in 1882, but any records at the port of Bremen have been destroyed. Is there another record that I’m missing that might indicate his parents name or where in Germany he was from? Or have I officially hit the end of this family line? Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • Great question, Tami! I’m never one to say that you’ve officially hit the end of the line. I always have some hope that an answer can be found. 🙂

      You’re on the right track by covering as much as you did for your ancestor. It sounds like it’s time to branch out and look at members of the FAN club (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors). A couple of things you might consider. You have his passenger list — have you identified any of the other German passengers as being neighbors of him in the US? Who were the witnesses of the marriages or sponsors/godparents of the baptisms? Who was the executor of his estate?

      Another source for him that you should try to track down (presuming he lived past 1918) is the Enemy Alien Registration File. Unnaturalized Germans living in the US during WWI had to register with local authorities. It can be a little hard to find, but when you do, oh my goodness — it is genealogy gold! Contact the genealogy society in the area where he lived to see if they might know where to find the records. Good luck!

  • Dear Amy
    I have enjoyed you 31 Days… very much. I have a similar problem, related to the above posts, in identifying the parents of an ancestor but of a much earlier date.
    He was Edward Good enough, married to Joan Bruce in Buscot, Berkshire, England in 1684.
    He died in Buscot in 1701.
    I can find no details of his birth or parentage.
    I live in Bristol, England and have had contact with the relevant county record offices as well as extensive internet research. I wonder if you have any other suggestions.
    Many thanks

    • I wish I had some suggestions for you, Clive, aside from looking at the others in the area with that name. I’m just not familiar with English records in that time period.

      Fellow readers — any suggestions for Clive?

  • Like Amy I have hit a spot with the family name. We know that a James Rifenbury was born to parents in 1790 and immigrated to Virginia. After years of searching I have found no links to how they arrived here. Only that factually we are German from possibly Ober Rifenburg.Where could I possibly find whether they arrived state side or possibly Canadian Conscript via England.I do get lost in it all as I research by myself. Thank you for any pointers you or members might be able to offer.

    • It depends on what you mean by “arrived here.” Do you mean how they got to Virginia or how the got to the U.S.? If you’re having trouble placing them before you have them in Virginia, I would suggest two things. First, take a look at the neighbors. Are there any other Rifenbury/Rifenburgs in the area? If so, research them intensely. Second, I would take a look at migration patterns for that area of Virginia. Where did settlers in that area come from? For example, the Shenandoah Valley had an influx of people from Pennsylvania (including many Germans) coming down the Great Wagon Road It’s another reason to look at who all of the neighbors are (even the ones with different surnames). People didn’t migrate by themselves; they came with others. Seeing where those neighbors came from can help us “piggy back” on them to go back to where our ancestors were.

  • Thank You Amy. At first I tried to trace them by ship to America with no real success.So then my thoughts went to how did they arrive in Virginia. Chased many avenues but never found a lead that went past the last elder going out of America and back to Germany. I will follow your advice and look to neighbors and migration patterns .

  • My Brick Wall has finally got the best of me. I have no family left to ask. What got me was on his Social Security Application he had two different names…why…stolen identity…criminal…I can’t find anything. Doesn’t mean I will stop, but you get tired after awhile. I do enjoy your advice and topics keep them coming.

  • Thank you for the interesting article! It really caught my eye because I have a brick wall I haven’t been able to budge in years. I even hired someone to help me and that still didn’t help.

    My 2xgreat-grandfather is Charles E. Brown. I have his marriage certificate to my 2xgreat-grandmother, Hester Read. They married in Independence, Montgomery, KS in 1895. His stated age was 34. Both are listed as being from Coffeyville.

    The next documents I have are their divorce records from 1898. None of these records mention anything except that he was in Independence only three years or so by the time of the divorce (according to affidavits in the case).

    They did have a daughter, my g-grandmother, Louise Lucretia Brown, in 1896. I have her birth and death information, which states Charles was from MO.

    I don’t know where to look or what to do at this point. There are about half a dozen Charles Brown’s in Coffeyville and Independence area at that time, none of which list a wife named Hester.

    If I could get pointed in the right direction, that would help a lot!

    Many thanks,
    Debbie Hyland