Lessons From Breaking Down a Brick Wall

All genealogists have brick walls—those long-standing questions that we can’t seem to find answers to. I recently broke through one that has been nagging me for more than 20 years. Here are some things you can learn from my experience in breaking down a genealogy brick wall.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 51

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 16 minutes.

My Long-Standing Genealogy Brick Wall

It started in May 1850, with the death of my third-great-grandfather William Henry Skinner. He left behind his widow, Matilda, and their nine children. After his death, the family scattered, with most of them leaving Perry County, Ohio and ending up in Indiana, Michigan, and beyond.

Matilda would marry at least three more times: Matilda (Debolt) Skinner Crossen Brown McFillen. Although I have documented Matilda’s marriages, she appears either by herself or with one of her children in subsequent censuses, twice using the Skinner surname even though she had remarried.

My question for all these years has been, “When and where did Matilda die?”

With her changing surnames so frequently (and using them inconsistently) and family members moving all over the place, it’s been difficult to get a handle on where she could have been living or what name she was using at the time.

Recently, I got a notice from FamilySearch about an update to an obituary collection. I searched for Matilda… and got nothing. But I hadn’t looked for Matilda on FamilySearch for awhile, so I started exploring. And there she was. Matilda McFillen in FamilySearch’s collection, “Illinois Deaths and Burials, 1749-1999.” Death in 1899 in Kankakee County, Illinois.

Two other records I had gathered through the years mentioned family ties to Illinois. One of her sons lived there in the early 1890s and an SAR application for one of Matilda’s descendants listed her death in Illinois in 1899. (Of course, the application had no documentation, so I had no way to discern the accuracy of that.)

After looking at the digitized death record on FamilySearch, I could see that her age and birthplace were correct. Combined with the other documentation that I already had, I feel confident that at long last, I have found Matilda’s death.

What are some lessons that we can take from making this discovery that took more than 20 years to make?

The WANDER Method Works

Trust the process. The first part of the WANDER Method is “What do you want to find?” I knew that I wanted to find when and where Matilda died. Having that question in mind helped me focus my research, much more so than if I had just said, “I’m researching Matilda.” All along, I’ve followed the other steps: analyzing, noting what’s missing, discovering new records, evaluating everything, and repeating as necessary.

Discovering New Records Means Looking in New Places

For as wonderful as sites like Ancestry, FamilySearch, and MyHeritage are, they aren’t the only places where we can find genealogy information. Two key documents to solving Matilda’s question weren’t on any of the mega genealogy sites. One was a Bible record I found in the Ohio Genealogical Society’s family Bible collection. It was the first thing that listed Matilda as marrying J.W. McFillen in Williams County. The other was a county history that I found using GenGophers.com; it placed one of Matilda’s sons in Illinois and mentioned that J.W.’s first name was John. (Neither the Bible record nor their civil marriage record listed his full first name, only his initials.)

You have to explore.

Discovering New Records Means Revisiting Old Friends

That being said, websites are constantly changing. Last week, FamilySearch added or updated 9 collections. The week before that, they added or updated 74! But it isn’t just the big sites that keep adding things. Think about the websites of the library, archives, historical and genealogical societies where your ancestors lived. If it’s been awhile since you’ve looked there, it’s time to revisit those.

Give Yourself the Best Chance

After I made my discovery, someone told me that I was lucky to find that record. I won’t discount that there are discoveries made by sheer luck, but this wasn’t one of them. In the words of Edna Mode in The Incredibles, “Luck favors the prepared.”


I had to have a good sense of Matilda’s identity — which means not only her name, but her age, her residences, her husbands, and her children. I had to research her children to get clues about her. By taking my research more deeply into her identity and more broadly with her children, I gave myself the best chance of recognizing that death record when I found it.

(Check out episode 17 of the Generations Cafe podcast to learn more about building your ancestor’s identity.)

Repeat as Necessary

Perseverance pays off. “Repeat as necessary” is the last part of the WANDER Method. You might not find the answer you’re looking for the first time around. That’s ok. Don’t give up. That’s not to say that you have to work on it all the time. It can actually be good to set it aside for awhile so that when you come back, you have fresh eyes, ready to spot something you had overlooked.

Just because you didn’t find something today doesn’t mean that you’ll never find it. Go back and analyze what you have, note (again) what is missing, discover new records (which might mean looking in new places), and evaluate everything… again.


Posted: September 23, 2020.

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  • These are pretty much the golden rules for breaking down brick walls, finding the missing information, etc. There’s one more that helped me break down a brick wall…Don’t be afraid to post, or re-post, on FB pages or Ancestry message boards. There’s always the chance someone “new” to you will be willing to help. That’s how i just found my fourth great grandfather.

  • I broke down one of my brick walls by accident after 18 years. After being asked had I any new information on a Thomas Williams who died in Queensland, Australia I had replied No.
    since I couldn’t find this one’s death in our State’s BDM’s I started to search Trove which is our digitised newspapers. Typed in his name and near the top of the results was an item from a Brisbane newspaper mentioning a Thomas Williams, Land Steward, was the husband of Sarah Jane Williams who died in Dublin North, Ireland in 1878.
    It also stated she was the mother of Constable JJ Williams, Police Station, Blackall which is in Central Qld.
    One name that happened to be the name of my paternal grandmother’s father’s father-in-law from his first marriage (we come from the second) just happened to be the same name as her husband’s (my paternal grandfather) father.
    From this discovery I then found my great great grandfather’s death, and the families of Thomas’s two daughters – my great grandfather was not an only child!
    Looking more into Irish records and realising he told some porkies about his age and being widowed on his army enlistment papers in Ireland helped me to find the second sister of my great grandfather.

  • I have 2 brick walls. One is my 3rd great grandmother’s maiden name. She was from Pennsylvania and the children were born there. Christening records I have found only mention her first name. She was born about 1777 and was probably married about 1800 and died in Iowa in 1852. The other is my 2nd great grandmother also born in Pennsylvania about 1814. I know her maiden name but nothing about who her parents were. She died in Iowa in 1845.

  • It does help to look for others in records. My aunt had given me all here research on my maternal line, but did not cite her sources. I have been adding them – which has been the majority of my research time right now. One GGG Grandmother did not have a death date, even though my great grandmother had been alive when my aunt was researching, and knew her grandmother.

    So, I wanted to see if I could find her death. I know she had remarried, so I sought out any offspring of that marriage. And that is where I found her in 1925 in Kansas living with a son of her second marriage. Once I added this, a hint for Find-a-grave gave me a likely death date. I have not found a death record in Kansas for her yet, but I believe this to be likely her since her son and his family are also buried here.

  • My great grandmother Laura Sophia Martin is found in the UK 1871 census with her mother, Susan and brother Harry and grandmother Sophia Bishop in Brighton, Sussex. Missing is her sister Alice Kate Martin, aged about 9. I had given up searching for her under variations of her name and thought she had just been left off the record. The small family migrated to Australia in 1874 to join father Robert Martin and from the NSW records I have, I knew Alice was known and recorded as Kate (who died in 1883). Recently some DNA matches which appear linked to the Brighton families prompted me to go back over the Bishop family – I found I had not followed up Susan’s sister Elizabeth after her second marriage to Joseph Knowles. When I looked for the Knowles family in 1871 – there was Kate Martin age 9, born Brighton, visiting her cousins Laura Sophia Knowles and Kate Knowles. and Aunt Elizabeth Knowles. Little mystery solved.

  • My brickwall has been a major obstacle for over 25 years. I’ve been researching to find the true birth date and tribal name for my three times great-grangmother Petra Gerard Parsley(Dad’s side). My relatives on My Dad’s side won’t share any ancestral information. Sad, but true. So, I have been trying out many genealogy websites, magazines, some CDs and a few books I already have with no success. I have joined Ancestry.com and found no actual documentation of her birth or tribal name. I have documented her marriage in New Mexico 1887 and her death in Connecticut 1935. Some other family trees have some helpful information, but birth dates are questionable. One tree source says Petra was born in Texas, another says Nebraska, yet another tree source shows New Mexico. Native American research is also very challenging. It seems most links ask for there tribal name first. I’ve tried a few guesses for the tribal name and came up empty.
    I’m an older lady with a very limited budget, asking for help to break down this brickwall. Any suggestions or ideas will be graciously accepted. Thank you. Be safe out there.

  • Amy, I am so sorry to hear about your father. I know from experience that we don’t want to let our parents go. Sending prayers and sympathy to you and your family.
    I enjoy your podcast and thank you for sharing your expertise with us! I, too, have a brick wall concerning my Great Great Grandfather. Even though I have a year, and I found a gravesite with correct years, I have no other documentation on his death. So, I just keep checking back and also looking in other websites.
    Thank you again,
    Laura Gephart Adams

  • Love it! I’ve been following a similar process for my grandmother’s grandmother’s death. After about 15 years, I recently discovered she had two children I didn’t know about. Still haven’t found the death, but still looking for clues!