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.