There are times when genealogists can go no farther. They have tracked the family tree from child to parent, then to that parent’s parents, but now they’ve hit a snag. It may be an irregularity in records. It may be a lack of records. Whatever it is, genealogy hobbyists often call that end-of-the-line person their “brick wall.”
It didn’t take me long, in researching my own father’s family line, to run into that brick wall. I pretty much hit it on step two: my father’s father. Oh, I had documentation from his death certificate to show the names of his parents. But that information was scant—and there seemed to be something just not right about it, either.
A cousin told me our grandfather had said he was adopted. What a discouraging thought: I envisioned court-sealed records and a fate of never being able to know. (At that time, I had no idea that adoption wasn’t necessarily the strictly legal process it is nowadays.)
There had to be some way around this roadblock. That’s where I tried using what I call an end run. If I got nowhere researching directly back from my target person (my paternal grandfather), I would find a parallel track and push back from there.
My only clue was an old picture of a stylish lady wearing the most pretentious hat I’d ever laid eyes on. With her in this picture was my father as a boy, in the firm supervisorial grip of his mother, along with his little sister. All I knew about that lady was that she was called “Aunt Rose.”
This is where that old cassette tape from my brother comes in. Remember how I had pored over the material in that tape? As my aunt had been reminiscing—over seventy years since the picture with Aunt Rose was taken—she started to mention her aunt’s last name. It was Miller. Or...was it...??? My aunt couldn’t remember—after all, she was nearing eighty at the time. Evidently, her Aunt Rose had been married twice.
Well, it was a clue. Coupled with the squishy data from my grandfather’s death certificate, which showed his mother’s maiden name to be Krauss, I set out to explore a parallel track.
I did turn up a few leads from that attempt, although I’m still working on that line. The technique, though, encouraged me to try that again when I hit other brick walls. I used it to connect some other surnames—Gramlewicz and Aktabowski—to my grandmother Sophie’s line. And more recently as well as more successfully, I used it to research cousins of my husband’s Tully and Ryan connection in Canada, which yielded enough pay dirt to uncover John Tully’s parents’ names and build a bridge to a possible point of origin in Ireland.
Many people are only focused on finding—literally—their forebears. But I’ve learned it is worthwhile to keep in mind that cousins, aunts, and other offshoots from the direct line can provide valuable material when you are halted to a dead stop when tackling the proverbial brick wall ancestor.