Monday, March 1, 2021

About Those "Brick Wall" Ancestors


Did your third great-grandmother know she was a brick wall ancestor? 

No? I didn't think so.

One particular brick wall ancestor of mine—Delaney Rosella Townsend Charles—has eluded my grasp for nearly an entire lifetime of genealogical research. And yet, I'm even less inclined to give up the chase, now that I've realized one thing: she didn't know she was a brick wall. Only I thought that.

If you were to ask any of her children what the name of their mother was, they'd be able to produce an answer, even without any prompting. Kids know that about their mom. Even if she died when they were still teenagers. Likewise, if I had been able to talk to Delaney, she could have told me who her parents were—a priceless secret now, from my vantage point over two hundred years later.

The problem is, even though somebody knew the relevant details of our brick wall ancestor's life, that somebody is likely no longer here to tell the tale. But just as we trace the paper trail by the chain of events which begins with ourselves, we need to apply that same set of principles to researching the early 1800s, even in Territorial Florida or the rest of the nascent United States.

It is really a matter of shaking off a mindset that binds. There are records out there which, I'm sure, will lead me to the answers I seek during this third of my research goals for 2021. But alas, we never find what we don't know to seek.

The downside—and there is always an opposing force to reckon with—is that some people seem to have made finding the answer to this research question too easy. You can look at any number of family trees on Ancestry—let alone the universal tree at—and spot undocumented assertions of who Delaney's parents were.

Originally, my research goal for March was to find Delaney's family using DNA results. But even there, the several DNA matches I have with Townsend connections provide unsubstantiated trees tied to that handy link, "Ancestry Family Trees." Some footnote.

There is a pattern I've noticed in research, be it of a genealogical bent or from any other topic we delve into, whereby we find a detail, then follow that clue to further information which prompts another pursuit for more detail. Those who follow the "hints" at Ancestry until each hint is appropriately fixed to the right spot in the tree, and then think the search is over, are sadly mistaken. The search is not over. Sometimes, that list of hints is pitifully brief, but even if it is of a more generous length, that is not the entire universe of possible resources to reveal our ancestors' stories.

If we limit ourselves to that lesser planet of possibilities, we miss entire universes of information. We must always remember to look further.

Thus, even though I've struck out when I examine the digitized records available at Ancestry, or FamilySearch, or FindMyPast, or MyHeritage, that doesn't mean my search is over. There are hidden pockets of information tucked away in multitudes of cyber-corners online, if we know how to be persistent in our search processes. And remember, not every fact lies in final repose in the worldwide web; some records, once accessed, will still need the dust blown off their covers.

In the brief cameo appearance by my third great-grandmother in the 1850 census, I could tell that Delaney—or Lania, as she was entered, alongside her husband and children—had been born about 1816 in South Carolina. By the time of the 1860 census, neither she nor husband Andrew Charles could be found anywhere, although I did locate their three children in the household of their paternal aunt. That likely indicated her passing before that date, though I have yet to find any death record for either Delaney or Andrew.

I've written before about what became of the Charles children—their baby daughter became my second great-grandmother—as well as about some curiosities I discovered about the extended Charles family. We will likely revisit those discoveries this month. However, as I'm not satisfied to keep Delaney in the untenable position of remaining my brick wall ancestor nor to accept the names and dates of possible parents without adequate source material, I can guarantee we'll have a full month of exploration ahead of us. Someone, somewhere, will have the records we need to piece together Delaney's story.


Above: Excerpt from 1850 U.S. Census for Madison County, Florida, showing the household of Andrew and Delaney Townsend Charles and three children; image courtesy


  1. I am very interested in how you are "attacking" this wall!

    1. Oh, you know we all have those brick walls, Miss Merry! Although I suspect my approach will be more round about than most people's way...


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