We Build Our Own Brick Walls

“A Brick Wall”

It happens to us all. We’re merrily researching a branch of our tree when we encounter a halt in progress. At first we think it’s temporary, then after a period of searching, failing, thinking and more failed searches we label it as “A Brick Wall”. It’s a metaphor that is much (over) used in genealogical circles. I’ve read dozens of articles and even whole books that like to extend, stretch and distort the brick wall metaphor in all sorts of directions. Sometimes the author gets away with the describing the metaphorical landscape with such limited language, other authors build on top of the brick wall with yet more metaphors (barbed wire, searchlights, chisels, sledgehammers, ladders, tunnels – you name it, we’ve seen them all). Sometimes the conflation of metaphors overbalances the whole edifice until the writer’s central message is lost in a maze-like landscape of their own making. But does it serve a purpose? How useful is the brick wall metaphor in genealogy? Do we need it at all?

The truth is that all avenues of genealogical research peter out due to lack of evidence at some point. If they didn’t then we would all be able to trace every single line of our ancestry back to an infinite point in the past and genealogy would be a trivial, and far less interesting, pursuit. We need challenges in our research, difficulties to overcome, elusive evidence to track down, intuitive leaps, and dogged detective work to give the activity of family history research any real meaning at all.

If every single branch of every single tree terminates in uncertainty, then why do we cleave to the “Brick Wall” image? Not every halt-point, question or challenge can surely be so impenetrable as to deserve a metaphor of such solidity that it requires masonry and mortar to describe it.

I think that the very concept of the “Brick Wall” can hold us back. Perhaps it would be better to accept that all branches have a terminus. Sometimes the problem can be overcome and the terminus moved further outwards, sometimes a lack of evidence may prevent us from extending the branch, at least for now. Many, if not most, problems can be addressed to a greater or lesser extent, so I don’t see how imagining a masonry edifice at the current terminus of an evidence trail is in any way useful to our thought processes. Perhaps a better image, if any image is needed, is a layby, a picnic area or a service station – a place to rest, refuel, play with the kids, and gather ones energy for the next leg of the journey.

Sigh. That feels better already. It certainly beats looking at a brick wall!

Next Time: Join me to unpack the case of Mary Jane Hyland who dropped from the skies in 1894, or so it seemed. She was the longest “rest stop” on my genealogical journey. I’ll start by picking apart my own mistakes – there were lots – before turning to the methods I used to solve the case.

Published by Phil Isherwood

Phil has studied genealogy with Pharos Tutors and the Society of Genealogists, completing their year-long intermediate programme with a distinction. He is a Family History Advisor for the Oxfordshire Family History Society and enjoys working on the knotty genealogy problems brought to him by the general public. He has a special interest in genealogical methodology, military ancestors and sources for north-west England. Twitter: @isherwood_phil

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