Genealogy is more accessible than ever now, with several different databases online to begin research. It makes it extremely accessible to begin doing family history research (see my previous post, Finding Your Ancestor in the Census), but what happens when all the sudden the green leaves stop appearing on people in your family tree, or you’ve read all 18,705 results of your search and reworked it 18 different times and you still cannot find the next branch on your family tree. This is what we like to refer to as a roadblock or brick wall – a challenge that seems impossible to break down, blocking you off from the rest of your ancestors and family members. There are several places where people may hit a brick wall, and there are a few really common ones that I will discuss in this post: Migration, Name Changes, and Slavery.
People often hit walls at the point where ancestors moved to a different town or state. During a migration out of the South, people’s families sometimes fractured and, depending on why they left, family members may have completely lost touch with each other. You may find that you get to a year, often between 1920 and 1940, and lose track of the person you’re looking for, or struggle to get past a certain year. Many African Americans moved out of the South during this time, often referred to as The Great Migration.1The Great Migration continued a few decades after 1940, but we only have access to census records up until that point. If your family members were living in the North or West by the mid-twentieth century, but you know that they came from somewhere in the South, make sure you look in the columns on the census that list the birthplace of the person and their parents. Often, that can show you the state to look in. You should also check to see who else is living in the household, and who the neighbors are. For example, if your direct ancestor is living with a sibling in the last census where you can find them, you might try to trace their sibling back in time instead.
Name Changes & Misspellings
Name changes can also present challenges. An enslaved ancestor may have been given one name selected by their family, before being sold and given another name by their enslaver. After Emancipation, that ancestor may have returned to using their original name, or taken an entirely new name that held special meaning. A family member may also have been known by nicknames that are different from the name they used on legal documents. Use all the sources that are available to you, including family oral history, to identify names that were used by each person, and be alert to all the possible names as you search.
Sometimes a brick wall is due to a communication error from the time the census was taken. Census takers often spelled phonetically, and 19th and early 20th century handwriting is sometimes tricky to discern; errors occur both at recording the census and in transcription. If you are looking for your family under a certain name, make sure you try multiple spellings of that name. Sometimes, you are able to find a family member just by going back to the actual document itself – the spelling may have been misinterpreted by the person transcribing the document, or it may have been spelled phonetically in a way that is not familiar to you.
As mentioned in the previous blog post, the 1870 census is the first census where most African Americans are listed as individuals. In prior censuses, African Americans are not listed by name, but rather, are listed under the name of their enslaver, counted by tick marks in boxes that represent an age and a sex, with the box where the name goes left completely blank.
The people listed here are possibly my ancestors based on the last name of the enslaver and the location, but because there are no names listed, I’d have to do more research to determine if that were true.
This makes it difficult to find the information we’re looking for, and can also be emotionally difficult for us as researchers. One of the more personal ongoing legacies of slavery is that it systematically separates us from our ancestors, fracturing families in a million different ways that are still tangible today. Encountering slave schedules as a (possibly temporary) impasse serves as a reminder of that painful history.
If you hit one of these common roadblocks, don’t be discouraged! There are many things you can do to track down a family member you may be stuck on.
You can trace their family and friends.
Is there a family name you recognize living close to your ancestors in a later census? Does your grandma talk about a close friend she had growing up? Sometimes, tracing family and friends can lead you to the family member you are looking for. If you are looking for your grandmother, for example, you may try to locate one of her brothers or sisters instead. You may also try to locate someone you have identified as a neighbor.
Try different spellings of names.
Recently, I was looking for a family in the 1880 and 1900 censuses that I believed should be easy to find because of their uncommon last name, and because many of their children had uncommon first names. However, I kept hitting a wall with locating them, and I finally tried changing the spelling of their last name. Instead of “Galloway” I tried “Gallary”, which is a spelling I had stumbled upon in another, older document. Sure enough, I found them right away, and was able to piece together more of their story.
Go offline and into the archives.
At some point or another, when you’re doing genealogy, you will have to make your way offline and into the archives. For many African Americans researching their families, that time usually comes in or around the 1870 census. If you hit a brick wall at the 1870 census, you can try instead to look at the 1870 census for white families that may have the same surname as the Black family you are researching, or that live in close proximity. Not all enslaved people took their enslavers’ last name, but it did happen, and there may be a connection. If you do locate a white family that shares a surname with the Black family you are looking for in the immediate vicinity, or that lives in close proximity, (within ten households before or ten households after), you may want to try to locate the white family in the 1860 or 1850 slave schedules and see if they owned people. If you are interested in doing more research into slavery, at that point you may need to look further into the genealogy of the white family. Oftentimes, that means making a trip to a local or state library or archive, or contacting a local historical society or museum. Those places can give you good information to continue your research.
Google is your friend.
Sometimes you will make wonderful discoveries googling the name of your family member. There is so much documentation and personal research online, that you never know if a distant cousin might be posting research about your family, or if there are any reports or court documents with your ancestor’s name in them. When you run your search, though, make sure that you don’t just google “John Smith”, but instead, their name, a place where they lived, and a year (a birth year, or the time frame they lived in that specific area).
Talk to your relatives.
One of the most helpful steps you can take as you are beginning your genealogy journey is to talk to family members. If you have older family members living, asking questions about information you come across can be helpful. It is also helpful to ask them questions about family members and names. Oral history is truly one of the most valuable sources of information that we have access to. Make sure you collect your family stories so they can be passed down beyond your generation.
Hannah Scruggs, MA
Genealogy Reference Assistant,
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Hannah Scruggs received her undergraduate degree in history from the College of William & Mary and her master’s in Public History from North Carolina State University. Before joining the staff of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Hannah was a research associate in Montpelier’s Research Department, where she served as the lead on the African American Descendants’ Project, doing genealogy, researching African American life in Central Virginia, and working with the Montpelier Descendant Community.