Genealogy: Breaking Through the Brick Wall

As one attempts to trace one’s family history it is not unusual to run into barriers and dead ends especially when you have limited information on a person.  But, when you do break through the brick wall…it’s fantastic!  In an effort to help others who have run into their own brick walls I am sharing my story.  I have modified the names by providing an initial only for the last name so as to preserve the privacy of the families involved.

My mother’s name was Nancy M____ and she left the family when I was about four years old.  I really had no recollection of her but had inquired about her in my teens.  I was told that she had a drug problem and ran off with a boyfriend but little else was known about her or her whereabouts.  No one knew the names of any relatives but I was told they were from the Springfield Massachusetts area.

Fast forward thirty years when I began my genealogy searching.  I concentrated on the paternal side as that was where I had information and I gained a lot of family history in doing so.  I was fortunate enough to have family who grew up in a town that had multiple newspapers and found a lot of family history through them.  I also interviewed living family members (all on the paternal side).

I did not have as much luck researching my maternal side.  Through I did find a death record of a person that seemed to be the right age, was born in Massachusetts and died in Connecticut.  I lived in California and though it was possible that she did eventually end up in Connecticut, there was no way of knowing if it was her or not because there was no mention of any relatives.  I put this in a probably yes category and tried to find any other record that would confirm or negate that this could be her.  I also checked Genealogy .com and American Ancestors. org and I found nothing.  I’d hit a brick wall.

Several more times I attempted to find her through but could not find anyone with her last name and approximate birth date in Massachusetts.  I did however find one in New York.  For about six months, I explored the possibility that maybe I had been given wrong information and continued to look for records in New York.  When the 1940 census came out I was hopeful that I would find her family.  Sadly, the only listing was in New York but as hard as I tried, the information didn’t seem quite right.

I decided to interview my father again, in depth. I wrote out a list of questions and had him tell me everything he could think of that could possibly help give me a direction to go into.  This time he did tell me everything but doing so made him sad because it was an unhappy period in his life.  I really understood why he never talked about her and that he was trying to protect us from the pain of being abandoned by our mother.  By the time we ended, I knew he had told me everything there was to tell but I still had no new information.  He had met my mothers mother several times but didn’t remember her name.  There was no father in the picture and as far as he knows there were no other siblings.  He also told me where he got married but I was unable to find any records in that county and figured they had not been recorded in the data base yet.

I was back to square one with two possibilities.  The first being she died in Connecticut and the second was that she was from New York.  It seemed that I would have to wait until the 1950 census came out.  But until then, I would continue my research.  I started looking at other people’s family trees and most of them gave very little information.  As I entered July of this year I had been searching other trees for about a month when I found a tree with my mothers name, born in Massachusetts and it showed the same Connecticut death date as the record I had found.  It also listed her parent’s names and three siblings.  I will call this tree, Tree A.

Although there was no mention of her ever being married or having children, I was very excited as this seemed like a thread that could go somewhere so I contacted the person who had that tree.  One of the nice things about genealogy is that people really want to help other people find their connections and so the response rate is pretty high.

I wrote, “I am hoping that you are a relative of my birth mother, Nancy. By your tree, it appears that she had brothers which I was unaware of as I never met anyone from her side of the family. My recollections of her are from a very young age but I would love to see if there is a possible connection. What do you know of her other than her name? I am aware of her death, I found that already. It appears that she may have been living with her mother at one point. Anyway, I am hopeful to gain any information on her and if I am lucky enough…a picture. I had one but it has disappeared and I can’t find it.”

I was pretty sure I was on the right track but wanted to be certain so I checked out my birth certificate and it said my mother was born in Massachusetts.  So this completely ruled out the other person from New York.  I continued to search for other family trees, this time using her father’s name and I found another tree which listed her as part of the family and named this one, Tree B.

So I sent the following message, “I believe W____  is my maternal grandfather from his daughter Nancy and first wife D____ I have been searching for information on my maternal family history for most of my life and the information I have on Nancy fits this family. I have not seen Nancy since about 1964 -65 and I figured out her death some years ago but was unable to connect to anyone else in the family. Your tree offers personal information about W____ and I was hoping to determine if there was truly a connection. Or if you know of any living relatives that are from his first marriage. I think I found his son W____ in Florida and will try to make contact with him as well. Any help you could give would be wonderful. Also, you mentioned R____, I have no information on him other than what you mentioned.

While I waited for the replies I noticed one of the trees did have the 1940 census information and so I checked that out as well.  No wonder I couldn’t find her…the name was spelled Mansy, not Nancy and the last name was spelled wrong as well.  If I had used soundex, I might have been able to find it but then would not have know it was the correct family.  By now, I was pretty sure I was on the right track but wanted to be certain so I checked out my birth certificate and it said my mother was born in Massachusetts.  So this completely ruled out the other person from New york.

Tree B got back to me right away and said, “Some time ago I received this message (among others) from R_____ H_____ who was searching for info on the M____ Family.

R____ H____’s message:

” I just in the last few weeks have gotten the information on W____ G____, he was married to my grandmother and they had my father, when they divorced after only 6 months of marriage he (W____ G____) was denied seeing my father (son of W___G___) and then my father was adopted by her next husband a year later, due to the adoption records being sealed we never knew who he (W____ G____) was till now and the new laws allowing for the records to be unsealed.  So all of these people are new to me.”

Tree B continues, “She refers to G____ C____ L____. (Note: this would be the name of my grandfather’s second wife). Her father was that son who was adopted . I really know no more about the M____ family. I assume you have full access to the pages on each person and the details shown there. If not, let me know your email address and I will email the pages to you.

Since this person was forwarding information I sent an acknowledgement back to her.  “Thanks for getting back and sending along this message. I just found the connection last night and haven’t gone through all the connections yet. If I need more help later I send you an email.  Thanks!

I did find the person who wrote the message that Tree B forwarded to me and have sent a simple request to join her tree and included how we were connected.  I have not received an invite to her tree yet but it has been several months since she last logged on so I will just wait it out.

I also continued to search for more connecting trees and was able to get another person who knew the family but the information is somewhat sketchy and I am waiting for clarification. 

After returning from my vacation I received the best news to date.  Tree A had replied to my message and it was great news!  “I am related to a Nancy through my grandfather W____ M____. Their mother was D____. I want to say that her brothers W____ and R____ (J____) M____ are her full blood brothers. Their father left them and remarried and stayed with her (his third wife…Tree B may not have known about the second one) until he died in Flordia. I talked to my mother and she did confirm that Nancy stayed with her mother for a time. I do know that she suffered from alcoholism and from what I was told she died from it. My grandfather doesn’t talk about her much. I know I have seen a picture of her at one point. If you would like I can see if J___ would be willing to talk to you and possibly find and send a picture. I wish I could tell you more but from all accounts there were some serious issues revolving around Nancy, her brothers, mother and father.  Hope to be able to help you some more.

Well, the news about my mother wasn’t good news but I had already figured that part out but I had definitely found my birth mother and relatives who knew her…that were still living!!! Yes!!!  Oh, and I figured out that my mother’s brother R______ goes by the name of J_____.  Another reason I couldn’t find out anything about him when I was searching for the extended family members.

So I sent a reply. “Thank you for your honest reply. You have confirmed for me that we are most probably talking about the same person when we speak of Nancy.  My father did not speak of her much and when he did so it was very vague but I had confirmed that she had been a drug addict from my aunt. Last year I sat him down and told him that I wanted to know everything as I needed some clue to help determine her side of the family tree which has remained blank for the past eight years when I began my genealogy searching. He told me as much as he knew, I could tell it made him sad talking about it and in the end I didn’t learn anything that would help me find her family.
I would be most interested in talking to J____. Thank you for making the connection to the name R_____, I had been confused by the different name being used. I really do not have any thoughts about her story being anything but a sad one but I am interested in the true family history. Sometimes the truth is not good but I find it better than the mystery of not knowing.
I would most definitely like pictures of anyone related to her side of the family, including you. And if you are willing, I’d love to hear about you and anyone else in the family. I grew up thinking I had no relatives. I found out in my late forties that I had plenty of them but had never been introduced to them. Since then, I have been corresponding with a few of them and actually met one when they came out from California to Florida to visit their first grandchild .

After many years of research, July was the pay-dirt month. At least now I can continue with my maternal family history and hopefully meet more of the other members of her family.  I hope this account helps those of you out there who have run into brick walls doing genealogy.  The best recommendation is to persist and explore and interview and then repeat…sometimes it just pays off.  Ironically, American Ancestors just had a survey question to it’s subscribers asking how many brick walls they hav in doing their family research.  Now I can revise my answer!

What I enjoy most about genealogy is discovering the lives of my family through documented history.  Not only have I learned a lot but I have grown to respect them in ways that I never could before.  If you would like to find out more about my family history click here and here.