old family photo of 10 people
Genealogy Research

Help! My Genealogy Research Is Stuck!


Is your genealogy research stuck? Just can’t find your ancestors? Learn why you are not finidng your ancestors and what you can do.

One of my genealogy brick walls is Joanna Barrett. If you are a long time reader here at Are You My Cousin?, you’ve likely learned a bit about her already! Joanna is my Irish 3rd great grandmother who arrived in America around 1851 and somehow ended up married to William Richard Wimouth and living in Surry County, North Carolina. 

Oh,….and she could “cuss like a sailor” according to family lore. 

I have come to recognize part of the reason I struggle in my research of her, is that I do not  understand her life.  I do not fully understand the life of a female Irish immigrant arriving in the 1850’s.  I do not commpletely comprehend the struggles, the successes and the motivations of Joanna’s life once she landed in America. I do not understand why she ended up in Surry County.  I do not understand how she met her husband.  

Understanding what I do not know is just as important as understanding what I do know. 

Let me ask you a question:

Do you fully understand why is your genealogy research stuck?

Seven (7) Reasons Why Your Research is Stuck & What You Can Do To Get Un-Stuck!

1.Consider BroaderRange of Spelling and Name Variations 

If you are new to genealogy research and even if you’ve been researching for a while, the spelling of an ancestor’s name can be frustrating! This occurs  partly because spelling was not standardized in the U. S. until the 1900’s. Capturing all of the spelling variations can be a bit tricky, too. One thing I try to do is to say the name out loud and spell the name out phoenetically. If an ancestor is from a different part of the country or a different country, I try to get a native speaker to say the name, so I can capture a potentially different phoenetic spelling.

Consider if an ancestor used a nickname or went by a middle name.  I have one family line that went by middle names in daily life, but used the birth name in records.  Once I figured that out, I was able to break down a brick wall.  Sometimes an ancestor did change his or her name.  Changing a name was quite easy and required no legal action until more modern times.  If you suspect an ancestor did change his name, check out You Susupect Your Ancestor Changed His Name, Now What?.


Pin with multiple old family photos
Pin For Future Reference!

2. Reach Out and Network Genealogy Style

As researchers we miss out on a lot by not reaching out to distant family and other genealogy researchers.Networking genealogy style can take on a couple of different forms and foci. Talking your research through with another genealogy research  helps tremendously. Another researcher may see gaps or have insights into your research that you do not. Sometimes we are just “too close” to our own research. Additionally, supporting your theories to another researcher will highlight where your research is strong and where more proof is needed.

Reach out to collateral family researchers and non-researchers alike!  Include distant family and cousins. Family knowledge and records (including that Family Bible!) may have passed down one side of a family line and not the other. What is common knowledge to a distant cousin may not be known on your own side of the family. I am always amazed at the gems I pick up when I take the time to reach out to my distant cousins.  

In the past year, I spoke on researching female ancestors and used Joanna Barrett above as one of the examples. After the talk, a woman (and very distant cousin) came up to me and stated, “I know your Joanna Barrett. My uncle has information on her.”  I was speechless! I’m still working on Joanna, but I’m that much further along. 🙂

Your take away here: Reach out!

3. Do Not Limit Your Research For Your Ancestors To Online Resources

A very common mistake researchers make when tackling brick wall ancestors is to only research online. Yes, many needed records are online, and more are coming online each year. However, these online records represent only a small portion of records that can be searched.  When county or other government records did not survive, local community records may have survived.  Genealogy reseachers will benefit from unplugging their research and seeking out local church, benevolent society and organization records. Records generated by an ancestor’s community activities can be extremely valuable. While frequently not online, they are still worth a reearcher’s time to track down and view.

You’ve heard it before – Not everything is online! Don’t keep your genealogy research stuck by not getting offline!

Can’t travel? You do have options!


4. Include Social History as Part Of Your Research Plan

Remember my brick wall ancestor Joanna Barrett above?  Failing to fully understand the Irish immigrant life and what factors were influencing her decisions here in America has been responsible for my brick wall.  This is the role of social history in our genealogy research.  We must understand our ancestor’s life including the events and circumstances happening to them and how their life decisions were made.  By having a better understanding of how an ancestor may have thought and made decisions, the better chance we have of finding him/her.

In the case of Joanna Barrett, I need to do background research on Irish immigrants to D. C. (where she lived prior to NC). Additionally, I need to ponder on her life. If she was a pregnant widow  (as oral history states) arriving in the Baltimore/D.C. area, where would she go? Where would she seek out housing? Where would she have worshipped? Would she have sought assistance through an aide society, and if so, which ones were available to her at that time? 

Pro Tip: I create my research plans from my brainstorm questions!

5. Understand All of the Terminology Used in the Records

You have discovered land, estate and/or court records pertainning to your ancestor. But….do you really understand everything those documents are telling you? Sometimes genealogy researchers do not need more documents. What is needed is a full understanding of the documents already found. 


  • Why the document was created.  What was it’s purpose?
  • What do the unfamiliar legal terms mean? (I use Black’s Law Dictionary on Google Books for reference. It’s free.)
  • What information does is included and not included in a document or record?
  • What individuals are named in the document?  Why are they included in the document? 

Answers to these types of questions are crucial to understanding more about our ancestors and breaking down brick walls. 

old Bitisih document
(Source: Unsplash)

6. Do Not Forget To Research the Neighbors

Most genealogy researchers have “lost” an ancestor in the records.  Sometimes that ancestor is not lost, but the name has been transcribed in such a way he/she is not recognizable in the records. When this happens, it is important to remember our ancestors did not live in a bubble.  They had family, friends and neighbors. 

Lose your ancestor? Look for a different family member and/or the neighbors. Your ancestor may very well appear in their documents and living alongside of them even when the family migrated.

7. Put Your Ancestors on the Map – Literally!

I love a good map! Actually, I love any map. 🗺   If you are still finding your genealogy research stuck, pull out the maps!

Take an ancestor’s census records, land records, tax records – any records you have found on your ancestor – and plot them on a map. All of them! If you can find a map close to the time period you are researching, that is even better. Now plot the neighbors and others who lived close. Next, study all the points on the map.

See any names that pop out as frequently appearing in your ancestor’s records? Pay closer attention to them. Do you see families migrating together?   Add them to your research plan! Related family members and neighbor often migrated together.

Still Have That Genealogy Brick Wall? Time To Call In The Professionals!

Sometimes, no matter how hard genealogy researchers try, a stubborn brick wall will just not come down.  That is when a professional is needed! 

[It’s sort of like when I try to unsuccessfully unclog my sink.  Sometimes I just have to call the plumber It’s faster, easier and a lot less messy!]

Genealogy researchers cannot be specialists in all needed areas of research. Maybe DNA holds the needed answers, but not understanding  those DNA results is keeping your genealogy research stuck.

Perhaps,  our genealogy research requires we research in a different country or a different faith. Perhaps the needed records are offline in a location we cannot go. It is faster, more accurate and comprehensive to hire that research out. 

When that happens, professional genealogists at Trace are there to  provide much needed guidance and expertise, as well as access to many offline and foreign records that may be out of your reach. These genealogists have years of knowledge that they will put to use uncovering your ancestors.

A little bit more about Trace:

Trace is a genealogy company that helps customers find the right genealogist for their unique project, wherever that might be in the world. They have a large network of thousands of professional and experienced genealogists in over 90 countries throughout the world, including subject matter experts, such as private investigators, historians, religious scholars, archivists, clergy and university professors. To learn more about them, go to Trace.com or fill out this short form letting Trace know what you need help with. (It’s free!)

Spread the love

One Comment

  • Betty Gulledge

    My great grandmother was Mary S. York Born 1837 SC heard she was indian no parents found died 1867 Rabun Co Ga married in Rabun Co Ga to Joseph B. York he remarried to Mary Harris She claimed mother of 5 or 6 children but she only had one Josy lots younger

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *