What to do when the records run out
It’s almost inevitable that you’ll come across brick walls in your research as records thin out. Helen Osborn teaches you how to overcome these obstacles
The really solid brick walls that many family historians encounter are nearly always associated with a lack of records. This affects most of us, particularly as surviving records thin out the further back we progress and there were less reasons for people’s lives to be documented.
For those with Irish ancestors, the brick wall can appear much sooner than expected, mainly due to the lack of surviving census records in the 19th century. However, all is not lost. There are two types of research obstacles here: a brick wall that arises when there really are no records available, and one where there are in fact records that could help, but you haven’t discovered them or don’t know what exists. The latter is luckily far more common, at least for research in Britain.
If you are finding that online searches are increasingly coming up with negative results, there could be a number of reasons. It might just mean that you need to try searching across several different websites to reduce the possibility that indexing discrepancies are causing your problems.
Sometimes I find myself with Findmypast, Ancestry, FamilySearch, FreeBMD and The National Archives Discovery websites all open at once, as I survey results from a broad range of records. But, if you have already tried more than one index to the same set of records, and everything else online th hat you can think of, it almost alway ys means that you need to go offline and search among original records in the archives.
We cannot rely on family history websites to always give consistent information about their collections. They contain many incomplete indexes an nd series of records.
Make certain you know about any gaps, and where the originals are held. When the records appear to run out, that’s when you need to get down to some real detective work.
There may be other factors to take into consideration. Double-check you are looking in the right place. Is the parish where the family are living near a county boundary? Has the boundary changed or could they have moved from the adjacent county? What diocese is that in? Have you checked for wills and administrations for the diocese before 1858? Do any manorial records survive for the parish? Do you knoww where they are held? Diid any of the men in thhe family serve in the mmilitia, or join the army?
If you hit a brick wall ffrom 1793-1815, then mmilitary service during the NNapoleonic Wars is a possibility that you should followw up. Don’t forget that many families may have had a period of nonconformity, when they didn’t attend the established church. This can mean a whole family is missing from parish registers. Do you know whether the area you are concentrating on had chapels or places of nonconformist worship, and do any records survive? Was there a nonconformist burial ground there, or were all local nonconformists buried by the established church? These are the types of question you need to ask yourself.
If there truly are missing records – for example, only later registers survive for some parishes – then put all of your efforts into discovering about all possible records that do exist for the parish and diocese, as well as those created at the county level for the time period you need. You will need to make a survey of those records, and build your survey into a research plan, and perhaps do the same for surrounding parishes.
Don’t be put off if you find there are original documents you haven’t seen, but they are not indexed, or are poorly described in catalogues. Sometimes the only answer is to look at the original and have a go. Look through each record source page by page, one
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