Stuck Happens! 13 Things to Do When It Happens to You

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Dead endWhether you’re a complete novice or a seasoned veteran at family history, you can’t pursue this historical detective adventure very long before you get stuck. Some name or record will elude you. You’ll run out of ideas for finding it, and you’ll start to wonder if the promised rewards of your chosen hobby are worth the trouble or, on a bad day, even possible. Rest assured: You’re not the first, and there is hope.

A Common Challenge

About 20 years ago I started looking for a marriage record for my great-great-great-grandparents, Benjamin James Morgan and Mary Fischer, who are believed to have married circa 1794 in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I didn’t choose this at random. I was looking for something Uncle Shirl, Aunt Gwen, and the other family genealogists had left undone.

I used computerized resources, which were rather sparse then, and paged through microfilmed Chester County records ordered through my local LDS Family History Library. I struck out.

I’m fortunate that I had to go back five generations to find a hole other researchers had left unfilled. But I was living in graduate student poverty at the time, so I could hardly hire a professional genealogist or mount a week-long expedition to the Philadelphia area in search of the record. I needed affordable alternatives. Come to think of it, two decades later, I still do.

It helps see apparent dead ends as something else entirely: forks in the road. When stuck happens, you have at least three options:

  • Pursue the elusive record or relative with laser-like focus. This may lead to success, or it may lead to therapy.
  • Slide this one to the back burner and turn your attention to some other aspect of your family history.
  • Abandon family history in favor of another pastime, such as knitting, lacrosse, or watching reality television.

You’re on your own with the third option, but let’s look at the other two.

Dogged Pursuit

When the person or record you’re stuck on is especially important to you or your tree, you may prefer dogged pursuit. Pardon my changing metaphors, but, if a door you need won’t open, sometimes you can break it down, find another door, or even crawl in a window. Here are some ideas.

Try Fuzzy Thinking: Assume that spellings, locations, and dates may be a little off, and modify your searches accordingly. Perhaps my Mary Fischer is really Mary Fisher. I’ve seen one great-grandfather’s middle name spelled “Lavant” and “Levant,” and another’s “Alburn” and “Albern.” I’ve also seen people estimate the date of my missing marriage record across a 20-year range. Soundex and Double Metaphone searches can check for some (not all) spelling variations, but they’re like your spell-checker: You still have to use your brain. Be sure you try adjacent years and places, too. In my case, I eventually learned that weddings often take place in counties other than where they were licensed.

Chester County Courthouse

Chester County Courthouse

Try Several Record Types: I started by looking for county marriage records, but that didn’t work out. According to the Chester County Archives, the county didn’t keep marriage records then. So I looked through microfilms of church records, a logical second step. Finding nothing there — had I not back-burnered the quest — I could have checked area newspapers or even deed books. Obituaries and census records might be helpful, too. These aren’t primary sources, but they’re often much better than  nothing.

Try Printed Records: Much genealogical data is available online these days; for example, subscribers to WorldVitalRecords have access to well over four billion names. That’s where I look first. But a lot of records haven’t yet been indexed for computer searching — especially handwritten records, which cannot readily be indexed by computer. They may have been digitized (scanned) and made available as images, either locally or online, or they may only exist as hard copies. If you cannot actually travel to a library or archive, someone there may be able to help you, for a small fee — or no fee, if you’re lucky. Or you may be able to obtain books from distant public and university libraries through interlibrary loan, again usually for a small fee.

Some books which are not available online are sold inexpensively on CD-ROM. And don’t forget Google Books; the older the book, the more likely it is that copyright law permits Google to give you the full text. (Global search results at WorldVitalRecords include hits from GoogleBooks, saving you a step or two.)

Try Asking Around: If the information you seek is recent enough, there may be someone alive in your family, or even among old neighbors, who remembers not only the person you’re researching, but the event you’re looking for. Not long ago, I mentioned a bit of elusive family history to my aunt, an event that occurred in the mid-twentieth century. She remembered it vividly and described it in detail.

Even if you’re looking for something older, such as a marriage record from 1794, you may find a grand-uncle or second cousin who has some very old family records tucked away in the attic, or who has already had better luck finding the same information. It pays to ask around. I didn’t go nearly this far in pursuit of that old marriage record — at least, I haven’t yet. After looking through a half-dozen microfilms, I put the task on the back burner, where, I confess, it has stayed to this day.

The Back Burner

In my door metaphor, if the doors and windows are locked down tight, putting something on the back burner is like lingering to mow the lawn or paint the fence. You’re not actively banging on the door, but you’re nearby, in case the owner comes home.

Putting something on the back burner may help you avoid expensive counseling in the short term, but it can also be productive in the long term, if you do a few things to differentiate the back burner from the dustbin. Essentially, you have to keep the heat turned on — low, but on. Here are some suggestions.

Lift the Lid Once in a While: Rerun some of those searches occasionally, to see if any new records have turned up. I recently did this with my elusive marriage record, and I found that someone new had entered the couple into an online tree with a possible marriage place in Delaware, not Pennsylvania (but with no solid documentation). This may be a good clue; I should look in Delaware. In any case, every month more records are digitized or indexed and posted on the web. It’s worth checking at least every few months.

Post Your Inquiry Online: There are various ways and places to do this, including your own web site, if it is crawled by search engines. The goal is to make it possible for others working on the same lines, or in the same place and time, to find you and know what you’re seeking. Even if it doesn’t lead to inquiries or answers right away, it may bear fruit months or years later. One way to create the necessary web presence is to build your family tree at and make it public.

Go to Those Family Reunions: You never know who or what will turn up at the family reunion. Last month, at the annual half-day reunion of one branch of my family, some interesting genealogical things happened. For example, one guy — yours truly — showed up with printed and electronic copies of a long-deceased family member’s autobiographical essays. One essay happened to contain some details about my maternal grandmother’s time in the American South, which were of particular interest to my nephew, her great-grandson, who lives there now.

Be Opportunistic: A certain cousin was missing from the reunion this year, but she sent a few pages of information documenting a connection through my maternal grandfather to Deacon Samuel Fuller, one of the Mayflower Pilgrims. I’m trying to verify the connection. It turns on whether a certain parent/child relationship in the 1600s is accurate.

In the process of investigating this, I was electronically thumbing through New England Families: Genealogical and Memorial at WorldVitalRecords. I ran into a couple of pages on the Shurtleff family. I have seen Shurtleffs in my own family tree, so there’s another connection to explore. I’m like almost everyone in this respect: I enjoy discovering that I’m related to someone consequential in history.

Be Patient: The very existence of a back burner suggestions the importance of patience. Keep the pot gently simmering, and eventually you may discover some newly-available data, think of another good place to look, or encounter someone who already has what you seek. Instant gratification is sometimes possible in family history, but if that’s what you really crave, you might be better off in another hobby, such as lawn-mowing or sampling fine chocolates. (Note to self: The sampling of fine chocolates might reasonably be combined with family history, thus improving the experience of both.)

When the Back Burners are Full

Sometimes you’ll have so many tidbits on the back burner that the pots threaten to overflow. I occasionally get a little burned out on names, dates, and places, and can’t bring myself to add any more for a while. But it’s still not time to find a new hobby. Here are some related things I do, which are connected to my ancestors but not directly a matter of gathering their vital records.

Read History: Pick up a book or two about a time, place, or event connected with your family tree. I’m currently reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower. Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World is next. A little further down the stack, er, list, is a new, highly-regarded history of World War I’s Lost Battalion, which battalion included my maternal grandfather (though I already know the book doesn’t mention him).

These are currently the top three on my history reading list.

Read Memoirs: Chances are, wherever and whenever your ancestor lived, some contemporary wrote a memoir which will give you a sense of what life was like. Some of my favorites involving the American West (which I admit having read for other reasons) are Ralph Moody’s Little Britches and its several sequels, which chronicle life in the Denver area and elsewhere in the early 1900s; John D. Fitzgerald’s Papa Married a Mormon, a captivating picture of a Catholic boy’s childhood in southern Utah among the Mormons in the same period; and Charles Osgood’s brief, charming memoir of a single year of his childhood in Baltimore during World War II, Defending Baltimore from Enemy Attack. (Yes, for some reason, I tend to read books about boys disproportionately.)

For that matter, some historical fiction excels at verisimilitude —  that is, it gives a good sense of what life was like in the time it portrays. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and David Baldacci’s Wish You Well are personal favorites.

Pick any place and time inhabited by your ancestors. Most likely, someone has written about it.

Visit an Historical Site or Museum: There are large and small historical sites and museums around the world. Some of my favorites are the living museums, where one sees not just old things, but how they were used and, to a degree, how people lived. I’ve been to some of the famous ones in the United States and Russia, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, Mount Vernon, the Mormon Handcart Historic Site, and Yasnaya Polyana (Leo Tolstoy’s estate outside Moscow), but there are many others which are smaller and known only locally.

For example, when I was a youth in rural Idaho, there was an authentic pioneer village not three miles from my home. It was later purchased and moved to a Utah amusement park, where more people pay more money to see it. I’ve also seen working, old-fashioned farm museums in many places; whoever you are, many of your ancestors were probably farmers.

Write Some of Your Own History: We usually start our adventures in family history as consumers, but someone has to produce it, too. Why not you? When your research on others hits a brick wall, consider writing some history of your own. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be great writing. And it doesn’t have to be a sterile recitation of dates and places. (Seriously, who wants to read those, except, ahem, genealogists?)

Write a short essay on what it was like to milk a cow, to live without indoor plumbing, to use a manual typewriter, or to correspond when handwritten letters were the only kind of long-distance communication most folks could afford, and long-distance calls were for special occasions and crises.

Write about the family crowding around a black-and-white television screen in the evenings to watch . . . whatever you watched. In my childhood home, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, we used a 19-inch black-and-white television my father build from a kit. We repaired it periodically by pulling out the vacuum tubes which had stopped glowing, and putting in new ones. I remember happy evenings in my early years spent watching Dragnet, Gilligan’s Island, and Bonanza — all of which I can watch on demand now, mostly in color, and using no vacuum tubes whatsoever. (The memories of my sister having to watch Little House on the Prairie on our only television, when we  should have been watching Monday Night Football, are less happy, but I’m mostly past that now.)

Write about that favorite family vacation or the good times you had living with your favorite uncle and aunt that summer. Write about the day you visited the White House or Buckingham Palace or the Kremlin, and, just for kicks, look up the sitting president’s, monarch’s, or general secretary’s daily journal entry from that day.

Favorite memoirs and historical fiction

Favorite memoirs and historical fiction

If writing actual history makes you nervous, write historical fiction. Several years ago, inspired by Charles Osgood, Alexander Herzen, and others, I wrote a novella in which I tried to recreate how the world looked and felt to me as a kindergarten boy in Boulder, Colorado, circa 1970 — a tempestuous period in a university town. I weaved a lot of memory in among the fictional threads, and I could probably give it to one of my children, with a few disclaimers, and say, “Read this; it’s close to my own experience as a child.”

A Final Thought

I don’t pretend that this is a complete list of good things to do when you’re stuck. But if it gets you thinking of your own possibilities, I’ll be pleased. Comments on this blog post would be a great place to tell the rest of us what works for you, when stuck happens.

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17 Responses to “Stuck Happens! 13 Things to Do When It Happens to You”

  1. Patricia Shearer says:

    Dear Mr. David,
    I enjoyed reading your article about what to do when stuck. I enjoyed your thoughts and suggestions. I finished the article and looked to see that the author is a Rodeback. I am a a descendant of Charles Rodeback and Pheobe Beagle of Pennsylvania. Are we related? Keep up the good work!
    Patricia Shearer

  2. I’ve come to many of the same realizations as you. The only thing I can’t or won’t do is get off my 82 year old ass, shake off the arthritis, and go out. I’m a homebody now. But I’ve noticed that there is a strong thread of commonality among those families which immigrated to southern and western PA, MD and VA (and down to NC). These were mainly so called “Scotch-Irish”, and were broken into a variety of “reform” religious groups (including Quaker, Covenanter, Associate Reform and United Reform Presbyterian. The ties are so strong, I look upon this geographical area and time as one big family. So I’ve learned to explore other trees even though I have no direct connection. Lot’s of things pop out

  3. Robin says:

    The article assumes its readers are European. African Americans have considerably different ancestral dynamics.

  4. Betsy Harper says:

    I’m doing Irish research – if you want “stuck” then Irish stuff is it. I have found,so many times,that when people in Ireland were recorded,they used the name they were known as – not neccessarily their registered or baptised name.So if yu search for months for John Mc Dowell,then you discover he was William John,but never used the William part on anything.
    Then there’s the James Alexanders who variously are recorded as James only,Alexander only,Alec several times and even Jim twice.Figuring out that they are all the same man, is time consuming to say the least !
    I use the “back burner” system a lot,when I get to the “tearing my hair out” stage.
    Good luck. Betsy

  5. Annie Daley (nee Stebbing) says:

    You’ve given very comprehensive suggestions, I wish I had more years ahead of me than I have at this stage of my life. My son has asked me to write up my personal history and, other than typing up two pages of pertinent points, I keep procrastinating. Every time I turn my computer on, I play games. My son suggests he eliminate the games, but I say “no”. Silly me! Our family history has been added to by numerous branches of our families, but we still have some blank spots and at age 81, I am still surprised to discover things I didn’t know about my grandparents, although my Mother was a source of much information when she was alive. I didn’t listen well enough, and my father didn’t discuss his history and his father’s history which was amazing in it’s own way. Grandfather Stebbing was married near London, had six children all of whom, including his first wife, died of TB except one. He sailed to Australia, then N.Z. or vice versa, met & married my grandmother who was widowed with 1 child in N.Z., they came to Australia and had more family of which my father was one. But we have some gaps on the deceased children, and the sailings between NZ and Oz. Thanks for your newsletter.

  6. Krisha says:

    Definitely walking away and coming back to it later helps, gives you a different perspective, and therefore new ideas.
    Talking to relatives always throws up something new, especially if you have some pictures to show from a particular period or some information about an aspect of the past. This needs sensitivity though, often there are strong reasons why the past has been kept in the past and not discussed openly.
    Googling time periods and places can shed light on why family moved or disappeared.
    Sharing info, ie. making your tree public (whilst protecting living identities) provides masses of amazing links – I’ve discovered unknown relatives who have been able to shed light on family occurrences… The world is now a small place, so it’s possible to connect with people who 10 years ago you never knew existed, or hadn’t a hope of tracing/contacting.
    Facebook is amazing for allowing people with a common interest to share information and often help each other out in the brick wall quest. “like” Lost Ancestors, Findmypast, Ancestry, all have communities who go out of their way to help complete strangers out with ideas for What Next!

  7. Mauricia Mendes says:

    I love to read your articles. But they are all about USA genealogical research. I’m doing genealogy for my family for a few
    years now, but it looks like I have reached a wall. It has been difficult to research for more names since I’m from Brazil
    and I cannot get nowhere thru’ Ancestry. My father’s name is Ramiro Junqueira Macedo and the Church has provided many names and information.
    Unfortunately, on my mother’s family side I’ve only got a lot of frustation. Her name was Dolores Espirito Santo.
    Can you give me some advice on how to reach archives from Brazil?
    Thank you

  8. Gayle Lynn Zolaturiuk says:

    I’ve been trying & trying to find a picture of my Grandmother, (my mom’s mother) who was from Hungary. She died when my mom was about 2 yrs old. My mom has never seen a picture of her and she would love to know what she looked like. Apparently the Romanians destroyed all of the Hungarian’s prized possessions so I’ve lost hope. My mom is now 89 years old. My one wish would be to find a picture of her. That would mean the world to us!

    Should I keep persuing this or is it a lost cause?
    Thanks so much for any help you can offer me :)

    Gayle Zolaturiuk

  9. Dorothy says:


    Excellent article and helpful. I would very much like to reprint the article for our genealogy group.
    Please let me know the procedure to obtain permission to do so. We are a non-profit organization
    and we will abide by any restrictions you place on this request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

  10. i have looked for my grandparents marriage place and date for years.finally i got an idea i tried it and it worked

    i knew where they were born.i knew also the date of the first child my father, and i knew that it wasn’t proper for a young lady to be out a gentleman late.and the method of transportation was a horse and with this knowledge i figured out how far a horse and buggy could travel in a i took a pin and string,putting the string at where grandmother lived on the map and the string was cut to length that the horse and buggy could travel in a day.i drew a circle and i found a county seat in that circle.

    i got on the phone and called that court house and asked for the clerk of court,she looked about a year before he was born.well after many years of searching i hit the mother lode i found the record i had been looking for.

    it took a pin and string and a map to find the records.

  11. Patricia, thanks for your kind words. We’re definitely related. I descend from that Charles Rodeback through his son, Charles Rodeback, and his son — you guessed it — Charles Rodeback, and his son, Charles Levant (Lavant?) Rodeback, my great-grandfather.

  12. Robin and Mauricia, thanks for your comments. I am guilty as charged. My own work has been within the US, and my ancestors — all the ones I know — are rooted in Western Europe. It’s the old writer’s dictum at work: “Write what you know.”

    That said, if I were suddenly to discover an ancestor from Africa or Brazil, I think my first two stops would be these:

    1. The Library of Congress. Try the home page for their Local History and Genealogy Reading Room: The search box is at the top and the bottom of the page. Type in “Africa,” “Afro-American,” “Brazil,” or whatever seems appropriate, and you’ll find some guides to research in those areas.

    2. The FamilySearch Wiki: — There you can search or browse by country, to find the collected wisdom and experience of a lot of people working with the same country, etc.

    I’d love to hear other ideas, too.

    These same resources can be useful for US and Western European research.

  13. Howard, I’m somewhat younger than you, but I have the same problem with the same part of my anatomy, though, thankfully, no arthritis yet. I like how you cast a wider net: not just your people, but your people’s people. It’s not just *family* history; it’s *history*.

  14. Betsy, I’m a database geek at heart, and you’ve identified my chief frustration with ancient and modern data entry. I want the real data, the same way every time and . . . Grrrr!

    Your insight is important: We often need to know what they were called, not just what their parents named them.

    The hard-core genealogists in my family tell me that there was a Rodeback ancestor — inevitably named Charles; see above — who had three sons. They scattered to different parts of the US and spelled their surname in three different ways. My theory is that they might have been at least partially illiterate. In any case, we can tell which branch of the family you’re from by how you spell that last name.

    For the record, my own hair loss is genetic, not research-related.

  15. Annie, three thoughts leap to mind:

    1. I haven’t done any of my own genealogical research in about a month. I did spend about half a day playing Civilization IV (old, but classic). I was ill at the time, but still . . .

    2. Now that you’ve written those first two pages of your personal history, you’ve probably exhausted the boring-but-necessary information. Now you can move on to the fun stuff. What’s your favorite memory? What was your greatest adventure (so far!)? You probably have at least a few tales you don’t have to embellish at all to interest, entertain, and/or shock your audience.

    3. I’m a charter member of the “didn’t listen well enough” club, and also its sister organization, the “should have asked more questions” club. Case in point, my maternal grandfather’s WWI combat experience.

    Best wishes!

  16. Krisha, good insights. Thank you!

    Sandy, I would not have thought of a pin, a map, and a string, but this just became one of my favorite genealogy anecdotes. Smart!

    Gayle, I wish I had a good answer. It’s an all-too-common problem, the wholesale destruction of records and artifacts by one oppressor or disaster or another. Nearly the entire 1890 US census was lost in a fire, and that didn’t even require an invasion or occupation. I don’t have any specific insights here, but I’d say, Keep hoping. In many cases, at least, where someone tried to destroy records, some survived. Maybe there’s someone out there who knows a lot about old Hungarian photos?

  17. Dorothy, feel free to reprint on a non-profit basis, on these conditions: (a) credit is explicitly given to the WorldVitalRecords blog, and (b), if you reprint it electronically on the web, you include a visible link to the original blog post here at the WVR blog. Thanks for your interest (and for doing it right, asking for permission)!

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