Finding Your Elusive Ancestors

Check out these resources to help you when you hit the “brick wall” of finding ancestors.

Many people find themselves at a place in their family research where they can’t go any further. We call that a “brick wall.” Seemingly there is nowhere to go and no other sources to answer the questions of who, where and when.

It is at this juncture that a researcher gains their genealogy creds. The next steps will take you deeper into more specific research to find more information than what’s on the surface. That’s why we use the tree as a metaphor for genealogy research. In the beginning you find low hanging fruit. Then you might spread out the to the family members who are extended and are higher on the tree. Eventually you will have to start digging the roots of the tree to find ancestors who lived a long time ago.

To find those hidden ancestors you will need more resources. While your typical genealogy databases can help you find a treasure trove of information including census records, birth, marriage and death records, city directories, and school yearbooks, you will need to look for location specific documents to find those elusive ancestors.

The resources that will help you the most will be found in city, county and state collections, which will help you discover the local history where your ancestor lived. These records come in many forms. Usually there are centennial histories that were created when a town or county turned 100 years old. These histories document the people and happenings of the town or county and will give you clues as to what was going on when your relative lived there. Your relative might even be named in these histories!

In addition, there are compiled local records that my contain your ancestor. These records may or may not have been scanned or included online in your favorite genealogy database. Usually these resources were written before 1925, but not always. The FamilySearch Catalog has the world’s largest genealogy collection of books. Some of these books are only available at the library in Salt Lake City. However, many are accessible online and still others you can get by Interlibrary Loan.

Here are a few more online book and compiled local records resources:

Hathitrust Digital Library Digital Preservation Repository
Google Books The world’s most comprehensive index of full-text books.
Internet Archive Non-profit library of millions of free books, and more.
WorldCat is the world’s largest network of library content and services.
Project Gutenberg Free E-Books in the Public Domain


Sherri Camp

Being the Genealogy Librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library is so much fun! As a veteran genealogist, I love teaching and sharing digital family history and genealogy techniques and helping people solve genealogy problems. My work is to promote a greater knowledge of family heritage.