Researching Family History: Has the progress of our research halted?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 20 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

A torpedo from a British plane slammed into the rudder of the huge German battleship called the Bismarck and disabled the steerage of the ship during World War II. The next morning, two British battleships destroyed the ship. There are times when family history research may seems "rudderless" or up against a brick wall.

Provided by German Federal Archives

A torpedo from a British plane slammed into the rudder of the huge German battleship called the Bismarck and disabled the steerage of the ship during World War II. The next morning, two British battleships destroyed the ship.

The lessons learned from this incident in history apply to almost anything in life. When it comes to our family history and looking at the family pedigree, have you seen where the brick wall has hindered the progress of the searches? Has our “rudder” been hit by discouragement? Do we feel we are going in circles when we get down to business of researching our lines? Have you been told that your ancestor's records cannot be found because they no longer exist?

I have known people shelving their genealogy and not returning to it for years, even decades, instead of taking it to a professional for help to them get going again.

Some descendants inherit from their ancestors the family genealogy with the hope that they will pick up where they left off. Others of us are new to this and have felt the drive to find out more about those ancestors who lived in far away places with seemingly strange-sounding names and do not know where or how to begin. Even though they cannot do the research for people, consultants and volunteers at such places as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library in Salt Lake City and other centers can point out to you how to begin your search.

Years ago, my wife told me about her grandmother's line from Germany, which had been researched by a professional. At some point in the research, Grandma understood from the researcher that the records of a parish had been utterly destroyed by fire, that the line in that parish was unsearchable. A few years later, we found the records of the same parish were actually on microfilm in the Family History Library and began our work finding and linking the ancestors, pushing grandma's related lines back earlier.

About the same time, we learned that the minister of the parish in question was uncooperative to the researchers and refused them entrance to the records in the parish archives. Now, we have several names and families from this parish register on her pedigree and family group sheets, and the work continues in the records of other parishes where the family had migrated.

A few years ago, one client came to me and said she was specifically concerned about one of her ancestors, who she said was “unfindable.” In her worry, she had lost about 1½ night's sleep before she came to see me. During her night-and-a-half of sleeplessness, she described as her “darkest night she could remember in her life to that time.”

She told me she had consigned herself for 16 years to the understanding her ancestor was simply “unfindable,” that nothing more could be done. Thinking that she did not have the time or interest in having her missing ancestor pursued, she decided that “sometime later” she would get to it. She folded up the pedigree and put it on the shelf in her office at home.

Sixteen years later, when she opened the pedigree, seeing the blanks on it, like lightning, her memory shot back to the day she shelved it. It dawned on her that now she was the only one left in her family with the pedigree chart showing where the research had halted.

“When I realized all these things, and the fact I had not done anything with having the missing ancestor researched, I panicked,” she lamented. She told me she did not know what to do or to whom to turn for help. She said she had no experience or training in this type of work. Her emotions were close to the surface as her eyes began to well up with tears.

Certainly not all was lost, but that in those intervening years, more new records had surfaced that would likely break down “the brick wall” she felt responsible for. She went home that night feeling relieved and knowing she would sleep better — and she did.

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