On Brick Walls and Surname Studies

+28 votes
What is a genealogical “Brick Wall”? How many BWs do you have? Potentially, the more we know, the more BWs we have. If I’m adopted with no information provided, I have exactly one BW. On the other hand, if I’ve developed my complete ancestral genealogy to six generations, I have 64 BWs. Most of us don’t carry around that many bricks. It’s usually about that one or a few that we REALLY want.

At any BW, we are looking for two people, but actually, we are looking for one… the bearer of one surname. Let’s say it is the Whosit family we are looking for. We may find that Whosits are rare birds or there are flocks of Whosits everywhere. Out of all those, we are looking for THAT ONE WHOSIT!

Some may post on a genealogy bulletin board “Who’s it that has my Whosit?” If anyone responds at all, it is probably the wrong Whosit. “Well, skip that, I’m not interested in THAT Whosit.” Others, serious genealogists, will be gathering facts and clues and obscure documents that MIGHT be “my Whosit”. Anything we can rule out goes into the “Not My Whosit” file so we can really focus on our goal.

OK, so what is a Surname Study? How about a Whosit Surname Study (WSS)? The WSS is for those who are looking for ALL Whosits… all times, all places. How many Whosits are there in the world? What’s the Whosit name mean and where did it come from? Are there some Howsits or Whatsits connected to this bunch? The WSS people build broad sketches and theories that can be tested. WSS people work a lot with finding descendants of known ancestors. It’s actually fun to take a break from “where did my Whosit come from” to “where did all those Whosits go”? Build LOTS of Whosit lineages. What are the Whosit migration paths? How does it fit with historical trends? Nail down what we know. Create Whosit THEORIES that can be tested with evidence. Critique the theories. Compile evidence. Search databases such as census, gathering all instances of Whosits in a given year and a given vicinity.

Energize YDNA testing of Whosits. Collect matches. Seek participants whose test can answer specific questions. A YDNA test is like working on a mixed-up collection of jigsaw pieces and discovering that if you look at the back side you can sort pieces that belong to the same puzzle.

Think about how it is to solve a jigsaw puzzle. You build the edges. You build clusters. You may spend some time focusing on one piece or one connection, but then you step back… look at the big picture… go back to the loose piece box… work on a different cluster for a while. Even better, you work together with other puzzlers… actively paying attention to the needs of others and regularly communicating. You move around the table and give fresh eyes to a different cluster.

In genealogy, many of us are most interested in our own ancestry. Surname Studies take a lot of time concerning ourselves with “Not My Whosits”. It takes discipline and organization. It takes Left-Brain focus and it takes Right-Brain pattern recognition. It takes communication and collaboration. It takes recognition that there are puzzle clusters that have been done wrong, smashing pieces together. Sometimes it takes some disassembling to make progress.

Surname Studies are a lot of work. So what’s the payoff? By having established clusters from earlier times, we start to attack that BW from BOTH SIDES. Your isolated Whosit ancestor might fit a pattern of someone else’s lost Whosit descendants. While you are grappling with the Whosits in a location you believe to be yours, someone else may have already established that their Whosits migrated there and that your Whosits don’t fit.

Do you have a Brick Wall surname that is REALLY important to you? Are you willing to step back and take the time working with others? Are you willing to discover the joys of seeing the big picture and helping others even if you don’t get immediate satisfaction of your own quest for that one Whosit?
asked in The Tree House by Douglas Beezley G2G6 Mach 2 (21.4k points)
"Whosits"...just great! Consider it stolen.

Great tutorial on BrickWalls.  For myself, I realised that as in real life. a wall has 2 sides. When confronted with one side that I cannot get through, I go around to the other side, and start battering away from there.
Mags, it was Whatsis before they changed it.
And probably "de Wosse" before that...LOL

WHOSIT ONS are great. We are having success with the Brady DNA Project on FB. We ask everyone to enter their branch at WikiTree and we search WikiTree to see if we can possibly expand new member trees. We post our lines on the page, we have screenshots of documentation for our lines and we have lists of collateral lines that we contact as we come across them in our trees. We are all also learning how to study segments and do triangulation groups together. We are continuously inviting new members. It is a repository for all things Brady. I love this post.
My Whosits are Angles.  My one name study is basically creating branches that may or may not ever connect to my main family tree (in Ancestry.com).  My John (Johann) Angle (Engel) (JWA) (1751-1818) is equivalent to John Smith.  They are everywhere and usually out of context of a family.  

I have been accumulating records, documents, etc and assigning them to what appears to be the same John Angle or I create another one for comparison in my list of John Angles (over 100).  Keep in mind that any old Johann something another Angle/Angel/Engle/Engel/Anglea/Angell, etc can become just plain old John.

DNA is helpful to a point. I am missing 1/2 of his 10 children and so I am building lots of Angle family branches to see if I can find and connect these families.  It is a labor of love and I have lots and lots of disconnected branches, but I am becoming acquainted with definitive family units.

I search out potential matches and ask if they have taken either a YDNA or the ancestry.com autosomal DNA test.  I am finding a lot of luck with Ancestry.com in that regard.  So far it is the most straighforward vehicle for identifying matches and families.  But each venue and test is helpful in its own way.  Working with mostly related others with the same problem and sharing results and asking lots of questions is helpful too.  I have many Angle relatives in search of parents and we may or may not match with DNA.   

The complication is that the universe of people living in the same place at the same time as my JWA is not huge but many of these folks are married to each other and we care share DNA with another related families (autosomally).  Of course when the very limited YDNA matches have other surnames there is whole other set of issues.

Just keep on plugging along making bits of progress over time with some truly incredible breakthroughs from time to time.

You have just given me a new way to break down my brick wall for my "4th Great Grand Father" Henry Fritz from Germany.  I am going to change my focus to when Henry would have immigrated from Germany with his parents and start creating profiles for people that might fit the bill.

This can be added to my one name study.


5 Answers

+12 votes
Thank you, Douglas.  This is the best justification I've seen for one-name studies on WikiTree.

Your explanation, however, clarifies a problem I've had with the one-name studies I've actually looked at:  What good does it do to lump all of a given surname into one group, unless you have subgroups available for distinct lines of descent?  

You can have totally unrelated historical people who have acquired identical surnames: occupational surnames, nickname-surnames, place-name or origin-place surnames, and patronyms-become-surnames are easy examples. Then, there is the ancestor who changed his surname from Whethernot to Whosit for one reason or another, perhaps while waiting in line at Ellis Island: His Whosit descendants shouldn't be lumped in with Whosits who acquired their surname from a nickname ca. 1500.  DNA tests would be useless in linking them to others in the Whosit one-name study, but might be useful in linking them to a Whethernot-Whosit subgroup (which should then also be part of a Whethernot one-name study) - if they are first sorted into a sub-group of known common descent from that Whethernot who changed his name to Whosit.
answered by Susan Anderson G2G6 Mach 1 (16.5k points)
When I first registered the Beasley ONS at the Guild, it seemed to me that the objective was to simply accumulate list after list of data. They were talking about "Marriage Challenges" and going to a repository and finding everything with a certain surname on it. People would know that I have the Beasley study and they would send me isolated scraps of information that I found completely useless. Years before that, when I started into the DNA project I was getting people who would match per YDNA but each one had their own family tree. When I looked at them, no one had made any attempt to verify their tree or to find where they connect except in some really generalized way. I found that their trees had lots of errors and didn't match up.

So, I decided that my work was to build patriarch lineage trees and connect every person with a matching YDNA. If I couldn't connect them I'd still find the earliest confirmed ancestor and indicate was part of the same Haplotype. EVERYONE else who even attempts to do this calls them Group 1, group 2, etc. I started calling them by color names and color matching everything so it was more visible. It can be very complex to perceive.

It just seems that so many people fail to get systematic about it. I'm obsessively systematic so much that it can make my brain hurt. Doing that, SO much more can be done. I have solved or come up with testable theories on many "brick walls" by working from the macro standpoint. Right now I'm working on lineages that are, on ancestry, etc., woefully conflated. I had 2 William Beasleys about the same age (both born in the 1760's) who are constantly confused. I started sorting them out. I finally found there was a third William Beasley mixed in there. Once I got #3 pulled out of the way and got the other two in their own lanes, I have two that appear to be linked to other tested trees that are YDNA confirmed into the mid-1600's. Now with strategic YDNA tests, I have a chance to test and confirm these connections.

Looking at all the ONS Projects being started at WikiTree, I'd be willing to bet that more than 90 percent haven't a clue what to do with it. It is hard work, and it depends on the size and location of the surname. Very rare surnames take one approach and very large surnames take another. My surname has an estimated world incidence of perhaps as many as 100,000. That makes it a pretty large study. More than that would become more impractical as a comprehensive study, requiring alternate approaches.

Off my soapbox for now, but I'm always interested in discussing this with folks.
My surname is Simpson. Out of over 100 Simpsons that have tested on FTDNA, mine matched 1. And I can't convince him to do any further testing. I did identify and test a 7th cousin and that's been interesting but, alas, patronymics are simply the worst for surname studies.

On the other hand, I have a Hethcot/Hethcote/Hathcoat/Hathcock great-grandmother and their Y-DNA testing has been very enlightening and helpful to me.
+7 votes
I started a one-name study for one of my favorite BWs - Andrew J. Ream.  I also started what Susan suggested and made sub-groups relative to differing lines of descent.  So far, I don't believe there is a DNA group, but my sister is working on that.  I kind of got away from it once I realized that I had exhausted all male lines to my Andrew.  I even consulted with the president of the Reamstown Historical Society.  Now we are looking for an unwed mother with the name Ream.  I think I know who it is, but proving it is something else entirely.  Also, the Reams are Pennsylvania Dutch and they don't tend to take DNA tests because they are still close-knit and know how everyone is related.
answered by Lucy Selvaggio-Diaz G2G6 Pilot (276k points)
Another brick wall is in Ireland.  My sister wants us to go there and see if we can find anything.  That surname is Hogan.  I could never tackle that because it is very common in Ireland.  Other BW are Italian.  So we were thinking that while in Ireland we could bebop on over to Sicilia and nose around.  Most other lines I have in common with a lot of people.
+8 votes
My surname study is Frazier which is a really big study. My main focus, besides adding all of the Frazier/Frasher/Frazer profiles I can to WikiTree, is to find all of the male "Fraziers" I can who came over from Europe and creating a database of them so that we will have someone to whom we can attach our lineages. I am not trying to tackle emigration from Europe to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada right now, but that can definitely be a project for the future. There are plenty of y-DNA Fraser/Frazier studies that we can look at and tag onto, so I am not concerned with that right now.  I am focused, like my dog on digging out a field mouse hole, in gathering as much as I can on WikiTree and hoping other "Fraziers" come alongside. My mother is a Frazier and she started looking for her great-great grandfather's ancestry in the late 1960's. She did it all the hard way.  My childhood vacations were spent in cemeteries, courthouses and libraries, lol.  I have picked up the torch since she is 100 years old and legally blind.
answered by Edie Kohutek G2G6 Mach 5 (50.4k points)
+5 votes
Wow!  I am exhausted just reading about what you all are doing.I have toyed with starting a One Name Study on several of my ancestor BWs but after reading this, I don't think my brain could handle it.
answered by Carolyn Martin G2G6 Pilot (126k points)
DIdn't mean to scare you off. This is a path I will never finish, but it is a direction to go. Building a house is a big deal, but if you have a plan and take it one board at a time according to the plan works a lot better than digging the basement and just start throwing everything in the hole.


Hey, Doug. Great topic! And if you ever want any input about how someone else structured methodology for a one-name study predicated on project-based collaboration, and then built a large for-purpose website only to have no one come knocking on the door, just let me know.


Reading closer what you said, to use ONS "on several... BWs", yes that's really too much to expect. I have my own personal tree brought to a place that, I guess, I could call it a whole lot of brick walls. But as with anything, you need to make choices. What eats at you the most. Because of the size of my project and that so far I'm running it pretty much solo, I've made the choice. If someone contacts me about something on my personal tree, I'll respond, help, fix what needs fixing, offer suggestions and then wrap it up.

What you may want to do is evaluate the BWs that are important to you. Does one stack up more than another? Usually, people choose their own surname at birth or something near. Are there others who have the steam to work with you on one more than another. Where might there be resources? Come up with a numbers estimate. There are ways of doing that I could discuss if you don't know. Is this a surname that pretty much comes from one place or is it the kind of name that can have multiple origins... like Miller. There were lots of millers in the old days in lots of places.

A really important step is to see if someone has already claimed the name. Of course, see what's going on at WikiTree, but more important, check with the guild of one-name studies. It is an expectation that anyone who sets up a study there is supposed to work with others and respond to others. They also have a statement of how far along in their study they are. Also, check the YDNA projects at FTDNA. You can see what studies there are, how robust they are.

Fact is, though, I bet few people get started systematically that was. Most, like me, just kept moving from one thing to the next until I realized what I was doing and that there is a name for it. But, it is possible to think about it as a conscious choice.

So you are saying, Edison, it was a "build it and they will come" idea but they didn't come? Oh, I get that. I have tried that grand concept website (http://beasleygenealogy.net) and find that as great as my concept seems in my own mind it doesn't really work that way. I've been in a constant state of renovation or at least trying to figure out how to do it. I'm sure of what I need to do and what I can do and what I want to do... it's way too much. I'd love to have people to buy into it. I keep thinking I'll find the magic bullet, but I won't. I'm 70 years old, retired and this is my thing for as long as I can do it, so I'll do what I can and appreciate any help along the way.

I don't have problems getting people to find me and have interest in the project. The problem I have is channeling it so I can keep track of what I'm doing. That was my idea for the website... the central everything. Ain't workin' that way.

In my other notes to this thread, I've been talking about planning and organization... yeah, well, it is a goal and a direction.
Yeah, Carolyn, I think it needs to be a passion or the study will just peter out. No offense to any Peters out there!
+5 votes
Great exposition, Douglas.

One aspect of the Brick Walls and One Name Studies that I would like to emphasise is in some times and areas, there are very few or no primary sources surviving.

In my case, I have seen and touched the oldest surviving parish record fragment, charred around the edges from the burning of the church 350 years ago, as part of border wars.

Consequently, the approach taken in the some ONSs can be source led: extract every name you can find and create a profile for each. Then compare, merge and join up later.

The downside is you might have several duplicates: such as 3 Wiliiam Whosits, one baptised, one married and one buried. The upside is it is clearer what evidence or assumptions are needed to be made to link them, especially when several first cousins called William Whosit exist!

I agree it is hard work and needs discipline. And persistence!

answered by Chris Little G2G6 Mach 2 (21.7k points)

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