Question of the Week: What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your research?

+16 votes

What's the biggest challenge that you've faced in your research?

Please answer here or share your answer with friends and family on Facebook. Click here for a high-resolution image designed for sharing on social media.

in The Tree House by Eowyn Walker G2G Astronaut (2.0m points)
By far, the biggest challenge I've faced is dealing with family profiles that are written in a foreign language. In my case, I'm speaking of French. Not only are some names transposed, as in "Marie Alice" instead of 'Alice Raphaela', but I don't read French!

When the source isn't written in another language, it's also very frustrating when the writing itself on a document or source is illegible!

31 Answers

+19 votes
Best answer
The lack of documentation starting in the early 1800s and going back into the 1700s.

How many families in the United States go back to brick walls that will never be solved because of this lack of documentation?
by Eric Weddington G2G6 Pilot (386k points)
selected by Debbie Parsons
Apparently, two of mine, the last two I can’t get back before 1800.
Ditto. A big brick wall at 1749
I have the same issue. I call it the Black Hole of the pre and post Revolution. Church records and wills are my only resources before 1800.
I agree. Since most of my ancestors were in Virginia and Carolina from 1600's to after Civil War, I'm pretty sure whatever documentation there was, was burned during the war. I really don't know what to do!

Jane, you’d be surprised at how much documentation still exists for much of North Carolina. In the counties I usually focus on (Mecklenburg an her surrounding counties and west along the border with South Carolina) there are a wealth of records: deed books, census records, court records, wills and estates, etc. It does take some digging sometimes, but it is often worth the effort. In the North Carolina Archives I have found some surprising tidbits of information, much of it online.

What is really frustrating is the situation where a family member, usually elderly, spends lots of time to document genealogy and family history only to find that other family members care nothing about it to the point where the whole file gets discarded into the trash bin. This is among the worst kinds of lack of documentation.
+13 votes

Oh my gosh … it's not only the biggest challenge, but one that is constant across all the research I do on my own family.  That is finding records for people in Eastern Europe between roughly 1850 and 1945.  There are more reasons why it's such a monstrous challenge than I think there are people I'm researching … let me count the ways:

  1. Languages - there are several, none of which I understand at all and different ones could have been used for the same person's records - these include Yiddish and Hebrew, but also German, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, and maybe Austrian if that's different from German - see - I don't even know what languages there are!  There are also probably a few others that I forgot to mention.
  2. Geography - the places where they lived didn't stay in the same country very long.  I like to say that borders changed midnight on alternate Thursdays, so it's very difficult to figure out where to look for records in the first place.
  3. Names - if I go by records, LNABs for siblings (most families had a lot of kids, some as many as 19) were rarely consistent, partly because of the language changes but mainly because rules changed with the borders and there were periods when Jewish marriages weren't recognized.  During these time intervals (which came and went several times in the same place), children's LNABs were recorded as mother's LNAB, which might have been her father's or her mother's LNAB depending on when and where she had been born.  Then, of course, the illiteracy induced differences were also rampant.
  4. Lack of records - during different periods, governments did not record Jewish BMD events.  Sometimes a local church would secretly record these events, with the result that I sometimes find baptism records … but that's only sometimes, and now we can also add Latin to the list of languages!  Another problem is that during World War II, many Jewish records were deliberately destroyed by the Nazis.
by Gaile Connolly G2G Astronaut (1.0m points)
Gaile, you have some really tough ones. I shouldn’t complain about any of mine!
I feel your pain, Gaile.  Searching for records in that part of the world is my biggest hurdle, too.
Gaile, I agree with all of your reasons. It is frustrating. I have one that aggravates me a lot. My 2nd great grandfather is James Smith from Kentucky. I cannot find out where he died or who his parents are. Every time I think I have his parents, the children or wife don't match. And I know I the children and wife I have are correct. With none of my dad's family alive, and no bibles or historical records in the family, it seems like I will forever have a dead end with him.
Same for my research on my husband’s Russian Jewish roots. We have no documentation of any of them before they stepped on a boat to cross the Atlantic.
I agree completely with your list particularly the lack of records in the US in the 1700's and early 1800's in the Civil War areas where any records were likely destroyed.
Peggy: have the resources at JewishGen helped you much?  They have that "sounds like" search of their master database (which helps a bit with the multi-language issues), but I need help finding the actual documents that search results point to: they are usually in some foreign library with no online access.

I've also been told (haven't done it yet) that passenger lists were written twice: once at departure and once at arrival, and that the German lists are exceedingly good quality.  Our ancestors were required to list the destination contact info (name and address) which I'm trying to use to track down descendants.  It's been hard, but there are clues left to follow...
+13 votes

There have been many. 

If I had to choose one, it would be my 2x great grandfather Thomas Stewart 1852-1914. With the last name being common like Stewart, all my research into his heritage has felt like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack... 

Makes me feel sorry for all the Smiths out there. 

by Alex Stronach G2G6 Pilot (337k points)
Hang in there, Alex. I have a Smith line I pretty much gave up on and got solved in the past couple of weeks by a fellow WikiTreer.
Thank you - I found a Smith in my tree yesterday - I already have a Jones. So now the full set - but that gives me hope.
Top this one: Caroline Read French, my 2x grandmother. You can imagine how many off the wall hints I get about the benefits of reading French!

Wow, that is tough! Try typing that name into Google, and you’ll get swamped with adds for Rosetta Stone to learn French! wink

Try this search (with the quotes):

   "Caroline Read French"

By surrounding the name in quotes, Google will find the whole phrase instead of pages that contain all 3 words.

From what others have said about Google results being customized to your prior searches: if you click many of the links and interact with the resultant pages (which I'm guessing Google deduces based on the ads being presented on those pages), Google will learn your interests and push those corresponding hits higher in the results in subsequent searches.  You must be logged into your google account for Google to learn this.

+11 votes
Trying since 1981 to break through my Hughey brick wall!! My 2x great grandfather, William Rainey Hughey Sr.     Hughey-716
by Debbie Parsons G2G6 Pilot (141k points)
edited by Debbie Parsons
Since 1981 is a long time.  My family has that kind of brick wall.  My sister worked for decades and I have taken up her search to break out brick wall.
Nice you 2 can work together. No one young or old will help me.
+13 votes
For most of my lines: getting across The Pond. Usually,miss pretty easy once they get here, but I have lots of lines that stop at the sand of the US coast.

In my day to day research, it’s finding elusive  records. Ex: why would a family show in one census but not the next though marriages and deed transactions show hem living in the same area? Darn it!

Biggest frustration: te last two lines I cannot get back before 1800.
by Pip Sheppard G2G Astronaut (2.5m points)
+15 votes
Having ALL my ancestors in the Southern United States - burned out court houses and families skipped in one census or another. In some cases, the wife's maiden name is not known; sometimes there is a family story of her last name but no proof exists. So frustrating!!
by Virginia Fields G2G Astronaut (1.0m points)
Oh, how I know the feeling! All of my lines were in the South at least from just after the Revolution. I’m just about as Southern as you can get!
Virginia, I am having the same problem. I have a lot of family in Kentucky. And they loved to name their sons after themselves, so you end up with the same name for 3 or 4 generations. And I am finding that a couple of them fought in the same war together, so their war records are even confusing.
Cheryl, I have six generations of the name William Fears - yeah 6!! Then, there are the Williams who were not in that straight line but named after the original William - YIkes!! I do have that line sorted out but it took a long time.
Wow, Virginia, that is a lot of William Fears. My biggest problem is a John Smith, who is my great-grandfather. I can't find where he died, or his parents. And there are so many John Smiths. We have a mess, don't we Virginia?
And not just burned out Courthouses.  I just cried one day when I read about a cemetery that had been destroyed in (probably) Isle of Wight county.  All of those dates on headstones just gone!
My gr gr grandmother Penelope Olivent moved to south Georgia in 1834 at the  age of seventeen. The story was she and husband Tom 'had to move'. This much I have known since 1977 when I was seventeen.  It took me 42 years to figure out who she was, which I did just did this past month. I told one of my twenty-something sons about it, and he thought it was 'cool' and that's it, lol. Maybe someone here can appreciate it. Do not quit. You never know. Just remember the phrase treasure hunter Mel Fisher used to say, "Today's the day!"
Congratulations, Chad. That is remarkable. I am so glad that you finally found her. I tell my husband about my finds, and he goes back to watching TV. I guess you really have to love it to know the thrill of a "find".
Kathryn, there was a cemetery in our area that we just recently found that had been covered with cement and a play area and parking lot was built on top of it. It was an early settler's cemetery. When the town father's found out about it they were furious, as were the local historians. But the regular people (not interested in history) didn't want to see the city pay for ripping up the cement just to prove there was a cemetery there. It was a long-drawn out battle, which the city eventually won. Needless to say, the headstones were all gone, but the bodies were left. Unable to identify who was buried in the cemetery now has created a mess. Local historians are jumping all over trying to find old records.
+11 votes

The top challenges for me are:

1. Barriers to records in what is now Belarus (formerly Minsk Gubernia, Russian Empire) - barriers involving both language (Hebrew and Russian) and accessibility.  

2. Lack of records for Irish Catholics beyond mid-19th century in County Kerry and County Tyrone.

3. Lack of records for early to mid-19th century in central Pennsylvania (Blair, Huntingdon, Bedford, Mifflin counties). It is a literal black hole.

Also... just trying to find ANYTHING that could even be a hint or a clue, let alone an actual record pertaining to the origins of my biggest brick wall ancestor, Sarah (nee Tuttle) Bender

by Jana Shea G2G6 Mach 3 (31.3k points)
Hmm... I’ve got Benders, too, Jana. Came into Pennsylvania but I do have the records. What part of Pa. for you?
Attempting to clarify how Lina Box, a daughter of John Box in the 1850 Census of Houston Co. TX became L. H. Box (Box- 360) , father of 3 children in the 1880 Census of Hlidago County TX.

The question posed another way:  How do you determine when a census taker makes an error?
I don’t know how you are going to find an 1880 census when I think they were destroyed in a fire. Did some of them not get destroyed?
It was the 1890 that burned.
Pip, my Benders were in Philadelphia from at least mid-18th century (likely earlier).  Where are yours from?

Other branches of my family tree were from central Pennsylvania and there just are so few records for the early to mid-19th century available. Also an obstacle: many of them were Anabaptist.
+10 votes
Conflicting sources.
by Dennis Wheeler G2G6 Pilot (540k points)
+10 votes
My biggest challenge isn't unique just to me.  It is a common problem - the big gap in records between the UK and America in the 1500-1600 migration period. There is that dead-end after my ancestors came to America and no records as to who their ancestry was in England, Wales, Scotland.
by James Stratman G2G6 Mach 8 (89.0k points)
+9 votes
Finding the birth and family information for my 4 X grt grandfather George Ross, for 10 years all we knew was that according to 5 censuses he was theoretically born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England about 1798.

No records at all of a George Ross, almost no Rosses at all, I even hired a professional to look for any kind of record,with no results. We knew that the entire family history was in Bloxwich, Staffordshire, and could never figure out why he was born somewhere else. All the censuses showed him living in Staffordshire.

After about 10 years of searching by several family members, we decided he was either an alien or that he had been born in the workhouse in Chesterfield, Staffordshire, and there are no records for the workhouse.

But as so often happens you find a clue while looking for something else entirely. Another part of the family is from Derbyshire, while researching them the Wright family, I found a link with reference to a Ross family that seemed interesting.

Pay off! The link was for a removal order for a Ross family, to be sent from Chesterfield, Derbyshire to Bloxwich, Staffordshire because they had no legal right to live in Chesterfield. The removal order was issued because the husband-father had died and as the family then had no income they had to leave, the parish refused to put them on Poor Relief.

The family was listed as Mary Ross, widow, plus 4  children including a George of the right age. All of the names fit with the extended family.

I was then able to find the burial records for the father and another child, tracked the family to Bloxwich, his youngest sister who was 3 weeks old when the father died, died before she was one, his mother remarried and died 2 days after the birth of another child.

Eventually I found the marriage records for his parents, and the baptismal records for their children . They were Catholics and the children were baptised in secret, by a priest who had some sort of clandestine dispensation to perform RC baptisms.

Much later I managed to track down the grandparents of George, who also had their kids baptised in secret.

I felt like a super sleuth, it took months to find and then make my way through RC records from the 1700s.

Now I know he wasnt an alien.
by M Ross G2G6 Pilot (435k points)
+12 votes
Finding out the identity of my father. My mother wouldn't tell me, and then only about 5 years ago told me there were 3 possibilities. So I finally took an Ancestry DNA test a couple of months ago, to find out whatever I could to fill in the missing half of who I am. It has not been easy and the answer is none of the 3 possibilities that she gave me.

It wasn't immediate and took a lot of genealogy work, and research working backwards down from 2x and 3x great-grandparents and 3rd cousin matches and finally help and collaboration from DNA cousins, to get to the point I am at now.

I know who my paternal great-grandparents are and my paternal grand-parents we still don't know which of their sons is my father but we know for sure it was one of them. So now one of five possibilities but all with the same surname - Harrop.

Having grown up an only child, with only my Grandma and myself from 8 yrs of age - to find out that I have siblings and nephews and nieces and cousins, because all 5 married and had children, is a huge thing. It is still sinking in and I am giving myself time to process it, and them a chance to get used to the idea that I exist for a while before seeking more contact. Also still working on the DNA matches and watching the sites it is attached to because - "The truth is out there" and I finally have some of it and through doing Wikitree profiles I am getting to know for the first time my paternal ancestors stories. But putting it all together has been a huge challenge with multiple brick walls that I have had to overcome and could not have done so without the help and collaboration of several "cousins" God Bless Them....and one in particular who is an amazing genealogist with 16150 people in his huge family tree and it's still growing.
by Sarah Jenkins G2G6 Mach 2 (26.1k points)
Good Luck, Sarah. I hope that when everything is complete and you have your father's name, you are welcomed into the family with open arms. God bless you on your journey.

Thank you.smiley

What an amazing story, Sarah. It is frustrating to try to overcome uncertainty and mystery, but sometimes DNA analysis can help fill in the missing information and tunnel under that brick wall.
+14 votes
One word: Ireland.
by C Handy G2G6 Pilot (189k points)
Two words: Ireland, Hearsay

I hear you about Ireland.  My Great Grand-parents came to Canada from Ireland. Denis Donohue b. 1826 and Honora Anne Callaghan b. 1831.  Cannot find our when or where from or when or where they were married.  I don't even know if they came to Canada or the USA initially.  In Canada there was no requirement to show how they got to Canada until the 1901 Census and Denis died in 1899 and Honora died in 1901 and that census shows no Honora but does show May have arrived in New York in 1852 on ship George Washington from Liverpool at age 16 as a servant.

1901 Canada Census shows Subdistrict: Ward/Quartier No. 5, Hamilton, Ontario

District Number 69,  Subdistrict Number e-9, Archives Microfilm T-6471 shows:

Donohue Mary F Head W     72

Donohue Mary F Daughter S Aug 6 1861 39

Donohue Dennis M Son S Oct 13 1863  37

Callahan Timothy M Lodger S   1860 40

Callahan Charles M Lodger S    1867 33

I believe the Mary (head) was confused with Mary (daughter) and the (head) should have been Honora, especially since the lodgers had the same last name as Honora's maiden name.
+9 votes

My great-great-grandparents lived in Volhynia/Ukraine. Records are sparse and the ones I do have simply state their birthplace as "Poland". Great, I thought, I have to research an entire country. But not only that. My ancestors were part of the German minority in Poland and their names were sometimes translated into Polish.

Well, the impossible happened and I believe I have found my 3x-great-granfather Friedrich Assmann (at least my most recent DNA matches seem to prove this finally). Now I just have to find his wife and their marriage record..
by Evelina Staub G2G6 Mach 1 (15.8k points)
+11 votes
My biggest challenges are being a newbie, thinking when I came here that my family bible had all the answers. There were missing dates or no information at all, misspelled names and names mixed up. I’m learning about “Brick walls” quickly! But I won’t give up. I’m learning everyday from all of y’all.

Brick wall is Charles Jenkins (my gg grand father on my moms side) family bible just says his name and my gg grandmothers information. Hard one for me. I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes and correct along the way. Doing my dna test this month so it may give some answers. So great fuel to who research my grandfathers side before me. Nice to meet y’all.
by Rebecca Mann G2G2 (2.9k points)
+7 votes
My biggest challenges are being a newbie, thinking when I came here that my family bible had all the answers. There were missing dates or no information at all, misspelled names and names mixed up. I’m learning about “Brick walls” quickly! But I won’t give up. I’m learning everyday from all of y’all.

Brick wall is Charles Jenkins (my gg grand father on my moms side) family bible just says his name and my gg grandmothers information. Hard one for me. I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes and correct along the way. Doing my dna test this month so it may give some answers. So greatful to who research my grandfathers side before me. Nice to meet y’all.
by Rebecca Mann G2G2 (2.9k points)
+7 votes
My biggest challenge (so far!) has been to find information about my great-grandmother, who was allegedly a Native American. The U.S. government began to send Native American children to off-reservation boarding schools in the 1870s. The goal was to assimilate these children into Euro-American culture, starting with changing their names.
by Jennifer Bello G2G6 Mach 1 (14.6k points)
+8 votes
Knowing that there is a treasure chest full of information in public libraries in the NJ/NY area that is digitally available online yet I can't access it because I don't have a library card and can't get one because I don't have a local address in those particular cities.  There should be a national "on-line access use only" card available -- I would pay a fee for that!
+6 votes
My grandmother [Swisher-164 | Lillie Belle Swisher]. She was left at an orphanage in Gallipolis, Ohio at the age of two, then taken to Point Pleasant, West Virginia as a servant at the age of three. I have her last name but no record of who her parents were.
by Dave McNally G2G4 (4.6k points)
+6 votes

I have two thoughts on this.  The first one is my family brick wall.  We have been searching for our Morse line for decades. Joel Morse is our brick wall.  I have found DNA matches between myself (a US Southerner) and Morse's in Nova Scotia, Canada, giving me a clue where to look.

My second thought is I am challenged to not be mean to people who spread unsourced family trees, primarily via Ancestry.   According to a number of trees on ancestry, said Joel Morse had families in New Hampshire (or was it Vermont), Pennsylvania and Mississippi.  I have sorted and sourced those families here on Wikitree so that the real Joel Morse's can take credit where credit is due!  :)

by Kathryn Morse G2G6 Mach 4 (43.4k points)
Unfortunately, I am with you on part #2. I seem to have found that 'stubborn' is a family trait. Everyone can't be right folks.
+5 votes
Proveing who was my mother's father was my biggest challenge.
by Dawn Brown G2G4 (4.2k points)

Related questions

+10 votes
9 answers

WikiTree  ~  About  ~  Help Help  ~  Search Person Search  ~  Surname:

disclaimer - terms - copyright