25. Spreadsheets – Sometimes a genealogy brickwall is not as it appears to be. You may have all the information you need to solve your problem, but there is so much information staring you in the face that you get overwhelmed and miss the obvious. What you need is a tool to help you sort out and filter what is important. Consider using a spreadsheet for such a purpose.
Spreadsheets are an excellent way to cross check key facts, such as dates. In the left hand column list all your family members in order from oldest to youngest. In the next columns, list key dates in logical order such as birth date, baptism date, marriage date and death date. This simple but logical technique can help you identify obvious errors (it always amazes us how many times we see family trees where it shows a child born before the parent) and less obvious errors (for example, it is highly unlikely the parent was ten years old when their child was born). Entering data into a spreadsheet format and then reviewing the data can help overcome many brickwalls.
26. Overage Soldiers – In our article 50 Best Genealogy Brickwall solutions, we talked about underage soldiers. Well, the same issue can occur with overage soldiers. When mass conflicts break out, the military is usually happy to take any warm body that walks in the front door. Young people tend to sign up for adventure. Older people tend to sign up because either they have been conscripted or they simply need a job. In the past, the military paid well (often two or three times a normal salary) and they usually offered some kind of pension. Never discount the possibility that your ancestor may have joined the military during a major conflict. If your male ancestor was anywhere between the age of 15 and 60 during a major military conflict, then it is worth checking to see if a military record exists.
27. Prison Records – As a general rule of thumb, the more interaction your ancestor had with the government, the more extensive the paper trail. Military records, for example, can often be extensive. However, nothing compares to the records that are kept on someone who has spent long periods of time in jail. Prison records are about as complete a record that you can get on an historic individual (at least someone that was not famous). If you have an ancestor that family lore says was a colourful character, and you cannot account for long periods of time in that ancestor’s life, then consider the possibility that your ancestor may have been in prison. Ancestry.com estimates that one in eight family trees has a felon.
Even before photography became affordable to the general public, prison records often include detailed photographs (often called mug shots) of prisoners. If your ancestor served a period of time in prison then it is almost always worth going the extra mile to trying to track down the prison record. The challenge (isn’t there always a challenge) is that prison records are rarely on the internet or accessible from the internet. Many large, historical prisons, however, often have an archive. It can take a considerable amount of work to find out if an ancestor was in prison (families would rarely talk about this and many families would actively try to hide such information), but the payoff can be big.