Jun 21, 2019

Collaboration Can Help Break Brick Walls

21 Jun 2019

This week I visited Laramie, Wyoming and spoke to the local genealogy society, Albany County Genealogical Society. My presentation was called “Smith, Anderson and Jones” and gave hints on researching common name. On a whim, at the end of the presentation, I decided to discuss one of my own common-name brick walls.


The brick wall I’ve been facing for the last year or so involves a woman (or women) who married two cousins with the same surname: Fernelius. The woman’s name was Lillian (Lillie, Lily, etc.) Johnson. Since she was from Minnesota, there are lots and lots of Lillian Johnson’s, and I’ve been having trouble determining whether the two Fernelius cousins married the same woman or two separate women who just happened to share the same, common name. As I described the similarities between the supposed two women such as the fact that both had fathers born in Sweden and mothers born in Denmark, according to census records from 1900 to 1920, I could see that the audience was very engaged. As I continued with my story and requested help in solving this puzzle, hands shot in the air. Everyone had a theory or a suggestion for a different record that might potentially solve the problem. It felt like we could go on all night, but since the allotted time was already over, I had to wrap up with thanks for the new leads and hopes that no one else would run into such a thorny common-name problem.


Now that I’m home, I’ve actually followed up on a couple of suggestions I got that evening, and I have high hopes that the copies of the original marriage licenses for the two couples will show that the signature of the bride is the same or completely different, thus answering the question. But more importantly than the leads I got (hard to believe that a genealogist would say anything is more important than research leads) is the fact that I realized that collaboration is an idea that we genealogists bandy about but seldom actually do. We all sit at our computers in our own little bubble and rarely interact up close and personal. Oh, sure, we attend a genealogy meeting and listen to a speaker talk about an aspect of research, or maybe, if we’re really feeling adventuresome, we attend a conference in Denver or even in Boston or Burbank. But, rarely do those experiences involve sitting down with someone or, even better several someone’s, and laying out a problem and just brainstorming with them. It’s really too bad because I think that having another set of eyes look at what we’ve done (and not done) can be really helpful. Maybe those other eyes won’t see anything we didn’t in the first place, but the chances are good that they will see something we’ve overlooked, just like in my case where I’d overlooked the possibility that marriage certificates might have signatures that could distinguish between two women.


I’ve decided my genealogy goal for the rest of the summer is to contact a friend or two and ask them if they’d like to swap a couple of hours reviewing a genealogy brick wall with me. One time we could discuss my puzzle and another time we could discuss the other person’s. Maybe it won’t lead to any great breakthroughs, but it might. If nothing else, it will force me to review and organize the information I already have so that I can share it logically with someone else, which might be helpful in itself.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large