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Your Family Tree #5: Brick Walls

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Linda Roorda


In researching your ancestors, you will hit brick walls – guaranteed!  When you do, think about who the most recent known ancestor was.  Remember that we discussed previously how the Dutch used a specific naming pattern.  Each child was named after the grandparents, alternating back and forth to include each of the child’s grandparents, great-grandparents, then aunts, uncles and parents.  Other ethnic groups, including the Germans, often used a similar pattern, but did not follow it as consistently.  By searching census records of the community where a particular family was known to live, I found the probable paternal grandfather of a friend’s ancestor.  It appeared her ancestor’s middle name was that of the probable grandfather, thus creating a crack in her brick wall.

Often, names changed spelling over time depending on the speller’s knowledge, or were changed to reflect the pronunciation.  Your surname today may not be how it began a few centuries ago.  My maternal family name of Tillapaugh began as the Swiss Dällenbach, being changed in the early 1800s among several lines, including the oft-used Dillenbeck/Dillenbach, etc.  Another example is the German Jung, pronounced and often Americanized as Young.  From the 1600s New Amsterdam, my Dutch VanKouwenhoven morphed into Conover.  My French DeGarmeaux from the Albany area became DeGarmo, while my German Richtmyer became Rightmyer in other lines.

Another example of surname change is found in my Revolutionary War families.  The original Swiss Dübendorffer became Diefendorf after arrival here in the 1730s.  My ancestor Georg Jacob Diefendorf remained loyal to the crown during the Revolutionary War.  However, his son, a staunch patriot, took his mother’s surname (his own middle name) as his new surname, becoming John Diefendorf Hendree, to disassociate himself from his father.

Paying close attention to details helped me find the marriage date for my ancestors Christina Dingman and Jacob Kniskern.  Sorting book by book in one row of the genealogy section of the Steele Library in Elmira, I saw a tiny church book for Montgomery County, New York.  This is a typed transcription of original handwritten church records.  Having seen these church records online, I knew exactly what I was holding.  Searching page by page, I saw the name of “Conescarn.”  Suddenly, I realized that I was looking at the phonetic spelling for the old pronunciation of Kniskern; now the “K” is silent.  I’d discovered what no one else had recognized before – my great-great-grandparents’ marriage date of October 17, 1840!

The Kniskern name began as Genesgern in churchbooks from the 1500s in Germany.  It is one of the oldest documented pedigrees of any New York 1709/10 Palatine emigrant according to the author Henry Z. Jones, Jr. in his personal email to me.  See his two-volume set “The Palatine Families of New York 1710”.  Mr. Jones and his assistants went to Germany and systematically searched records in every town and old church to document as many Palatine-region emigrant families as possible to provide solid documentation for today’s researchers.

When researching old families, it is also helpful to know that Sr. or Jr. and Elder or Younger do not necessarily indicate father and son as it does today.  Often, this title was used to differentiate between extended relatives or unrelated men within the same community who happened to have the same name.  With the old naming pattern, it was not uncommon to find “umpteen” men and boys by the same name in town and church records.  Without the title or other differentiation, it can be difficult to place them correctly in their family of origin, though key is noting the birth parents and baptismal sponsors.

Census takers frequently wrote a surname based on their own spelling ability, which, I discovered, was often quite atrocious!  Be flexible.  As you search records, try various spellings as names were often written as they sounded.  That fact alone can make all the difference in finding your ancestor.  Even my McNeill name, consistently signed by the oldest family members with two “l”s, was spelled variously on census records as McNial, McNeal, McNiel or simply McNeil (without the second “l”).  Several years ago, I transcribed the online 1810 census for Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York and submitted it for posting on the county genweb page.  Some names were very misspelled; but, being familiar with many of Carlisle’s families from research, I understood the intended names and put them in parentheses.

However, in hitting your brick wall, do not jump hastily into accepting published genealogies.  If there is evidentiary proof with solid documentation (like I provided for my published genealogies in footnotes) from reputable journals or well-documented books, then you should be able to accept them.  But, again, beware as I found false leads, fake ties, and erroneous data which I proved wrong with personal old-fashioned research, part of my published thesis.  It pays to put in the extra effort to prove your data.

I also want to stress that I do not readily accept anyone’s claim of family ties to famous historical folks, Mayflower ancestors, or royalty – nor should you.  Maybe you truly are connected, but I want to see sound documentation, preferably baptismal, marriage and death records, or cemetery records for every generation backward.  Also know that most well-documented earliest generations in America begin in the 17th or 18thcenturies.  Viable records previous to those centuries are not always available.

Since Ancestry.com has records from Britain, Ireland, Wales and several European countries, it is a valuable subscription resource.  You can also hire one of their professionals should you feel the need for their assistance.  A general search online for records from a particular nation may also be helpful as I found a reputable website with documented birth and marriage records from the Netherlands for my grandmother’s lineage.  I purchased the book on my paternal ancestry documented by a distant relative who just happens to work in the genealogy division of The Hague.  Though her work can definitively trace my paternal ancestry only to the early 18th century, I’m satisfied.  And I was amazed to see the photo of a Dutch constable, a brother of my great-grandfather, who looked uncannily like my Dad!

Some of your best resources can be found in books containing transcripts of original documents and/or in legitimate family records (Bibles, baptism, marriage and death records) placed at historical or genealogical societies.  Unless you know that what you hold in your hands is truly legit, do like I did to prove my lineage beyond a doubt – tackle the hard work yourself to prove every ancestor.  Yes, it’s time consuming and takes years, but the end result is truly worth the effort!

Again, many genealogies were written in the past with ties to royalty and early American Mayflower ancestors which have since been proven false.  Several resources regarding what to look out for are available at the following websites:

LDS Family Search “Fraudulent Genealogies.”

Genealogy.com’s “Fraudulent Lineages” by Nicole Wingate.

Genealogy’s Star blog:  “Genealogy as a Fraud.”


Tips on accuracy of research in “Bogus Genealogies” by George C. Morgan.

COMING NEXT:  County Historical and Genealogical Society holdings.


"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE

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