Very frequently I hear people talk about not being able to find any data about their ancestors (I am refusing to use the term "brickwall"). The most recent complaint came as a comment to one of my blog posts, where the commentator wrote, "Too much data? No such thing! I am writing a biography of my great grandfather, a member of an immigrant community that was little studied and even less written about." Its too bad the commentator didn't include a little bit more information. But let's suppose that what the commentator is true, that the immigrant community was little studied and even less written about. What would I do in this situation?
The first thing I would do is search for information about the ancestor's descendants. I would seek out the oldest living descendants of the immigrant and ask all the questions he or she would allow me to ask. I would also research the community or communities where the descendants lived, including city directories, insurance records, fraternal organizations, unions, schools, churches, newspapers, land records, probate records and every other type of record imaginable. I would learn about the country of origin and the political and social conditions that existed at the time of the ancestor's emigration. I would try to find the city of origin through looking at all the records that might have recorded that information in the U.S. The fact that little was studied or written about the ethnic community would only make more of a challenge, not the proverbial "brickwall."
I know, it is easier said than done. But the methodology here is to broaden your search beyond records that talk exclusively about the immigrant or the family. Trying to find secondary records that mention the community or group involved may seem impossible, but it is likely that there is more than you may have found. I would also look to the colleges and universities in the state and likely nationally. There may have been studies of this ethnic group in some of the special collections archives of the universities.
I recently started a research effort, which I might have mentioned previously, concerning a family that came from Tennessee and then moved to Texas and may have ended up in Arkansas. At first, I could not understand the apparent retrograde movement from Texas to Arkansas. I had one clue, the name of relative named as the executor of the target ancestor's will. Using this one clue I extended the search to individuals with the ancestor's surname in the surrounding area. After searching for some time I realized that there were a number of people in the area with the same surname. It turned out that the family was concentrated in a place that no longer exists on current maps but with this information was able to identify about 12 potential relatives in the area. My recommendation to my friend was to concentrate on research each of the individuals in the area and to read all of the newspapers in the county for the time period the family was there. Both of these suggestions were not greeted with much enthusiasm. No one likes to be told there is more work to do. It is always more convenient to assume there is a brickwall.
I have written before about the real end-of-line situations, where records cannot be found of any kind either due to extraordinary circumstances or the age of the records. But it is quite hard today to find a place so remote that there are no resources. Maybe the commentator will give us a hint as to the ethnic group or place he or she is looking?