Archive for the ‘General Research’ Category

Pauline Waters

Pauline Waters

Yesterday would have been the 100th birthday of my grandmother Pauline Celeste Waters. She was born April 13th, 1915 in the sleepy town of Stillpond, Maryland on the Eastern Shore. Her death in 1997 is actually what started my journey into my family history research. Like many beloved grandmothers, she had a tremendous impact on her family and friends. She was the eldest and only girl in a family of 5 boys. She attended Bennett College in North Carolina and later earned a master’s degree from New York University. She taught high school for over 40 years in Jacksonville, Florida.

What I remember most about her was how smart she was and how witty she was. She was tall and regal in her bearing, dignified and sure of herself. She was a strict disciplinarian who did not suffer fools lightly, both with her sons and with her students. She loved God and the Methodist Church, which is no surprise since she was the daughter of a Methodist minister. Her religious beliefs shaped her entire life. I don’t think you ever left a conversation with her without her talking about God or praying for somebody. She would just reach out and touch your forehead and start praying.

Everybody has memories of relatives like this. So I thought I’d provide some examples of how I researched her life’s story in the hopes that it will give others ideas for doing the same. Happy 100th birthday, granma! We love, remember and cherish you.

Genealogical Research I Have Collected on Pauline’s Life:

1) Every census taken during her life, her two marriage certificates, and her death certificate.

2) Her college application from Bennett College. I also had her entered into a book written by Juanita Moss, a former “Bennett Belle”, and reading that book provided more insight into her experience there in the years 1931-1935. My grandmother was the first alumni student to serve on the Bennett Board of Trustees, and she was so proud of that.
Pf_Science3) Her bible which included the family tree, copies of some of her diplomas, and a cache of priceless letters she wrote to her son and to her husband before their marriage.


3) The deed to the home in Jacksonville that she lived in when she married William Smith and had two sons. It was the house where William had himself been raised in.

4) William and Pauline eventually purchased a summer home on American Beach, the African-American beach. I have plenty of stories about their time there from my father, but I learned a lot about the history of not just Amerian Beach, but “black” beaches all over the country.

The Beachhouse

The Beachhouse

5) Pauline’s first job out of college was at the Boylan School, a private school for negro (as they were then called) girls run by the Methodist Church. It is that job that bought her to Jacksonville, where she would meet her husband and stay for 50 years. At an online database hosted by the State University of Florida, I found a program book for the Boylan School, dated 1932. Although it is from a few years before my grandmother taught there, I found it fascinating to get insight into what the school was like and what life was like for its teachers.


5) I found newspaper articles about the horrific lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury, MD in 1931. My grandmother’s family was still living there. Even though she had just left for college, I can only imagine the terror it struck in the whole community. The racial climate was so bad, the Eastern Shore earned the nickname “The Lynching Shore.” Sadly, I also discovered through newspaper articles that her half sister (by a previous wife of her father) was murdered and found in a white neighborhood.


6) I read  several terrific books that flesh out African-American life in Jacksonville during the 1940s through the 1970s, covering specifically the civil battles of the 1960s as well as Jim Crow in general. Several pictures of Pauline and her family were in the book of photographs below.


7) I collected interviews with her former students, her younger brother and her sons. The personal stories are simply the best. Of course, I have many photographs and I also have artifacts, like jewelry that she gave to me.


Lastly ( I could go on and on), I was fortunate that she wrote a book about her life. Many years later I got it published as a birthday present for my father. Needless to say, that has been priceless. In the book, she tells me her life story, even though I didn’t start my research until her death.



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Although the web has certainly enabled me to find things I’m not sure I would have found otherwise, I’m clear that the bulk of records I need are not online and likely never will be. This blog’s title comes as I am in the process of a breakthrough on my Waters family, from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a line I’ve had little new information on for many years. After 1880, my direct ancestors moved away from Somerset County, MD where they had lived since almost the turn of the century. Somerset County had many African-American Waters families comprising at least three, maybe more, different family lines. They frequently named their children Mary, Sarah, John, George, Samuel, etc. so I simply did not have enough information to track them. I pick back up when the line moved forward in time to my great-grandfather, Daniel George Waters, but that left a gaping hole in the generation of his father Samuel.

I recently uncovered a death certificate for one of Samuel’s brothers, George Leslie Waters, who had migrated to Coatesville, Chester County Pennsylvania where he died in 1938. I found this by putting in a birthplace of “Maryland” and a “Father’s” name as Daniel Waters, and leaving the first name and surname fields blank. That’s a great technique to use when you are trying to find where children of an ancestor might have gone:

George Waters DC

George Waters DC

I quickly found he and wife Sadie in the census. What I needed next was his obituary, which would hopefully name surviving family members. For that, I almost always first turn to local genealogical and historical societies (and local libraries). A little research online led me to the Chester County Historical Society:

Chester County HS Webpage

Chester County HS Webpage

A quick email request was all it took before they responded that they had found George’s obituary. I sent in a $25 research gratuity, and within a few weeks, I had what I needed and more. They had done a quick look into their other records and found a subsequent remarriage of George’s spouse, as well as an entry from the local city directory noting George’s occupation as a barber:

George's Obituary

George’s Obituary

That obituary revealed one surviving sibling: Annie Henry, living in Dorchester County, Maryland. I quickly found her and her husband Nehemiah on the 1900-1940 census records in the county as well as multiple deed records for property they owned. Not only would I have not known to look in Dorchester County, I didn’t even know he had a sister named Annie, because she is not in the family’s 1880 census household. She was probably born in the first few years of the 1880s, and fell into what I called the Donut Hole — the 20 year 1880-1900 census gap.

Unfortunately, neither of these couples appear to have had any children, but the reference to nieces and nephews in George’s obituary implies that he had other siblings who had children. After I find Annie Henry’s date of death, I will try to find her obituary.

Another recent example of this is the lovely folks over at the Lawrence County Genealogical Society in Lawrence County, Tennessee. After realizing that three headstones at Find-A-Grave of some collateral ancestors had the same date of death, I realized that some accident must have occurred. Kathy and Lashawn quickly uncovered an article in the paper about the sad accident, scanned it in and sent it to me:

House Fire

House Fire

Many of these societies frequently have vital record and/or obituary indexes, in particularly for deaths in the 20th century. For small donations, many can answer brief questions and provide just the little bit of evidence needed to take your research to the next level. I have often paid local researchers if I needed more extensive research done in locations I can’t get to myself.

While researching your families, don’t neglect to take advantage of the wonderful collections, indexes and resources of the local genealogical and historical societies and local libraries. This is what they do. I hope you will look back over your research and look for opportunities to contact some of these groups and advance your research.

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Before I start my post, I have a challenge I’d like to make to my readers. Plan to write a 2-3 page article of one of your family lines, and submit it for publication to that county’s genealogical journal or newsletter. Not enough of us are getting our research out there, and a local genealogical journal is a great place to start. They usually don’t have stringent source citation rules and you can include a bibliography of the sources you consulted at the end of the article. Reread some of my past ideas for writing here and here. Other bloggers have also recently posted about this topic that you can read at The Armchair Genealogist, and at Genealogy’s Star and one at Family HIstory Writing Challenge. Don’t wait until you “finish” your research, because you’ll never be finished! Make 2015 the year you start. Linda Crichlow published her mother’s memoirs, and I have to recommend it to you all as a beautiful example of a published family history. You can purchase “Back Then, There” from her website. Getting our research out there by publishing is one way to ensure it will survive for our own descendants to find. On to my post’s topic—I just finished reading the book Remembering Jim Crow, published in 2001. For those researching African-Americans, a lot of our efforts are eventually spent in the complexity of slavery, but I think we all need to pay better attention to the era of segregation. Most of us still remember this era or have parents alive who do. Reading the stories in this compilation, which included audio tapes, was heartbreaking for me. This was a caste system, and in many ways, being born black defined your place in the system. Richard Wright wrote a powerful piece abut his experiences with Jim Crow. I recently saw the film “Selma,” and cried nonstop through the film.

Separate Fountains

Separate Fountains

My father, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida shared his recollections of Jim Crow with me during several interviews. “Jacksonville was a big city, and of course we lived on the East Side, in a black neighborhood. We never really encountered white people unless we had to go downtown.” He discussed how it didn’t seem odd or strange because that’s just how it always was. The year my father left Florida to attend Howard University, the city erupted in violent racial protests and riots, marked today with a historical marker. My father remembers leaving his father’s downtown pharmacy during the start of the riots, only to encounter an angry white policeman who barked at him to go home. Which of course, he did. But there were also many wonderful stories. My father shared precious memories of his segregated Matthew W. Gilbert Junior-Senior High School, school of the legendary Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bob Hayes. The bonds of friendship formed there are close to this day. He told me about the segregated beach where my grandparents owned a summer home, American Beach; it was a storied place of refuge for blacks of the era, who were shut out of other beaches and pools.

Smiths at American Beach beach house

Smiths at American Beach beach house

My mother on the other hand, had a very different experience. Her parents migrated from Tennessee when she was three years old to Dayton, Ohio. There was no de facto segregation in Ohio, so all of my mother’s school years were integrated and her Dayton neighborhood was one of blacks and mostly Eastern Europeans. Have you written down your recollections of this painful and shameful period of our history? Have you interviewed your parents and siblings and other relatives about their specific memories of school integration, Jim Crow laws and how it affected their lives? This is likely to be a topic that we can collect and record lots of memories for our descendants who like myself, were born after the worst of these times was over. I discovered that there was a horrific lynching in Salisbury, Maryland in 1931, where my paternal grandmother lived at the time, and I wish I had asked her about what that was like.

Another thing that I think about as I look at census records from 1900, 1910, 1920, etc. is how the vast majority of black people were relegated to the hardest, dirtiest, lowest paying jobs. Men were either farmers, laborers, janitors, drivers or factory workers with just a handful able to become skilled workers or businessmen, doctors or teachers. Women were maids and cooks and laundresses; a choice few became teachers or nurses. In other words, you were absolutely limited for the most part in what you could reasonably aspire to be if you were black. I can’t imagine that, thankfully in my own lifetime, living now in a country with a black President.

I have noticed also that the experiences differ depending on where people lived. Big cities were different from rural areas, like where my maternal grandmother grew up in Tennessee. They worked in concert with their white neighbors farming, although Jim Crow laws certainly applied when they went into the city. Some of the people I interviewed had relatively peaceful experiences with school integration, unlike what happened in places like Little Rock or Mississippi. Places that had larger populations of  black people tended to be the most committed to separation of the races, which makes sense in that the white community was more fearful and more likely to enforce the existing social structure.

Birmingham, 1963

Birmingham, 1963

Include interviews with local whites if you can. I like to ask them what their experience was, what their feelings were as children seeing all of this, how it affected them growing up, etc. Whites who joined in the battle to secure civil rights for black people earn some of my highest regard. They could see our shared humanity, even in the midst of all the hatred.

Rich resources exist for researching this painful period. Here are a few:

1) The excellent documentary  “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow”

2) Duke University’s powerful collection of oral histories of Jim Crow, called “Behind the Veil”

3) the University of Virginia contains links to similar databases

4) You Tube Video on Jim Crow Remembrances

5) The Jim Crow museum at Ferris University is a must-see full of painful remainders

6) “Living with Jim Crow: African-American Women and Memories of the Segregated South,” by Ann Valk and Leslie Brown

7) Michelle Alexander has a powerful book called “The New Jim Crow

8) Examples of Jim Crow laws can be found at: the National Park Service  the Smithsonian’s Brown v. Board exhibit  American Radio Works

9) The Southern Poverty Law Center has a resource on Teaching Tolerance

10) A brief history can be found at the Library of Congress on Jim Crow

The struggles continue as Ferguson and other recent events teach us. I hope that we can all learn the lessons of the past, and approach each other with more love, compassion and understanding.

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This was just such a heartwarming episode that I discovered in an 1882 newspaper article that I had to share it. These are collateral ancestors of mine:

1882 Washington Evening Star

1882 Washington Evening Star

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Following a repeatable process to guide our genealogy research can make the difference between success on the one hand, and being  lost in papers and files years later with no where to go. There are so many things I wish I could whisper to my 1997 self when I first set out on this path, although there are some things I’m proud that I did the “right” way, like interviewing relatives and reading everything related to genealogy I could get my hands on.

All of our research should start with a specific research question. These questions help us to create a focused plan of attack, and help us to focus on records likely to hold the answers we need. I want to use something from my own research to illustrate how to formulate those questions.

Daniel George Waters

Daniel George Waters

This wonderful photo is my great-grandfather Daniel George Waters, born in 1875 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Somerset County. He was a minister with the Methodist church, as was his grandfather & several uncles & great-uncles. My father has told me many stories of him, mainly of how everybody was so afraid of him because he was very stern. Looking at this photo, I believe it! Ministers moved as their assignments changed, so my grandmother grew up in towns all over the Eastern Shore of Maryland & Delaware. You can read about his Waters lineage on the “Paternal” tab above, then scroll down to Waters.

While I have amassed plenty of information on his paternal side, his mother’s side hasn’t gotten much attention from me. As a little background, Somerset County, Maryland had a large number of freed blacks before state emancipation in 1864.Daniel’s mother’s name, Mollie Curtis, was passed down via oral history. I found her in several census records with her husband Samuel Waters, and I located their date of marriage. Recently I pulled Mollie’s death certificate:


Mollie Waters

Her parents on the certificate above are listed as George and Maria Curtis. Fortunately, George lived to be 90 and I was able to pull his death certificate as well.

George Curtis

George Curtis

This places George Curtis’ birth at ca. 1814. I was able to locate the family of George Curtis on the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900 census records for the county. Now, while I’m pretty sure these are the right people (there are no other George Curtis’ who are black and free in that county at that time), I still have a lot of research to do. That research begins by formulating questions. Here are several questions these two records, in addition to the census records, have led me to ask:

1) Does Manokin Cemetery, Somerset County, MD, have existing headstones or burial records?
2) What is the relationship, if any, of Clinton Collins, the informant on Mollie’s death certificate?
3) Mollie is listed as a widow; does a death certificate exist for her husband Samuel Waters?
4) What is the relationship, if any, of George Hill, the informant on George Curtis’ death certificate?
5) Mollie was born ca. 1859 according to this record; was she recorded as a freed black in the freedom certificates of the county?
6) Were George and his wife Maria recorded as a freed blacks in the freedom certificates of the county?
7) How did Mollie Waters obtain her freedom?
8) How did George Curtis obtain his freedom?
9) What was the maiden name of George Curtis’ wife, Maria?
10) When did George Curtis marry his wife Maria?
11) Is there a death certificate for Maria Curtis?
12) Are the family of George and Maria Curtis found in the records of the local black church?
13) Did John Curtis (white), with whom George Curtis is living in the 1850 and 1860 census, own and later free George Curtis?

I’m sure I’ll have more over time, but notice how specific the questions are. Some will involve more work to answer, but each question builds upon the others, and allows me to gather the information I seek in a focused way. For some questions, I may be unable to find the answer. Those “negative” results should also be recorded. Using my knowledge of the available records for Maryland in general and Somerset County in particular, I can put together a list of repositories and records I need to search to find the answers. As I research these answers, I’ll include them here on the blog.

Have you created specific genealogy research questions? Tell me in the comments if you’ve been practicing this already, and if you haven’t, choose an ancestor give it a shot.

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DR_babes12 No, you’re not going crazy. This list started out as 5 Ways but has now grown to 7 Ways;)

I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this picture of myself with my older brother, so this is as good a time as any. It puts me in the Christmas spirit.

We’re headed into the holiday season and maybe you’ll have a week or so before the end of the year to do some last minute genealogy wrap-up. Here are some ideas to jumpstart your research and provide good ground to start with in 2014.

1.  Order any original records that you don’t have. Organize all of the data you have gathered on each surname. If you have the date of a marriage from an online database, write and get a copy of the original marriage record. If you have a death date, write away for the original death certificate. Get a copy of the original deed or court record or anything else you’ve gathered. Most can be obtained for small fees. These records can be obtained from either the state archives, state vital records office or county courthouse and you can easily go online to find out where you need to write. We must base our research on analysis of original records, and too many people settle for just having the date they pulled from a database. We will miss critical clues if we do that. Instead of this image:

Familysearch indexed data

Familysearch indexed data

Have this original record of Beatrice’s death (below):


Original death certificate

Some original records are available online, but this is why it’s helpful to go through your research and figure out which ones you don’t have.

2. Research the history of court records in one of your research states. You need to find out what the courts were called and what types of cases each one handled. For example, googling “north carolina court history” uncovered this PDF document. Other places to look are in Ancestry’s Red Book at the library, at state archives websites and several of the FamilySearch Wikis now have court histories included, like this one for South Carolina. Now that you have the names of the courts, you can make a plan to start researching each type of court in the new year. For example, in Tennessee (19th and 20th century) I researched the County Court records, the Chancery Court records, and the Circuit Court records for my counties. Court records contain amazing information not available anywhere else.

3. Identify the “cluster” of people associated with your families. I recently gave a lecture on cluster research and how it can be used to further our research. Humans live within social groups, and cluster research takes advantage of that principle. Pick a family or two and make a list of the people in their “cluster”, or as Elizabeth S. Mills says, their FAN Club (Family, Associates, Neighbors). A cluster should include all extended family members plus in-laws, neighbors, people living nearby with the same surname, witnesses and bondsmen on deeds and marriages and business associates, just to name a few. Researching the cluster will often lead to uncovering more information on your family/person/couple of interest and can often break through brick walls. It has worked for me. Now you’ll have a list of people to start researching in 2014; and remember you’ll never know where the road will lead until you try.

4. Make a list of microfilm you need to order and research from FamilySearch. Go to Familysearch.org, click Search, and then click Catalog. In the “Search by: Places” box type in your research state, then county. A list will pop up of types of records that Familysearch has microfilmed. For example, this is the list for Edgecombe County, North Carolina:

Records List

Records List

Clicking on any category will lead you to the exact microfilm titles and numbers. For example, I clicked on Court Records here under Edgecombe County, NC:

Court records

Court records

Clicking on Bastardy Bonds brought me to this list:

Bastardy bonds

Bastardy bonds

This is what you need: exact film titles and the film numbers on the far right. Write them down; you can start by searching probate, land, or court record indexes. Find a Family History Center near where you live, take that list, and ask the representative to guide you through setting up your online account and ordering the film. Unfortunately, the website is not very intuitive and you’ll really need someone to show you how to setup and order, but once you’ve done that, you can now order from home & research records from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, or any other state without leaving your home state! If you have yet to do this, it will launch your research to new heights.

5. Redouble your efforts to find living descendants. If you can trace someone to the 1940 census, and they had children in that census, find those descendants. First focus on the males since they would not have undergone a name change; for females you’d first have to find out if they married (and remarried). Search the Social Security database at Ancestry to see if that person may have died (common names will be harder to find this way). If the person did die, especially in the late 1980s and beyond, you may find an obituary in a newspaper at Genealogybank.com, or better yet, try the local library. Many local libraries have obituary indexes for the more recent years. An obituary should list survivors. Try online sites like zabasearch and white pages to see if you can get mailing addresses. I frequently send out brief postcards explaining the connection and asking for a phone call. Even if you get the death certificate of someone who died in the 1980s and beyond, you can try to contact the Informant listed on that death certificate. Also, later burials are more likely to have headstones (search Find-a-grave) and these are sources of death dates as well. Needless to say, the benefits of connecting with living descendants are endless.

6. Find special collections and manuscripts relevant to your research area. There are hidden gems in these collections just waiting to be discovered, but we often bypass these for more common records. These collections can contain those all-important slaveowner records, particularly for large slaveowners, but records of the local doctor and store merchant are also valuable as they can contain interactions with enslaved people. To get started, make a list of 4 or 5 major and regional universities in your research state, and then add state and county historical societies and the state archives to that list. Many of these repositories have descriptions of their special collections/manuscripts online. For example, for TN, I might examine collections at the University of TN, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and because I do black history research, Fisk University. I would include in that list the Tennessee Historical Society, the Tennessee Genealogical Society & the one for my county, the Hardin County Historical Society. The state archives is the Tennessee State Library & Archives. With this list of institutions, go to each website and search for description of their manuscript/special collections. Look not just for your surname or slaveowner’s surname, but search for anything from people who lived in your county. For example, this is Fisk University’s Special Collections page:

Fisk SC

Fisk SC

In 2014, with your list of institutions, and specific collections of interest, you can begin to order microfilm from the institution or plan a research trip to the facility. (Note: Colleges and Universities from other states may also hold collections relevant to your research, for example, University of North Carolina holds many records from all southern states.)

7. Make a chart to see what record groups you are missing. I have discussed before the benefit of using charts for your genealogy research. Staying organized and focused becomes harder and harder the more information we accumulate. Try this: in Microsoft Word or Excel (or just draw it by hand) list parents, one on each line, followed down the list by each child.  Then across the top, create columns with these titles: Censuses, Land Records, Birth, Marriage, Death, Divorce, Probate Records, Tax Records, Court Records, etc. (there are many types you can use). For each person, assess whether you have searched for their names in that record type. This is a simple exercise, but you may be surprised at the results. Here is a simple chart I did for my Simpson line:

simple chart

simple chart

Of course, I have a separate census chart where I break it out by year & make sure I have searched for each person in every relevant census year.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving & I hope these ideas gets you excited about your research & reignited for 2014.

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MC900390920My friend Aaron calls them artificial. They can also be called self-imposed brick walls. We say this to mean we have labelled something a brick wall that really isn’t a brick wall. We call them that even though we haven’t done our due diligence in terms of careful research. Consider these examples:

We declare the brick wall of not being able to find an ancestor in a census year but we haven’t tried multiple spellings and pronunciations,
haven’t used wildcard searches,
haven’t searched surrounding counties,
haven’t searched other census websites other than Ancestry,
haven’t considered a migration out of state and biggest of all—
haven’t done a line-by-line search in the district or county we expect to find them in.

We declare a brick wall, but we have only been to one or two repositories in person, or worse still, have done all our research online.

We declare a brick wall,
but have used books and websites to collect information without ordering and examining firsthand the original record.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only searched 2 or 3 TYPES of records such as census records, vital records and the “easy” databases on Ancestry (like World War I draft cards). We haven’t even tried to search land records, court records, church records, maps, city directories, probate records, newspapers and other record sets.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only been searching for our direct ancestor and maybe his wife and children. We have not expanded to the group (or “cluster”) of people that were associated with our ancestors and would significantly increase our chances for success.

We declare a brick wall,
after jumping back several generations, and not doing extensive research within each generation on all the siblings and children of each sibling.

We declare a brick wall, but we’re wearing cultural blinders. We aren’t considering that people may have had children outside of or before marriage, or that they may appear in the records as a different race.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually analyzed and correlated the evidence that we DO have. In fact, we don’t know how to evaluate the evidence. We believe everything we see in print is factual, accurate and true. If two records give conflicting information, we have no idea which one is correct.

We declare a brick wall,
and have never tried to find living descendants of any of the family members.

We declare a brick wall,
but never stopped to consider our ancestor may have had multiple marriages. We also never actually verified the mother of each child separately from the father.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never expanded our search to less common but potentially valuable records stored onsite at universities, historical and genealogical societies. And-

(my personal favorite)

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually read a book on genealogy methodology or any of the thousands of teaching articles published in genealogy journals. We have progressed mainly by asking others what to do next instead of taking the time to learn ourselves “what to do next.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Genealogy is a learned skill and a profession with defined standards. You get good at it by practice and by education. I define “good” as using best practices for careful research and ultimately being able to discern clues that don’t jump off the page. That’s what will set you apart from when you were a beginner. I look at evidence I gathered in earlier years and see things now I couldn’t possibly see then. You have to progress away from “looking up” people in databases and learn how to “look into” people’s lives, which is a different animal altogether.

I have been guilty of many of these artificial brick walls myself and have had to overcome my special tendency to declare someone dead when I can’t find them;) But I’ve gotten better over the years by constantly educating myself and learning about methodology and resources. I hope you will too. Tell me in the comments, which artificial brick walls you have been guilty of?

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