22 March 2012

How to Break Down, Scale, and Work Around Your Brick Wall

We all come to a point where we feel we have reached the end of our research on a branch of our tree. Plugging along, we happily add new members (always with documentation, right?) and keep going back, back, back..........BAM! Brick wall. An almost insurmountable conundrum. It's like the relative in question dropped out of the sky. Confused and hurt, we decide there's no getting around it.......... until there is.

If you've never watched "True Blood", there's a great quote in the first season that I keep in mind whenever doing a search. One character named Terry is talking about setting up a party like a debutant coming out and another character says he didn't realise Terry came from an "old family". Terry's response? "Everyone comes from an old family. Some just kept better records." And ain't that the truth? Even if you are one of the lucky few that find an unbroken documented line back to a verifiable family from antiquity, you will eventually reach a stopping point. For most of us plebeians, that's in the 1800's. Millions have come and gone without doing anything of historical importance, so there are more unknown than known relatives. There have been wars and natural disasters that have destroyed documentation, leaving us with a hole that only a leap of faith can bridge. Ancestors were human too, and as humans they made mistakes, told lies and stretched the truth....... a few fudged facts, and there's a line erased. How do we know we've truly reached the end and won't get around it? What can we do to break through this wall? In the word's of the great Taoist, Winnie the Pooh: "Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it".

My Brick Wall
When I started my family tree, I had one branch I was already resigned to never knowing. My great grandmother Brown was from Scotland. There was a story in the family that she was actually Jewish and from Germany or Poland or "something". She insisted she was Scottish and that was that. For about ten years, I lost track of my mother's side of the family. When I was able to reconnect, my great grandmother was gone and so was possibly the best link to the truth. I asked my mother, who insisted we were Jewish. She thought we were from Czechoslovakia and said her grandfather had changed his name, so it wasn't whatever it was before. My grandmother told me that her mother's maiden name had been Brown in Scotland, so I was essentially looking for a marriage contract between a Charles Brown and a Margaret Brown..... great. And if great great grandpa was going under an assumed name, how was I supposed to find the real name???? Occasionally, a relative would give me a new bit of information that I'd happily plug into my tree and search with no positive results. So I did like many a newbie, and I saw this as a wall far and wide that I'd never climb and forgot about it for the most part. Until a friend, Loretta, posted her Friday tip on her blog and a perfect stranger on Ancestry's Facebook page asked a question about one of Crista Cowan's tips for "researching like a pro". I resolved once again to chip away at the brick wall.

Back to the Family
A year ago, my aunt was in contact with a cousin in Scotland. The relative knew of a brother named Joseph, one Frank and a sister Mary. Mary died in Scotland at the age of 33, though birth and death dates weren't known. She was also able to get great grandma's original maiden name of Levingskas. It seems that the name change that great grandpa did was to change Levingskas to Lavinski..... really? That was it? That was the big name change that was going to stop me dead in my tracks? Actually, for a while it did, as I still couldn't find anything on a Margaret Lavinski. Then another aunt who had been doing some research in the family told me Margaret came to the states in 1927 or so.... back to the searches. No immigration records for Margaret Lavinski (she marries great grandpa Brown in the 1930's). The Scottish cousin also mentioned that some of the later family changed the name to Livingstone. That lead to bupkis. A few months ago, I finally get my grandmother to give me some pictures. In one is great grandma at 16 with the name Margaret Brown. Dang, back to that again. So when did great grandpa and family go by Brown? According to grandma "as soon as they moved to Scotland". According to my research "who the hell knows?"

Johnny, Margaret, Frank
There were a few rays of sunshine in our conversation, however. The picture of great grandma was with her friend and she had written on the back their names and her age with the date. She was 16 in 1929, living in Scotland. So she was born about 1907. Besides the picture of great grandma "Brown" and her friend, I was also given a photo of great grandma and two of her siblings with their names and ages on the back. That's right, now I had "This is me, Gramma Brown with my brothers taken in Scotland. Johnny aged 13, me 11, Frank 9." So Johnny was born in 1905, Frank 1909. New information, new relatives! Did they come to the States too? Grandma thought yes. I did a few searches and found some possible records that I saved to my shoebox (an excellent feature if used correctly), but without more information, I couldn't be sure these were my relatives. Once again, I was stuck.

Working Around the Wall with Siblings
Now, after reading Loretta's blog, I decided to put Margaret aside and find out about her brothers. Using Crista's advice, I wanted to find out if and when they came to the states. Off to Ancestry I went, searching out Frank or John(ny) Levingskas/ Lavinski. What I found was a naturalisation index for a Frank Joseph Lavinski. He had a birth date of August 22, 1908. He was born in Scotland. He lived in Chicago. Hmmm, grandma was born in Chicago. This might be a match, so it's off to find more proof!

But what is the next step? Well, stick with Frank and try to find a passenger list or census, right? I want to know when this Frank came to America. About five hints down is a Frank Lavinski in a 1930 census living as a boarder in Chicago..... could it be? According to his naturalisation, Frank didn't change his name to Lavin until 1937, so we have a possibility.

1930 U.S. Census
So now, Frank (age 21) is living as a boarder to a Walter Mitkus who is a widower with two children Martha (age 16) and Francis (age 14). Walter's sister-in-law Margaret Plunkus (age 23) and his niece Margaret Jr. (age 1 1/2) are also living with him. Walter is from Lithuania. Margaret and Frank are from Scotland. Could this be my great grandma with her brother and brother-in-law? If so, why is Frank a "boarder"? And why is she named Plunkus? Maybe I have it wrong. So I once again start a search for Frank, this time looking for a passenger list. I find a Frank Lavinski on a New York arrival log. And now I'm going to give you an invaluable piece of advice that was passed down to me from another researcher on Ancestry: CHECK THE PAGE BEFORE AND AFTER YOUR RECORD. On the first page, I found his name and birth year, port of departure and nationality. He was a Lithuanian who sailed from England. I checked the pages before and after and found a second page listing contact information. His contact for his departure was his father John Lavinski living in Mossend, Scotland. He was going to visit his brother-in-law WALTER MITKUS of Chicago!  I now felt I was on the right family..... maybe. It could still be a whole different group of Lavinskis. My aunt said great great grandpa was Jonas Levingskas/Lavinski, so could he have changed his first name to John?.... I wonder what happened to Walter's wife. Off to find Walter in the 1920 Census!

Scaling the Wall with Corroborating Documents
Report of death of a U.S. citizen abroad
I find Walter in 1920, Chicago with his children Martha (6) and Francis (4). I also see a wife Mary (23). Mary is was born in Lithuania. Well, the family could have moved after her birth. So how did Mary get from Lithuania to the States and then die in Scotland? After a search of Mary Mitkus in Scotland, I found this record for a death of a United States citizen abroad.

Seems Mary Mitkus died in 1929, so she'd have been 33. That seemed to fit with what my aunt had told me. The form states that her effects were in the hands of her father John Levinskas of Mossend, Scotland. At the same address as the contact for Frank's passenger list. Her daughters Martha and Francis were temporarily with their grandfather at Mossend. Her husband, Walter Mitkus was in Chicago with her sister Margaret PRUNKES. So the name on the 1930 census may be wrong (or this one is), but everything was starting to line up that I had the right documents about these people. But what about this Plunkus/Prunkes surname?

As it turns out, my great grandmother was married before she met my great grandfather. Grandma didn't know the name of her husband, but now I did. I confirmed with grandma that her oldest sister was in fact from this first marriage. Now to refine my search for a Margaret Prunkes/Plunkus. The 1930 census shows that Margaret Jr. was born in Illinois and her father was from New York. A search of Ancestry and Family Search don't come up with anything quick. I try a few spelling changes, try to search the husband's surname in New York only. I try to find a birth notice for Margaret Jr. in Chicago. Nothing is really fitting together. This may take a little time, but I've made more headway in a week than I have in a year.

Off to Break My Wall, BRB
I'm not giving up. I've got new avenues to explore and it could all be at my fingertips with a few website searches. Or I could have to get in touch with local parishes and authorities in Scotland to find out more about the Levingskas' immigration to Scotland from Lithuania. Knowing Mary was born in Lithuania and Margaret Scotland narrows down the travel time. I still have to find something about Johnny too. And there was a brother that stayed behind in Scotland named Joseph; but then again Frank's middle name is Joseph (of course, it's not uncommon for a family to reuse a name even in the same generation). I did a search for their father John/Jonas Levingskas/Lavinski (narrowed the search to just Scottish records) and found a WWI British Army Medals Index for Joseph Levingskas. I clicked on the photo and got:

Dear Researcher, F You. Love, Britain
  As disheartening as the lack of information first seemed, there was hope. I checked Ancestry's description of the index, which lead to a Google search for the Medal Rolls, which lead me to the National Archives. It's £2 to get a copy of the record (about $3.17), but it is available. I'm not sure I want it just now as I don't have proof that this is my relation (and sadly, I don't have a budget for records this month). So I also did the free surname research on Scotland's People just to see if there were records for Levingskas. Turns out, quite a few. I can't view them without paying (per view), so this will also be on the back burner until the budget allows. But can you feel how close we are? I am going to continue other avenues including hitting the message boards and other websites, but I'm also going to set aside some money to get at these records. I'm no longer blocked. I have many avenues to investigate. New names and dates to track down. New questions that could lead right back to the beginning of my search. Like, who was Margaret's first husband? What happened to Walter and his daughters? Where's Frank after 1930? (one more name waiting for the 1940 census!) Did John/Jonas ever come to the States? Mary has an immigration of 1909 according to the 1920 census; that's pretty young. What happened there, and who did she come with, if anyone?

One thing to remember: Having more questions than answers doesn't mean you have a brick wall. It may mean you have to dig deeper. Or check the branches to better get at the root. Or ask the right questions. You may have to put it to the side until you can view it with fresh eyes. You may have to ask someone else to look at it to see if they ask questions you haven't thought about yet. Unless there's a document that says "fell from the Heavens", you may be just around the corner from your breakthrough. Keep an open mind and save records that are possible until they are impossible. The more collateral proof you have, the better your chance of finding the real facts.

Ponder, Ponder, Ponder


  1. Did you realize you posted this on Grandma Brown's birthday?

    1. I believe you said so on the day it was published, lol. I didn't even think about it. Maybe Grandma was reaching out to me.

  2. My grandma was Mary Levinskas at birth. Her mother was Alice Thomas. Alice Thomas was married to John Levinskas. He was the child of Jonas and Martha I think it was. They're parents were tomasus and yafilla again I think Karezuskia was her surname. I think you might find these names useful. My family are the Browns but recently found that was only due to a name change from Levinskas. Good luck

    1. Hi I am also part of this family (brown) can you msg me

    2. Hi I am also part of this family (brown) can you msg me

    3. I am tracing my family tree and believe this is the same family as the family I am tracing the full story is the same my grandad I believe was Agnes Thomas son

  3. Anonymous3/7/22 17:45

    Hi my name is Andrew Brown, my dad was born William levingskas and his dad was John levingskas son of jonas . I can be contacted at Andy.brown3113@icloud. Com