Following My Own Advice: Tending to a Family Tree

Brickwalls, the figurative ones, exist to torture genealogists. I talk about them a lot. Why they exist, strategies to break them, condolences when it appears the brickwall might stay standing. In early 2021, I presented a virtual talk for the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington, with a focus on methods a hobbyist genealogist can use to get to the next level. I push them to think about how they research, and what they do with the information they find.

In the talk, I point out that just like in real life, our genealogy trees need pruning and routine maintenance. Perhaps incorrect information got added during a late-night research session, or a clue missed on a previously reviewed document. Or maybe a brickwall can be broken with a genealogy “do-over,” because the information needed is now accessible, or more easily available.

Work on one of my brickwalls traces back more than a decade. I wanted to determine the relationship between my great-grandfather, Samuel Brand, and Harry Brandt. Samuel Brand traveled to the United States with Harry’s family, lived with them, and bought a house with Harry. They shared a surname, kind of, but how were they related? Sam was about 18 years younger than Harry. Was Harry an uncle, cousin, much older sibling, or no relation at all?

[1]

I needed to know Harry’s father’s name, and the most likely place to find that was on a death certificate or a headstone.

Harry Brandt and his son Aaron vanished from St. Louis about 1913, and I could not figure out what happened to them. Did they go back to Russia? Did they relocate? Another of Harry’s sons moved to Chicago, and I could find a suitable Harry Brandt there, but not with enough information to prove a match. Parts of the family spelled the surname Brand, and I could find men named Harry Brand, too, in St. Louis, Chicago and other locations. But the right one? No clue.

A lot less was available online when I first began work on this problem. I ordered Harry’s naturalization documents from the National Archives in Kansas City, and the copies were sent to me on a DVD. I scoured the St. Louis Public Library’s obituary index, ordering any Brand or Brandt, and the library sent me photocopies in the mail. I visited the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds and using both microfiche and microfilm, got copies of the home ownership papers.[2] I photographed every Brand or Brandt at Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery. I tried to make use of digitized newspapers at Chronicling America, but their OCR search combined with the last name Brand(t) gave me thousands of hits for every advertisement of “Brand Name” or “Brand New” and trying to find Harry in that haystack of hits was not possible.[3]

I traced Harry’s other children, and where they went. I contacted some of their family members. No one knew what happened to Harry. I needed Harry’s father’s name to try and place him within my family’s Brand(t) lines. And I could not find it.

Fast forward to March 2021, and a project I am a part of with a group of other professional genealogists who focus on late 19th and 20th Century immigration to the United States. As part of the effort, we collected examples of naturalizations from different courts around the US. I pulled up Harry’s file, but no new revelations came from reviewing the documents, and a naturalization doesn’t have the one piece of information I needed to include him in the project – his date of death.

I typed Harry’s name into a genealogy database search, wondering if anything new might show up. And there it was. A death certificate in Los Angeles, from 1914, for a man born about 1862, named Harry Brandt. I clicked on the thumbnail to open the image. At first glance, it seemed to be another record that might not give me enough information to form a conclusion, as the name of the informant was helpfully written as “son.” But Box 18 offered literally,

SPECIAL INFORMATION …. Former or Usual Residence: St. Louis

I was on to something. I obtained a photograph of the corresponding headstone, and finally solved this brickwall. Now, I can welcome my great-grandfather Samuel Brand’s older brother, Nachman Tzvi son of Mordechai Leib, to the family.

Figuring this out opens a lot of research doors for this line, but for now I will sit and ponder if the answer had been there all along? Probably not. Genealogy website search engine algorithms are funny things. But why did I decide to check again, and why did it show up right away? Our brains are funny things, too. We see information we might have missed the first time, we interpret and analyze documents differently with fresh eyes. New data is added to genealogy sites daily. It’s hard to keep up, but important to remember that trees need occasional maintenance. A spring cleaning, if you will.


[1] St Louis Recorder of Deeds Archives, 1909, book 2255, page 423.

[2] This was a feat unto itself. A researcher has to start with the name of the present owner of the building, then work their way back in time, from grantee to grantor, charting the numbers of each transaction, until the name of the people in question are located. This information is on microfiche. The numbers located are then used to pull up, on microfilm, the copies of the deeds.

[3] The Library of Congress’ free digitized newspaper collection. This was before any other online newspaper search engines launched.

[4] “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” database and images, FamilySearch. Death Certificate #1778, 1914.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this excellent article. It inspires me to keep digging and to keep reviewing! Kathy Knall

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