Map It Out: Using Maps to Answer Family History Questions

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By Sherry Lindsay, FamilyLink.com, Inc.

It is often said that in beginning research on a family, you need three types of basic information: a name, a date, and a place. In solving research problems it is generally important to know the name of the place, where it is located on a map, and perhaps how it relates (or related) to the places that surrounded it. However, learning even more about a place through mapping can be a great boon to solving family history puzzles and learning more about the ancestor’s way of life.

In researching a place, it is very helpful to find maps of the location from the time your ancestors lived there. Sometimes it is difficult to find such maps, and sometimes even when those maps are available they can be difficult to decipher. I tend to prefer a simple street map, particularly if I am researching a non-rural area.

Using the map, locate the address where the family lived using a record like a directory or census. From there, it is important to locate the local civic or religious buildings and jurisdictions. You can usually use a research guide to help you identify things like churches, and then you can use the Internet or other research materials to identify the location of these of these other places.

If you don’t know much about the family, this process of mapping it out can help you choose which records would be most likely to have information about your family. For example, it can help you identify which church your ancestors attended, which cemetery they were most likely buried in, and other sorts of useful information. Of course, you’ll want to take into account the family’s religion, if you do already know it. Knowing the locations of all the Catholic churches in the area won’t do you much good if your ancestors had been staunch Methodists for generations.

Mapping can also be crucial in helping you identify how your family fits into the extended family. If you are researching a family with a common name, using the census and directories can help you identify which other people with that common name are most likely to be related. This is not a sure-fire way of identifying family members, but since families often lived near each other, knowing where all the Browns were in a county or city can help you pin down which ones are most likely to be a part of the extended family. Perhaps you will find that family members lived near each other because they divided family land amongst themselves. Or perhaps several branches of an extended family followed each other in a similar migration pattern. Using maps will help you identify these sorts of scenarios.

Not only can mapping help you solve research problems, it can also make a visit to the place all the more exciting. There are probably numerous places where your ancestors lived that would make for a great family trip. Mapping out the location will help you better utilize your time in that place and help you see how the place has changed since your ancestor lived there.

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