Given Name(s) Last Name

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill-- 6/29/2005

Organizing by Place

Geographic clues can be significant to the family historian. One of the best ways to notice these clues is through the use of maps. Using maps though requires more than simply making a copy and sticking it in a folder. With some thought, some analysis, and some time, a map may help you notice more than you expect about your ancestor and his family.

A Map Over Time
Create a map that documents each residence of your ancestor over their entire lifetime. It will give you a different perspective on your ancestor and may bring additional questions to your mind. Do you know when your ancestor crossed certain geographic features (the Mississippi River, the Rocky Mountains, etc.)? Was he a child or an adult at the time when most of the travel in his life took place? Consider the routes he mostly likely would have taken. Are there places he might have stopped along the way?

Look at the times when your ancestor moved. Were there other events also going on in his life that might have caused him to move? Had his wife or parent died? Had he just gotten married? Were there regional or national events that might have been the impetus for him to re-locate? Had the economy taken a downswing? Had new lands been opened for settlement? Your ancestor may have moved on a whim or he may have not.

Map Your Ancestor's Neighborhood
If your ancestor was an urban dweller, use city directories to determine where he lived at a specific point in time. Find out where nearby churches, cemeteries and places of employment were around at that time using city and county histories, directories, and other sources. If the time period is appropriate, consider the use of fire insurance maps to get a better view of the neighborhood and to assist in locating nearby landmarks and other institutions that may have played a role in your ancestor's life.

If your ancestor lived in a rural area, find his farm on plat maps, if these publications are available. Plat maps indicate the size and location of every farm in the area, usually an entire county and usually with one township per page. This reference would allow you to determine precisely where your ancestor's farm was located and how the size of his farm compared to that of his neighbors. Bear in mind that if your ancestor was a tenant farmer his name will not appear in this reference. Plat maps typically list owners and not renters. This information (coupled with census and other records) can also help in determining what kind of ethnic neighborhood in which your ancestor lived. Attention should be paid to locations of nearby churches, cemeteries, and schools.

If your ancestor was an early colonial settler, mapping his neighborhood may be an even more onerous task, but the benefits may be well worth it. Properties in the colonial era were described in metes and bounds, basically indicating the length each side of the parcel and the angle of each corner. Those who have worked with such properties know that squares and rectangles had yet to be discovered! Platting such properties is not for the faint of heart, but there is software to assist and some neighborhoods have already been recreated. In a time period when many records are non-existent, platting property over time may answer questions not specifically mentioned in the records.

Put the Location in Context
Does the residence of your ancestor seem a little bit strange? I wondered why a French-Canadian woman and her Greek immigrant husband are living on Chicago's north side in 1920, a fair distance from her Chicago area family and in an area with apparently no other ethnic Greeks. Further research explained the likely reason for the anomaly. This couple was living on the north side a distance from family and friends as the wife was not yet divorced from her first husband and already living with her second husband. It is probably an understatement to say that the second husband's Greek Orthodox relatives and her Roman Catholic family most likely did not look favorably upon the situation.

Without a map and with no knowledge of the Chicago area, this oddity would not have been noticed and might not have been explored. Maps are crucial in helping genealogists notice such details, especially in areas with which they are not personally familiar. It can be difficult for text alone to convey a geographic message.

Put the Locations All on One Map
Nine of my ancestral families immigrated to the United States from Osfriesland, Germany, over a twenty year time period. When I marked their place of origin on a map, they were clustered in three areas. Two of these clusters were within a few miles of each other while the third was over ten miles away. There were many different small villages from which they originated. Mapping the locations all at once helped me to notice which ones might have been neighbors in the homeland.

Putting all the names on one map can be a helpful tool with urban research too. A city directory may contain three references to a William Apgar. One way to eliminate some from consideration is to consider the neighborhood where each one is from. An easy way to do this is to map the residence of each one. Compare these residences to known residences for the family under study. People did move, but moves into an upscale neighborhood from a lower middle-class working neighborhood are unusual without an accompanying change in economic status.

Maps Provide a Picture
Maps can provide a picture which no amount of words can convey. Using maps to plat your ancestor's moves, his residence and his neighbors may cause you to notice things that have been overlooked for years. Your ancestor probably was familiar with his neighborhood. You should be too.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

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