RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, November 3, 2013

In Genealogical Research Distance Really Matters

One very common situation I encounter with researchers is omitting to look at the distances of various locations listed in their pedigrees and family group records. Not only are the researchers unacquainted with the locations in their files, they have no sense of the distances involved. An important rule is that as you go further back in time, the distance between events becomes more and more important. In one case we talked about this week, the researcher had the mother listed as living on the East Coast of the United States in the early 1800s and one of several children born in California. Not only was this historically unlikely, it was even more unlikely that the mother had traveled across  the U.S. at that time to have a baby and then returned.

One of the very first things I always do when working with a researcher's questions is to verify the locations of events on a map and then check the distance between different locations. Sometimes, the locations turn out to be impossible or simply wrongly designated. Many times measuring the distances points out very suspect issues with how people could have physically been in the places listed. This occurs most frequently with the places listed for births between spouses. Although it is not impossible for a husband to marry a wife from a distant location, there is always the question of how this couple got together. This becomes a very serious question when the time periods involved go back into the 1700s and even further back.

Fortunately, we have some very easy to use tools that tell us almost instantly the distance on roads between any two points on the Earth. I am referring to Google Maps and other mapping programs.

This past week, we used Google Maps to find where a relative worked as a Priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church in Massachusetts. In this case, the challenge was to find the ancestor in the first place. I found him in a City Directory and, of course, that gave an exact address. Then, knowing he was a priest, we looked for Churches close by where he lived and found one within walking distance. The researcher was then able to do more research about the ancestor by contacting the Church directly.

During this same week helping at the Family History Library, I used Google Maps to show that information listed for various relatives was highly suspect because the locations were so far from each other. Let me give some examples of what I mean.

Here are several really good websites that give you an idea about how long it would take to travel during the 1800s:

It is important to remember that even with developments such as the railroad and canals, most travel took place either on foot or on horseback and that weather played an extremely important part in limiting the speed of travel. 

Take some time to look at the geographic locations listed in your genealogical records and see if the places really are recorded correctly, if they are reasonable and if people could have traveled the distances suggested by your records?

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