One of the sad commentaries on the research efforts of many in our genealogical community is a complete lack of awareness of the historical context of times when their ancestors were living. The serious side effect of this lack of awareness is the fact they have no idea where to look for their ancestors when family tradition or the U.S. Census says that the family they are searching for came from "Germany" or even "Kentucky." I have been suggesting for years that every location for every individual be verified. Cities, counties, states and countries change over time.
The basic online, free tool for verifying the historical jurisdictional boundaries of any state or county in the United States is the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries shown in the image above. The Newberry Atlas has an interactive map of the entire United States and shows the county boundaries for any date in black superimposed on the current county boundaries in white. Here is a screenshot of Pennsylvania for July 4, 1776 as an example:
The website is fairly extensive and has the following sections:
- View Index of Counties and Equivalents
- View Consolidated Chronology of State and County Boundaries
- View Individual County Chronologies
- View Bibliography and Sources
- View Historical Commentary
- View Metadata - Summary Form
- View Metadata - Full FGDC Form
- Download Shapefiles for use with GIS Programs
- Download the KMZ File for use with Google Earth
- Download the PDF File
OK, the list is very interesting. If you want an advanced look at your historical boundaries, you can download the KMZ File and open it in Google Earth. More about this later.
One of the common questions to ask any city-county-state designation you find reference to in someone's genealogy is whether or not the places existed at all and further whether they existed at the time referred to by the reference. People have a tendency to generalize geographic locations. I might be from a small town outside of a big city, but for convenience, I say I am from the big city. Historically, this can mislead a researcher because the actual location of the ancestral home is obscured. Another problem is the habit people have to refer to a general area of the country rather than a specific location. Many of our ancestors recorded their birthplace as "Ohio" or "Kentucky" long before these places became specific states. Early reference to births in Kentucky, for example before 1792, occurred when it was a county of Virginia. Lack of historical awareness can cause a domino effect of problems in locating the right ancestral line.
Your homework assignment for this first installment of the series is to explore the resources in the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. This assignment includes selecting random place locations from your pedigree and verifying that the county designations are "correct" in the sense that the counties existed at the time of supposed ancestral event. Lack of accuracy in this regard will result in choosing the wrong ancestral line when someone with a similar name is chosen rather than the correct ancestor because of the geographic mistake. I can assure you, you will find errors.