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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Go the Distance -- Living in the World of your Ancestors

One of the most common errors made by inexperienced genealogical researchers is to cross jurisdictional boundaries without realizing that the two families found in the record could not be related because of the distance between the places. I consistently look up every recorded location when someone asks me to help them find an ancestor by using Google Maps to determine how far apart the locations are on the map. I gave an example recently of some sources added to the Family Tree that involved a family that lived in Huntingdonshire, England in the early 1800s. Someone had added a family that appeared on a parish register in Manchester, Lancashire. A quick look at the distances involved shows that Lancashire is over 100 miles from Huntingdonshire. The father of the family was born in 1808.

This type of situation is sometimes dismissed by noting that the error is one of someone with the same name being the same person. But this is really a situation requiring a great deal more analysis than simply recognizing that the two families are not the same. The fact that people traveled and moved from one location to another is not at all unusual. The real question is whether they did so solely for the purpose of having children christened or for marriages or burials. In other words, are there other substantiating circumstances that support multiple locations. The same family in England with the questionable locations for christenings ends up moving to Australia.

Travel alone is not a deciding factor in determining whether or not two families are the same. But in all circumstances where the given locations appear to be different for different events such as births, marriages and deaths, it is imperative to determine whether or not the multiple locations are reasonable. Here is the rule:

The further you go back in time, the more likely it is that events occurred in physical locations closer together.

In our modern world of rapid transportation, we are used to the idea of traveling great distances in a very short period of time. Several of my friends travel extreme distances to commute to work. Some travel regularly across the United States and others travel around the world. It may seem obvious, but as you go back in time, transportation options were slower. Here is a series of maps from the following book that illustrate the time it took to travel by the fastest means possible during different time periods. The book is:

Paullin, Charles Oscar, John Kirtland Wright, Carnegie Institution of Washington, and American Geographical Society. Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. Baltimore: [s.n.], 1932.

The first map shows the time for travel in 1800:

The images are from the David Rumsey Map Collection. Moving forward in time to 1830, we see the introduction of the railroad the distances change.

By 1857, railroads had spread across the United States. You need to focus in on the fact that the construction of railroads and other means of transportation would have progressed at a different rate in different countries and in different areas in the same country.

Granted the distance traveled is only one factor, but it is a threshold factor. What I mean by this is that if the time frame of an event and the distances recorded are not consistent, then there is a question that needs to be resolved. In places such as Wales, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany and other European countries, the distance might be a matter of a few blocks or even a mile or more. It is not unusual for people to have very similar names in the same small communities. It is mostly just a cop-out to record all the names as if they were all related. This becomes troublesome is when people start assuming relationships across parish or other jurisdictional boundaries.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post. It is so helpful to see the time it takes to get from Pt A to Pt B, to analyze whether that document could possibly be my guy.

    I wanted to let you know that I've included 6 of your recent post in my NoteWorthy Reads #22: (I think that's a record for any one person/blog, but you had a lot of excellent, helpful posts this past month.) Enjoy your weekend!