Maps are more than and interesting sidelight to genealogy. All the recorded events in our ancestors' lives took place at a specific location on the earth. Any records that may have been created to record the events are directly associated with that location. In genealogy, any geographically based area that had people with some official capacity for recording records is referred to as a jurisdiction. For example, the birth of a baby born today in Utah is recorded by a law that mandates the creation of a birth certificate by the State of Utah. That officially created birth certificate will be required for the child to be enrolled in school. In this case the jurisdiction for creating birth certificates is the state of Utah. That same baby will also be required to have a social security number shortly after birth. The jurisdiction for social security is the United States Federal Government.
These levels of government can be viewed as piling up like pancakes on a plate. The top pancake represents records created at the national level, the next level, here in the United States, is the state, then the county, the municipality and then personal records. At each level, there is someone who is interested in creating a record or is compelled to do so.
Maps help us understand how those different jurisdictional levels were constituted at the time the event occurred. Of course, the records that were created may have been removed from their original place of creation. Genealogists spend most of their time trying to identify and locate these records that were created about our ancestors. This task becomes increasing difficult as time passes and the records are lost or destroyed. Eventually, if we go far enough back in time, there are no more reliable records about our ancestors.
In order to find the records, we need to know certain things about our ancestors. Here is a summary of the information we need in order to locate records.
- We need to know at least one very specific location where an event occurred in our ancestors' lives.
- We need to know the general time frame when the event occurred.
- We need to know the organization of the various jurisdictions that could have created the record, as they existed at the time of the event.
- We need to know where the records are stored and available for examination today.
If we are missing any part of this information, we are really guessing about the identity of our ancestors. Maps and mapping programs are often essential in working through the historical changes that could have occurred. Political and social boundaries change over time. In the United States as the the population expanded, city, county and state boundaries changed. The names of geographic locations were changed or modified. The genealogical researcher has to determine how all of these various "jurisdictions" from nation governments to local school districts were constituted at the time our ancestors lived in order to understand where the records might have been created and subsequently stored.
One important fact about the new digital technology is that the entire face of the earth as now been digitally mapped at a very high degree of accuracy and detail. In addition, hundreds of thousands of old maps have been digitized and are readily available online. There are also extensive, online, searchable lists of geographic place names that assist the researching in locating where events occurred.
One of the most comprehensive programs for finding old maps is the OldMapsOnline.org portal program that indexes over 400,000 old maps with an efficient interface for viewing them. There are so many online mapping websites today that any attempt at making a list would be no more than a sample of the total number. For example, if I do a Google search for "maps New England old," I get millions of results.
One of the most comprehensive collections of maps in the United States is maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS.gov). The mapping division, includes The National Map with almost endless resources for viewing current and historical maps of the United States. Most important of these resources for genealogists are the Historical Topographical Map Collections. The viewer for these maps includes the ability to overlay different historical maps and view the changes over time. There are comprehensive instructions for using all of these websites on the websites.
The USGS also maintains the United States Board on Geographic Names that was established in 1890 and has accumulated an immense online, searchable database that contains information on current and historical names from the United States and around the world.
Identifying an exact location associated with your ancestor's life is just the first step in the research process. Finding the associated records is the real work of genealogical research and of course, then searching those records for information about your ancestors, evaluating the information and then systematically recording it is the product of our research.
Here are the previous posts in this series.