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

Monday, July 27, 2009

Don't forget the geography for genealogical research

I was always fascinated by maps and as a youth could spend hours looking at maps. Part of my interest came from collecting postage stamps. I was intrigued by the names of the countries, especially those that no longer existed. When I talk to younger people today, I find little or no interest in the world geography. After all, it is all right there on the computer. Also, few people have other than a very rudimentary idea about history.

But, if today's students lack an understanding of history, their lack of geography is abysmal. One of the key issues in understanding the history of a family is the political, social and physical geography that influenced where they lived and where their records may have been kept. An example from my own ancestors who lived in Northern Arizona on the Colorado Plateau. One of the constant physical challenges was lack of an adequate water supply. In the small town of Joseph City, the settlers built a whole series of dams trying to tame the Little Colorado River, only to have their dams washed away in the very infrequent floods. Central to an understanding of this small community, is an understanding of the constant struggle just to survive in a dry, harsh climate. At the same time, all of the settlers were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and their family connections were all in Utah and back to the Eastern U.S. Even though they lived very much closer to the other Arizona towns, they had almost no contact with the southern part of the state, except for the other Mormon colonies. The bulk of the records of these Church members are in the archives of the Church in Salt Lake City, Utah not, for the most part, in Arizona.

But the geographical issues can affect family history even more dramatically. One of the most difficult areas to do genealogical research is that part of Europe lying between Germany and Russia. The political subdivisions have changed so much many of the towns have two or three or more names and have been in more than three different countries. Even in the U.S. the changes in the political subdivisions such as state and county boundaries will determine where family records can be found. Fortunately, there are a wealth of maps and historical records showing the boundary changes on both national and local levels.

In talking to people searching for their family history, I am constantly reminded that very few of them realize that they must be aware of the county/state/country where the event took place at the time of the event. As an example, in every published book on my family for almost a hundred years (quite a few books by the way) my Great-grandfather is shown as being born in San Bernardino County, California. There is just one problem, the county did not exist at the time he was born. If there were any records, they were in Los Angeles County, the jurisdiction at the time of his birth. By perpetuating this inaccuracy, generations of family members have copied the inaccurate information into thousands of family group records. In this case, it makes little difference to future research, but in some cases the same mistake could become the proverbial brick wall. Always record the place as it existed at the time of the event.

When talking to researchers, I am often amazed at their lack of interest in the geography. When trying to determine which person of the same name is their ancestor, I find that people often have no idea of the geography. In one recent case, a researcher was convinced that two people with similar names who lived in two different towns in Illinois were related until I pointed out that they lived hundreds of miles apart. She had not bothered to look a see where the two towns were located.

Unless you understand the geography, there is little chance of continuing to move backward in your family history.

Tune in again, for more discussion on how to find geographic information.


  1. I think this is a great point. I not only like to understand the geography - I like to GO there when possible. Being there has made things more "real" to me. I'm a visual person, so when I see the landscape, I can start to picture my ancestors living there.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I am very conscious of where my ancestors lived, but I need to go back and make sure I have them in the county they were in then, not what the county is now. Thank you for that reminder. :)