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

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Finding your ancestors exact location

Sometimes knowing the general location where an event concerning an ancestor occurred is not as useful as it could be because there are several people in the same are with the same or very similar name. In those cases, and many others, it is important to find the exact location of an event. This may mean finding the actual address where your ancestor lived or, if outside a city, the geographic coordinates for the location of the event.

Surprisingly, finding the exact address or geographic coordinates may not be impossible. To illustrate the possibilities I will show different ways to find the same information about my Grandfather living in Salt Lake City, Utah in around1930 to 1940. But, you may say, my relative lived in a much more remote and difficult to locate place. If that is the case, then finding the location may be a bit more of a challenge, but still possible.

Commonly, location information for ancestors as collected by popular genealogical database programs preserves only the city, county and state of origin. The address of the ancestor, even if it is known, is relegated to the notes or some other entry form. It is a basic principle of records and record keeping, that more records are available when you know exact locations. The reason for this is simple; many very local records are kept by location, not necessarily by name. It is true that some database programs allow you to "geolocate" the place name, but again, this is generally based on a standard database of geographic locations with the coordinates to the city or county, not to a specific address.

Innovative programs, such as, have recognized that iPads and some smartphones, such as the iPhone, have built-in geolocation or GPS abilities and have utilized that capability to attach a reading of the GPS location. GPS stands for "Global Positioning System" and most of these devices, including the GPS systems for vehicles, utilize a combination of satellites and cell phone towers to accurately locate the device on the earth. I you do not have a GPS device, you can simply enter an address into a program such as Google Maps and the program will put a "marker" on the map at that location. If you right-click on the location, not the marker, you will get an option to see "What's here?" and selecting that option will put the coordinates in the search field for the map. Here is an example showing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon:

While useful, for genealogists, the question still remains about how to obtain the address or location. OK, so the trick is really finding a record that recorded the address or the name of the farm or gave a legal description of the ancestor's real property.

If your ancestor lived in a larger city, then the first and easiest way to find the exact location is through city directories. Many of these have been indexed or digitized online. Generally, however, city directories are difficult to locate but are likely available at state archives or major libraries. Directories are not a new innovation, many of them go back hundreds of years. You won't find one, if you don't look for it.

I mentioned my Grandfather. In 1940, Harold Morgan lived in Salt Lake City, Utah. It happens that has a rather extensive selection of City Directories. When you search in, you need to go down to the individual database level in its "Card Catalog." One of the filters by collection includes directories. Here is a screen shot showing the list of collections with the "Schools, Directories & Church Histories" highlighted:

You click on the filter to separate out that category and then further filter the selections for time and place. I filtered the selections until I was looking at a list of directories for Utah. I then selected Salt Lake County. I found a database called Utah City Directories and searched for my Grandfather. I found him in the first entry in the search list.

There was his exact address in 1934. I could have looked further, but this was enough to show the point.

Now, I could have gotten the same information for 1940 from the U.S. Census. Here is the entry for Harold Morgan in the 1940 U.S. Census with's summary:

So now I have two exact locations where the family lived in two different years. I plan to make this demonstration into a video to add to my YouTube Channel in the very near future.


  1. Not until the end of the 1st quarter of the 20th century did the majority of the US population live in towns/villages and cities.

    Unfortunately the creators of the foundation of genealogical computer programs seem to have had many biases, including that the majority of folks' residences could be designated by "city." This was an untruth. It is a nagging irritation for the genealogists whose research extends well back into the 17th century, when establishing a precise location for a land survey can be a task.

    I am not the only one who must differentiate same-named cousins by what creek each lived on, via land, tax and estate records. Sometimes following land transactions forward, to the time when a 19th-century atlas may have been made, showing names of land owners, is very helpful.

  2. It's not that genealogy programs were written with a bias toward cities, the problem is they generally do a poor job of handling locations. I have a well-researched branch of the descendants tree I maintain that lived in Brooklyn, NY from about 1820 onward. Most of these people have street addresses--some of them year after year. Many of them have multiple addresses (one for home and one for business and maybe a few for rental properties they owned). Tracking them in a database is tedious.

    But I shouldn't grouse too much. I can sit in my PJs at home and browse the grantor and grantee indices for Kings Co., NY, and track the movement of people a hundred and fifty years ago. It's like Scrooge McDuck complaining about where to put his bundles of dollar bills.