Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Lost Your Ancestors? Get an Old Map!

1872 - Illinois, Prophetstown Township
Maps are wonderful works of art and technology.  Imagine not having a map or GPS navigation system today. We would still be able to get around, but when we had to travel "long" distances, this would prove to be a challenge, if we had not been there before  (or were unable to stop and ask for directions, like most men have been stereotyped).

Having a map helped our ancestors get from the east coast to the west coast, but early on, before maps existed, people hired a guide".   These intrepid early explorers actually followed paths they had taken, but also along the footsteps of the native Americans, over terrain that had been used for hundreds of generations.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, those old trails were turned into roads, and turnpikes, which then helped early settles travel west.  When the trains started, they too followed along many of the old trails, again building on what went before.

When researching your family, it is very helpful if you can find an old map from the same time period.   This allows you to see a number of things, important to your search.  For example, if in the mid 19th century, a person living in Virginia would have very few choices to travel out west to the lands beyond the Mississippi.   Therefore, a period map would show likely paths they took on their adventure.   Being able to immerse yourself in the time period will help you find more details about them.

Having a period map can also help show the distances they were from towns and cities.  The further they were, the riskier it was and the more self-sufficient they had to be. 

Maps also show counties, which changed over time, and thus the county seats also shifted.   This may help you with roadblocks, after looking in every corner of the county court house, you might want to try the county closest to where they lived, but with an old map, you can tell what might have changed.

Other important points of a period map were cemeteries and churches.   Over time, these landmarks have disappeared or were moved (yes, cemeteries get moved as do churches) or forgotten and returned back to the ground.

I have walked a few cemeteries that were not on a modern map, but were pretty prominent on a map from the past.

You can usually find old maps in libraries, court houses, websites like ancestry.com, and on retail sites.   I will talk more about maps and their use in Genealogcial terms, at a later post.

Until then, if you lost your ancestors, get an old map and it will improve your chances of finding them, if not realizing better the challenges of daily life for them.

Cousin Brian, located at 33.4313N and somewhere West of the Mississippi river.

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