Ancestor Searching Newsletter, Volume 2, # 6

Mapping Our Ancestors (part 1): In genealogical research, maps can provide clues to where our ancestors may have lived and where to look for written records about them. If you're a beginner, you should master basic genealogical research techniques before taking the next step in the use of topographic maps.

Once facts are gathered about family history and customs, turn to maps to uncover more specific information or to solve historical "mysteries." Old and new maps can help you track down facts about a branch of your family. How? In the United States, birth, death, property, and some other kinds of records are normally kept by the county governments. If you can name the place where an ancestor lived, new or old maps of that place may also show the county seat where useful data about your kin can be obtained.

Old maps can be particularly useful in this regard because pinpointing the name of the place where an ancestor lived can be like trying to hit a moving target. Many towns, counties, cities, and even countries have experienced numerous name changes over the years. Even though their names have changed, some of these places may be noted on an old map. The location of some others may be found in sources such as lists of abandoned post offices, local histories, government records, microfilm records, or clippings from old newspapers, old city directories, or old county atlases kept in the library archives of a town, city, or county in the region.

If you find unfamiliar place names during your search, the U. S. Geological Survey can help. The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is the nation's official database of place names. The GNIS is maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and can often provide information on name changes. This database contains 2 million entries, including the names of places that no longer exist, as well as variant names for existing places.

This automated system also contains the names of every type of feature except roads and highways. It is especially useful for genealogical research because it contains entries for communities, as well as for churches and cemeteries, even those that no longer exist.

To use this free service, e-mail: gnis_manager [at] usgs [dot] gov (gnis_manager [at] usgs [dot] gov), telephone 703-648-4544, or write to U.S. Geological Survey, Geographic Names, 523 National Center, Reston, VA 20192. You can also visit the GNIS Web site at geonames.usgs.gov.

Constantly changing place names are not the only challenge; the boundaries of many political jurisdictions where early Americans lived have changed one or more times. Some American families lived in the same locale for hundreds of years. Yet, their homes may have been swapped back and forth a number of times between different political jurisdictions - towns, provinces, States, or countries.

This can greatly complicate research. For example, in a documented case, the place where a family lived for the entire 19th century was at various times part of seven different counties. In such a case, you might have to query all seven courthouses to obtain data needed about members of the family. Records or copies of records were rarely acquired by newly created counties.

Similar, more difficult problems arise when one is searching for genealogical records in archives of foreign countries. The names and boundaries of countries are still changing, and many public and private record centers disappear or move from place to place.

(To be continued in the October issue …)

Genealogy Workshop

Fact: The National Archives is the official repository for valuable records produced by the Federal Government since 1774, including almost 2 million maps.

Tip: The National Archives offers the Guide to Genealogical Research at the National Archives. This 304-page illustrated guide was revised in 1985. Chapter 20 on Cartographic Records describes holdings of the National Archives that are of special value to genealogist:

  • Census Records: census enumeration maps, enumeration district descriptions, and civil division outline maps.
  • General Land Office Records: township survey plats and U.S. land district maps.
  • Military Records: manuscript, annotated, and printed maps, plans, and charts compiled or collected by various military organizations.
  • Other Cartographic Records: small-scale civil division maps, postal route maps, USGS topographic quadrangle maps, area and county soil maps, tax assessment maps, maps relating to captured and abandoned property, and maps pertaining to American Indians.

This guide can be ordered from the Publications Sales Branch of the National Archives or from:

National Archives Trust Fund
NEPS Dept. 735
P.O. Box 100793
Atlanta, GA 30384
(hardcover $25, plus $3 postage).

Genealogy News

Many are unaware of the genealogy classes that are offered at the library on a regular monthly basis except December. No classes are offered during the month of December due to the busy holiday period.

If you or someone you know is interested in signing up for one or more of these classes, the following schedule will be in effect for the next quarter of the year (Sept., Oct. and Nov).

  • Genealogy Online ~ 2 to 4 PM - Sept. 19th, Oct. 24th and Nov. 14th
  • New England Historic Genealogical Society Databases ~ 5:30 to 6:30 PM - Sept. 25th
  • Ancestry.com ~ 5:30 to 6:30 PM - Oct. 30th
  • HeritageQuest Online ~ 5:30 to 6:30 Pm - Nov. 27th

Sign-up may be in person by visiting the Computer Training Center on 3rd floor of the Main Library or by calling 532.2356. The classes are FREE.