My approach to genealogy is defined by my professional background in the sociological sciences. I view my research and ancestral stories with a keen eye to the sociological aspects of my ancestors: their occupations, education, family compositions; whereas, my husband looks for the geographical clues such as where the ancestor lived or migrated to.

It is natural for me to zero in on who, what and why but I have come to realize the where is very critical to the study and research of our ancestors. Studying the geography of ancestors at the time they lived can provide significant clues to not only their life but also to their records.

Just as our ancestors have shifted and moved from country to country and county to county; country, state and county lines have over the centuries, evolved to form new boundaries. And by ignoring the geography of our ancestors' life, you can pass by critical clues to their life documents.

In my earlier research days, I was so narrowly focused I passed by significant evidence of an ancestor living in Eastern Tennessee. Previous records indicated he lived in North Carolina but the state boundaries had changed and his property lines were within Tennessee in later census records. Had I taken the time to research the geography of the area, I might have bypassed months of frustration searching for my ancestor.

The best starting  point to researching the geographical history of the area of your ancestor is the state's archives. They often provide archived digital maps of their state. Become familiar with the state boundaries and take notice of state land transactions and acquisitions.

Also, a critical step in looking for the earliest census records should include the archived state county maps. An ancestor can be found in one county in a census record, then without moving, his property may be in a different county ten years later.

Townships and villages very often evolved into newly named or newly defined towns in the early 1700's and 1800's. I have an ancestor in Morris County, New Jersey that is found in two different townships on subsequent census records due to the splitting and renaming of his village.

The best advice I can give is always keep an eagle eye to the geography of your ancestor's surroundings and understand the need to be flexible in your research just as the geographical boundaries of your ancestors have been fluid and flexible over time.

And remember, the where is often a critical step in learning more of the who, what and why.

Some interesting sites for archived maps are: The Library of Congress, Old Maps Online and The Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection of the UT Library.

Keep searching for answers,

Cheryl
 


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