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Adventures in Maps and Research

Posted Friday, January 4, 2013, at 2:32 PM

Calls and emails from readers are always bright points in my day. I enjoy meeting you, and I almost invariably learn something new from the contact. Sometimes it starts me on new research.

I am probably a certifiable cartographer. I grew up on my great-grandfather's stories of travel and exploration and I really do love maps. A North American road Atlas and an Almanac with geopolitical maps of the world are at hand beside my reading chair and a World Atlas and several historical atlases are at my desk. The filing drawer of my desk is stuffed with a very eclectic collection of maps.

Almost every museum exhibit that I have help with contained at least one map and I frequently used them as visual aids in teaching and lecturing.

I mention all this because maps can be very useful, even essential, tools of the family history researcher and I want you to know that I am completely objective in my view of the subject.

While maps can show us exact locations of places, county boundaries, likely travel routes, etc. of our ancestors, they can do a lot more. I love the old county atlas maps that can give us a real flavor of the community our ancestors lived in - who their neighbors were, where the schools, churches, cemeteries, and stores were and how they got there.

Among my favorite maps are the topographical ones. It may take a little effort to really get a feel for interpreting the map but it is worth it. Get one of your own home area and study it in detail.

Start considering how the features on the map affect your life. The hills, waterways, marshes, quarries, mills, distance and terrain between neighbors, and from shopping areas, schools, and churches all impact your life. Do the hills funnel the wind and rain over your land? Do you have to go far to fish? Do hills block the sun in morning or afternoon? It is a joy to look out your window in the morning, the afternoon? Can you go for a row or a paddle nearby?

Now take a topographical map of your ancestor's area and try to see how the location was likely to affect them. It is the next best thing to being there and may even encourage you to visit the site of their home. The surrounding topography can also help us to locate features like cemeteries, that we might be looking for and the best route to reach them.

County atlases can usually be found in local libraries; and area museums and archives are usually well endowed with wonderful maps. Conservation authorities frequently sell topographical maps of their area. There are several internet sites that feature historical maps but I usually don't find it very satisfying to study part of a map on a computer monitor.

A number of people that I research lived in Caldwell County, Kentucky and one of the maps I am looking for is a county road that lists Wadlington Road from the late 1900s or earlier. This would be before all the county roads changed and the houses of the new superhighways that crisscross the county and that seriously changed the landscape.

More and more family historians are investing serious money in research trips or are selecting destinations based on research possibilities. If you are thinking about one, you want to take what steps you can to improve your chances of success.

I think one of the best ways to prepare for a major trip like this is to take a smaller one. Try a three or four-day trip to see how well your preparations worked out. What you learn from that will be a big help for the TRIP.

As much as possible, I like to have a human contact at the destination. This could be a member of the Genealogical Society or the local librarian or someone else who can understand and appreciate what you are looking for and might even do some preliminary work for you. You can usually find these people on local genealogical internet sites.

Your preparations will also include finding out what resources are actually available. You cannot assume that they exist and will be available when you want them. On one trip, I found that the key person I had been hoping to meet was away on vacation. On other occasions, I have left a place only to find out later there were resources available that I had not known about.

The Internet can make these preparations a lot easier now. Check out the genealogical site for your area and explore all the possibilities. Many archives and libraries have prominent web profiles and you can even search some of their catalogs on line.

Contact these repositories as a part of your planning. They can sometimes direct you to other resources that respond to your needs. Above all, try to avoid arriving at a destination cold in the fond hope that you are bound to find something useful. It can work but you don't want to invest a lot of money on that chance.

Anything that helps us to better understand our ancestors will enrich the story that we can tell about them.

I welcome comments, queries, and suggestions at: poinsetthhs@yahoo.com attn: Ms. Sylvia.

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Ms. Genealogy
Sylvia Evans
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