Family History in Time and Place

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Basics of Family History Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Family History Research
Home Sources
Family History Collaboration
Basics of Family History and Technology
Basics of DNA
Basic Record-keeping
Evaluation and Goal Setting
Family History in Time and Place
Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities
List of Useful Resources for Beginners

This article originally appeared in "The Foundations of Family History Research" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, and Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

The families, communities, and world in which your ancestors lived influenced their lives, just as you are influenced by the world around you. Understanding the geography associated with an ancestor's life may help you understand some of their decisions and give insights into where to look for additional information on the individual. Likewise, knowing the people, events, history, commerce, and other information about the community in which your ancestors lived can paint a picture that will bring this person to life in a way few records can.

The Geographic Dimension

Genealogical research is assisted by a detailed knowledge of the times and places inhabited by our families. In 'Gazetteers: Identifying Research Localities,' David Thackery notes that 'Genealogy is, among other things, an exercise in geography. Successful research often hinges on identifying the locality in which one's ancestors lived. Once we know the locality, we are in a position to consult the records and histories for the area in an effort to piece together the lives of our forebears.'<ref>David Thackery, 'Gazetteers: Identifying Research Localities,' Ancestry Magazine 12, no. 4 (July/August 1994).</ref>

In one family history project, the ancestor had reportedly moved back and forth between three towns'one in Missouri, one in Kansas, and one in Nebraska. While some researchers would simply pick a state and begin the chase, a seasoned genealogist would start with maps and discover that the three towns lay in adjoining counties where the states came together. In fact, the three towns were within ten miles of each other. Suddenly the problem shifted from a vague project spanning three states and became a neighborhood puzzle that happened to straddle three state lines. No long-distance migrations had occurred.

Gazetteers, maps, and atlases are necessary tools to identify and view these all-important locations. In the previous example, the information from a gazetteer'an index of named places'helped pinpoint the towns on a map. One of the most powerful online digitized versions of a gazetteer is at the U.S. Bureau on Geographic Names website. Populated places of all sizes are indexed along with feature and topographic names, such as cemeteries, rivers, and mountains. When a queried place is found, a link to shows the place on a United States Geological Survey (USGS) series map. The search also provides Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates to make finding a place easy.

Sometimes typing the name of a place into a search engine is adequate to begin a search for a specific location. Always follow up by finding the site on a map. For a broad introduction to types of maps, see Jenny Marie Johnson's Geographic Information (How to Find It, How to Use It). To do United States research, you should at least own an inexpensive atlas such as the Rand McNally annual Road Atlas.

The goal for successful research is to locate each place-name on a map contemporary to the time of the event or document being examined, and relate the place to nearby rivers, mountains, valleys, large towns and cities, ports, and adjoining political jurisdictions. List of Useful Resources for Beginners provides a number of websites to direct you to online collections of maps. The libraries in your area of research will hold detailed maps of their particular regions and they may provide copies for a small fee.

Historical Geography

Most excursions into geography become historical in nature. Discovering historical locations'hamlets that no longer exist, communities that are renamed, or counties whose boundaries have changed'presents another set of challenges. One census might have John Smith born in Mississippi in 1813, while another might say Alabama. In this case, you would need to know that Alabama was created from Mississippi Territory in 1817. A death certificate might list a nonexistent Yellow Bush, Mississippi, but a check of Mississippi place-names might produce Yalobusha County. The problems of shifting political boundaries should be obvious: a householder can appear in various counties or New England towns without ever having moved. The solution in such cases is to find a guide to those changing political boundaries; those containing maps are especially helpful.

Boundaries and Changes

Conducting genealogical research in the United States requires an understanding of county and, in New England (where towns performed governmental activities managed by counties elsewhere), town boundaries. Both usually changed several times before stabilizing. Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources in this wiki shows the year in which each present-day U.S. county was created and gives names of the parent counties (from which the present county was formed). This will suffice for most common research quests and should be consulted every time a new county in a family's history is discovered.

More involved questions should be answered by Atlas of Historical County Boundaries edited by John H. Long. Atlases are bound collections of maps that may also include charts and illustrations, tables, and detailed explanations of the maps featured. The types of atlases vary. Some are thematic (pertaining to a specific event, such as the Civil War) as well as location atlases. The Historical County Boundaries series takes the theme of county evolution, providing chronologies; separate, detailed maps for each county's different configurations; tables and maps of censuses; and a bibliography. The 'Atlas of Historical County Boundaries' project is by the William M. Scholl Center for Family and Community History at the Newberry Library in Chicago, 60 West Walton, Chicago, IL 60610. The ongoing project extends to online interactive maps which depict county formation (up to 1900) from the date entered by the user at By entering, for example, the date of death of your ancestor, you will see the county formation on that exact date. Also evident on these maps is the phenomena whereby a sparsely populated area not officially within a county would fall temporarily under the jurisdiction of an existing county, sometimes for a month or less. This latter phenomena is well-explained in 'County Attachments Complicate Search for Local Records' by John Long.<ref>'County Attachments Complicate Search for Local Records' appeared first in Origins (newsletter of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for Family & Community History and the Local & Family History Section at the Newberry Library) 12, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 6'8, and was reprinted in FORUM 17, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 11'12.</ref>

Less expansive guides to the evolution of county boundaries may be ordered from state governments; check their websites. Many titles appear in the bibliography of William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790'1920. The Map Guide itself is an excellent reference, showing changes in boundaries for states and territories at ten-year (census) intervals.

Migration and Settlement Patterns

The use of maps is also essential for the study of migration routes. Suppose your ancestor traveled on the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Osage, Missouri, to Clayton, New Mexico, in 1853. What trails were available in that year? Would he have taken the longer mountain or the shorter but dryer desert route? How long would the journey have been? What terrains would be encountered? What campsites would have been used by travelers? These questions could probably be answered by consulting maps held by a repository specializing in the trail. The visual depiction would surely help to recreate your ancestor's journey, regardless of the trail used. But what if your questions were: Were Conestoga wagons the mode of travel? How large were most travel parties? Were Indians a threat in 1853? What did travelers wear? What provisions were packed? What would they eat? And the larger question of when and how was the Santa Fe Trail created?

Obviously, a map is unlikely to answer these kinds of questions. Researchers can supplement map searches with some reading on the history of trails and waterway routes, such as Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge's Westward Expansion. A general background gleaned from such a study can lead to more-specific investigation: this is the historical dimension of genealogy.

The Historical Dimension

Problem solving in family history is easier when you know the historical context in which a situation existed. For instance, some Southern families in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War tended to wander from one area of newly opened Native American lands to the next. To understand which Native American lands were opened for settlement, you could start with the technical listing by Charles C. Royce, Indian Cessions in the United States. From this source you could go on to explore local histories.

A great many examples can be marshaled to prove the importance of understanding history. Suppose an ancestor was a Methodist circuit rider, an occupation about which you might not know much. Initially, this discovery might encourage only simple fact checking. Use of an online reference, such as, will provide basic information. But that may provoke a deeper need to know. Two references to historical facts are The Great American History Finder: The Who, What, Where, When and Why of American History, by Pam Cornelison and Ted Yanik, and the more comprehensive The Oxford Companion to United States History, by Paul S. Boyer, et al.

Somehow, inquiries of a historical nature tend to expand. Could circuit riders be married? How long were they assigned to one circuit? What and how large was a circuit? Where and in what sorts of Methodist records would you look for records about a rider? What is the difference between a circuit rider, a regular Methodist preacher, and a lay exhorter?

Or, even more complicated is the family tradition that says Mary Jones was born a Catholic but was adopted as an eight-year-old by Quakers after the French and Indian War and taken to Pennsylvania. It helps to know that adoption did not exist under colonial law and that the earliest adoption law in the United States seems to have been the 1851 Massachusetts law. Perhaps this 'adoption' was really a guardianship. If her parents were Catholic, were there laws suppressing the Catholic Church about 1763, and would there ever have been a Catholic Church register naming Mary? Was it illegal to practice Catholicism in 1763 New York but legal in Pennsylvania?

Such examples could continue endlessly. More than one problem-solving session will be helped by a foray into more detailed references, particularly if the topic is obscure. What reference, devoted to Methodism and circuit riding, is likely to contain the needed detail? Which sources explain anti-Catholic laws in the Mid-Atlantic colonies?

An Internet search is a good place to start. Try typing your research subject into a search engine and then refining your subject entry until you find websites devoted to your topics of interest. The collections of a good local library or a university library (most offer borrowing privileges to non-students for a fee) are also great resources. When possible, use the online access to their catalogues for easier searching. Add subject searches in the catalogues of genealogically-rich repositories, such as Family History Library Catalog (see Family History Library). Explore the in-store databases and online catalogues of commercial book dealers (such as, Borders, or AbeBooks). Once specific titles are identified, they may be purchased, ordered through interlibrary loan, or perhaps viewed in their entirety through the magic of electronic books online.

One other observation about how a knowledge of the area and time period helps a researcher place their family'and the documents they created'into historical context. Family historians whose work reaches back to the mid-eighteenth century in Britain or America (quite a stretch for those just starting) will find it necessary to deal with the changing of the calendars from the Julian to the Gregorian in 1752. A good explanation of this and how it affects the interpretation of documents is in Val D. Greenwood's Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy.17 While this is a bit of information you won't need right now, keep it in mind as an example of how each change of locale or era in a research project requires new investigation into its geography and history.

Building a Bibliography

This identification and consulting of titles is called developing a bibliography. If you are fortunate, a bibliography will already have been created. The bibliographic Harvard Guide to American History, edited by Frank Freidel, leads the user directly to specific history titles by topics.

An in-depth bibliography requires the addition of articles. Perhaps there is yet no book title on an esoteric topic (hard to believe but possible), or the only reference you can find on a subject includes quotes from an article in a scholarly journal. Locate historical and genealogical articles through PERSI, the Periodical Source Index. For an index that focuses on historical topics, check Annadel N. Wile, et al., C.R.I.S.: The Combined Retrospective Index Set to Journals in History, 1838'1974, for articles on obscure subjects.

Often general works on a specific region will provide much historical data, particularly in an urban area. The Encyclopedia of Chicago, by James R. Grossman, et al., devotes several paragraphs to the subject of printing (Chicago was a center for commercial printing in the late nineteenth century). Learning the concentration of print shops was on the near South Side of the city helped locate the residence of the printer Thomas Stone and gave fascinating detail about his occupation. Three titles cited as sources for the encyclopedia article proved even more useful.

If you are concentrating on a particular area and have access to the back issues of historical journals devoted to that area, first seek a cumulative index to the periodical and, if there is none, examine the title pages of each issue to see what was published. Also check the titles in the book review sections.

Although there is usually no one-stop service to build the good bibliography you want, by searching the resources described previously you can develop a bibliography tailored to your research needs. And with such an in-depth knowledge of the world of your ancestors, you stand a much greater chance of solving lineage problems.