Historical maps showing the places your ancestors lived—as they were at the time—are necessary for accurate genealogical research. Too many people hit the inevitable brick wall because they do not use maps in their research. The geographical history of an area often provides valuable genealogical clues.
Contemporary maps provide a starting point, while historical maps help us to determine the political lines of a specific time period. A good example of this is found in the state of Georgia which currently has 159 counties. Before 1810, most of Georgia was on the eastern seaboard with only a few counties reaching into the center of the state. As time passed, these lines spread west and new counties were formed. Also during this time, the larger counties were divided into smaller areas. The intention of these divisions during this time was to provide a county seat within one day's traveling distance for any one person.
An excellent book for researching these types of boundaries is Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide. This book provides the boundaries of the counties in each state during each census. It is invaluable for comparing current and historical boundaries on the ten year census time periods. Many states also have historical maps published on the internet. In Georgia, early maps showing boundaries may be found at www.cviog.uga.edu. These maps are important in that lost place names are often listed.
Another point of interest is that not only county lines may change, but also county names. In 1807, Randolph County, Georgia, was present day Jasper County, Georgia which is in the north central part of the state. After the name was changed in 1812, a second Randolph County was formed in 1828 in the southwestern part of the state, and that county is still in existence today. Unfortunately, many people do not do their research, and they write the present day Randolph County Courthouse for information on their ancestors instead of the present day Jasper County Courthouse.
Researching the geography of a place will make it easier for you if you actually travel to do your research. As an example, the second Randolph County, Georgia, formed in 1828 from original Lee County, which was formed in 1826, had a large portion of it cut out to form Stewart County in 1830. If your ancestor was one of the Georgia 1827 Land Lottery drawers, you may have to research in both Randolph and Stewart Counties for records. Unfortunately, a person can't travel to Lee County because the early records were burned in a fire.
Historical maps will also place the physical location of your ancestor in perspective. You can chart your ancestor's migration from state to state and within a state. It is well known that certain trails or roads were followed during the greatest migrations. It may help you to locate some needed piece of information to know that your ancestor followed the Old Federal Road in Georgia through Alabama.
Another way that mapping is useful is to mark where your ancestor lived in a county. After you find the locations of their homes through the deeds or census areas, mark the lots. Often you will begin to see a pattern of families living near to each other. It may give you some clues in your research to know who lived to the north, south, east or west sides of your ancestors. Sometimes it may even provide a clue as to a marriage or another generation.
Putting your ancestor in the geographical context of the times may lead you to new discoveries or new avenues for your family history. It will definitely aid you in fine tuning your genealogical research.