Walking Where Grandpa Walked

by Ruby Coleman

Unless your ancestors never moved, genealogical research will take you to many locations. Collecting family stories, names, dates and events is important, but it is also important to know the locations involved in your ancestors' lives. This involves more than just an entry on a form or computer data field showing a village, county and state.

In order to understand the lives of ancestors, plus satisfy further research goals, researchers must have a feel for the location. This includes the history, geography and record keeping for each and every area. Basic United States history is helpful when doing genealogical research.  However, each state and county has a history that can be useful in knowing more about your ancestors.

Two helpful books for learning more about state history, resources, county formation and records are:

  • Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, edited by Alice Eichholz. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1992.

  • The Handy Book for Genealogists, 9th edition.  Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, Inc., 1999

    Internet provides us with many resources particularly on a state and county level. Many of the USGenWeb county sites have information on the history and geography of the county. Contacts can be made through their respective mail lists with individuals who live in the county or have knowledge of the area. Browse through the various states and counties at http://www.usgenweb.org.

    Using the Internet, researchers can learn a good deal about ancestral locations. Historical maps of the United States can be found at www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/histus.html. To search for specific location names, cemeteries, streams and historical sites, use the United State Geographical Survey (USGS) site at http://geonames.usgs.gov/pls/gnis/web_query.gnis_web_query_form. One of my favorite web pages is the Color Landform Atlas of the United States.  Located at http://fermi.jhuapl.edu/states/states.html, this provides the viewer with a colored topographical map of each state. Looking at these type of maps, researchers can easily see how ancestors followed rivers in their migrations or why they settled on land that could be farmed.

    Almost all towns and cities have tourism offices or a Chamber of Commerce. Employees of these agencies are knowledgeable about their area. Contact them for brochures that have pictures or historical information about the area. You may be shocked to learn that your ancestor's home turf was flat and not rolling hills. These agencies can also provide you with information on local individuals with an interest in history. Check with your own Chamber of Commerce for addresses of those in other areas or check the Internet site at http://chamberofcommerce.com/.

    A good Internet source for historical, geographical and genealogical information on states is the American Local History Network at http://www.alhn.org/. A variety of links can be found at this site which will produce everything from photographs to maps and social information.

    Another method of locating information on communities and counties is to put the location name into a general Internet search engine. Some of the hits may contain information along with photographs and maps.

    The keeping of records differs from county to county and state to state. While history and geography had an impact on your ancestor's lives, the government did also. Your research will develop and be more complete if you have a general idea of where land was located, the history of the county, along with the government structure. Brief information in these areas can be found in The Handy Book for Genealogists and Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources.

    If you are puzzled about the laws, customs or government structure in a particular state or county, contact the state archives or library. The Library of Congress: State Library Web Listing at http://lcweb.loc.gov/global/library/statelib.html, provides links to web pages for state libraries. A helpful site for locating state archives is the State Archives Referral List at http://www.sos.state.ga.us/archives/rs/sarl.htm. Links, addresses and phone numbers are supplied at both of these Internet sites.

    Maps, either free or at a nominal fee, can be obtained from state agencies, such as departments of transportation or tourism. The State Transportation Web Sites is at http://fhwa.dot.gov/webstate.htm. For a list of State Tourism Offices, check out http://www.infoplease/ipa/A0004586.html.

    With such diversified information available for genealogists, it should be no problem to share turf with your ancestors. Don't just fill in the blank with a location ... learn about it.

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