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When Land Disappears

Locating property can be challenging. When property has been altered, either by man or nature, the task becomes especially tricky. Judy Rosella Edwards sheds some light on how to locate intentionally altered lands.


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Maps are generated for many reasons. When land is altered so that roads are moved and other landmarks relocated, consider searching unconventional map sources.

When the Kaskaskia River in Illinois was dammed to create Lake Shelbyville, roads and bridges vanished. Landmarks disappeared and numerous homes disappeared underwater. Along with them, cemeteries were relocated. Searching for historical places is not as simple as it might be otherwise.

A great deal of planning precedes intentional changes that alter the landscape. If land was intentionally flooded, there will be an archive of the process. The archive will include legal documents, maps, funding, committee meetings, and a plethora of other miscellaneous information.

Types of Maps

Flooding involves knowing the lay of the land. Intentional flooding is done to control flooding created by nature where the banks cannot control excessive amounts of water. A significant part of the flooding decision is based on the elevation and natural lay of the land.

Those maps are created via aerial photography and are called topo or topographical maps. Normally, these are maps are of limited use to genealogists or anyone sitting at a desk. But drive through Christian County, Illinois, and you'll see miles of what appear to be tiny hills. They don't mean much on a plat map. On a topo map, they appear as higher elevations dotting the landscape. They are dramatic enough to be natural landmarks.

What is highly useful about a topographical map is the location of waterways. These waterways may appear in early histories of a county with names like Skull Creek. But, today that little creek that Grandpa referred to in his diary could be swallowed up by some larger manmade lake.

The most common topographical-type maps genealogists are likely to use are known as gazetteers. These are topographical maps with labels indicating landmarks, including such items as silos or radio towers. They also include some textual background about a geographical area.

Plat maps are another type of map and the one genealogists use most often. Plats show property in squares or rectangles, except for shoreline and other instances where land just doesn't comply. Landmarks rarely appear on a plat, except for some waterways. The purpose of a plat map is to label ownership of each parcel of land.

Plats are useful in determining ownership. They are not useful for determining residency. Plats are created for legal ownership purposes. A plat map will show who owned properties on the date when the plat was created. Plats do not show renters or anyone in the process of purchasing a property. A plat establishes who was paying taxes on a property, but not someone who was a tenant or who was still paying on a mortgage. It is common to find multiple properties on a plat owned by the same person, for a variety of reasons. Farmers will sometimes have multiple farms, and buy a separate property for their home. Businesses often own more than one property. Some people have a separate vacation home.

Census maps show residency and, depending on the year, they may indicate whether a resident owns or rents their property. But the census is designed to count each person only at the their main place of residence. A census map will show only one property associated with a person. Census maps include residents who rent or otherwise use a property as their main residence, including a full-time live-in caretaker and even homeless people.

Looking For Maps of Lost Land

A comprehensive project like Lake Shelbyville take years of planning and is a good example of the kind of historical material created by intentional flooding projects. These projects typically involve public meetings where proposed changes are presented in detail. Included will be the names of residents who lived in the potential flood area, regardless of whether they owned property in the area.

Agencies hold public meetings to discuss flood projects with area residents long before the physical changes are implemented. Damming a river impacts properties, homes, and businesses downstream. As voters, residents who do own property that will be flooded may be recorded as having participated in the decision process.

A key element of these public meetings is maps. There may be even be more than one version of a map created. They are often very large scale maps because they are used in public meetings in identifying what land will be flooded and landmarks relocated.

These maps are unique and they are not likely to be found in a local library unless the flooding project seriously impacted the local community. The state Water Survey will have copies of these maps because they are involved when a body of water is rerouted. Search the state Water Survey archives for the last known map created prior to the beginning of the project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) were involved with flooding the Kaskaskia at Lake Shelbyville. In the Kaskaskia River flooding, the Corps purchased some property from those who owned homes and farmland along the waterway that could potentially be impacted by the intentional flooding. South of Lake Shelbyville, there were areas where they only purchased land that was within the floodline at its highest point.

As a result, the USACE archived documents involving land purchases, government funding memos, and the ever-essential maps. The USACE is divided into districts. Lake Shelbyville is part of the St. Louis District.

The USACE provides an online catalog of their holdings around the world. After you identify an item in their archive, contact your local library to arrange interlibrary loan.

The Natural History Survey (NHS) was involved. Such projects require that archaeological studies be conducted verifying that historical sites are not disturbed. In the creation of Lake Shelbyville, more than one cemetery did have to be disturbed and completely relocated. The NHS monitors these efforts and records the last known natural location of historic places along with their new location until new maps are created.

At that point, the original location begins to fade from history. It creates a gap between the past and the present. Maps created as part of the flooding project document that change.

What Is So Special About Special Maps?

In the event of Lake Shelbyville, the last map created prior to the damming of the Kaskaskia River was created in 1960. The lake didn't open until the 1970's. But, before the first bulldozer went to work, the government needed to identify the property owners and types of businesses that would be engulfed by the reservoir. The government then bought or leased that property based on a plat map showing ownership at that time.

The last map created prior to the creation of the manmade lake shows the current owners at that time. It is an interesting map because, by then, some properties had already been purchased by investment companies, banks and others who probably never lived in the area. Working backward, as historians often do, it is helpful to know who was the last known owner of Grandpa's farm before it vanished below the water.

The 1960 Lake Shelbyville map consists of a topo map overlaid with a plat creating a grid identifying the owner of each property, making it the last map preserving a snapshot of the final private property owners of what we now see as miles of water. It is an intriguing map because it is not that often that we see a plat map and a topographical map on the same page.

The map included roads and bridges, by name, that have vanished. Several decades have passed, but the names of these bridges and roads appear as reference points in diaries and letters. Since they are underwater, it is not possible to locate them short of scuba-diving.

No doubt, such maps exist for nearly any location where land has been intentionally altered. In the event of flooding, the terrain is critical. Aerial photographers create maps showing the literal lay of the land. Those photographers work for agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and they record those bridges and roads that will be swept away.

Off The Map

Property that has been permanently flooded has often been researched for historical antiquities. Along with maps, look for a Cultural Resource Survey of the area. These surveys are ongoing in many cases.

Their purpose is to identify ancient cultures and artifacts that come to the surface as a result of erosion. If Grandpa's farm had not been flooded, no one might ever have known that he farmed for decades on silt accumulated atop land that was once home to Cahokia mound-builders.

Often these reports are online. Search for "archaeological survey" and the name of the flood project to locate these reports. They may list what kind of ancient relics were found – and continue to be found, as erosion washes them to the surface.

Getting Help

A good librarian gets excited about these special maps. Unfortunately, they were created for a special project and often discarded. The map of Lake Shelbyville is very large and consists of 24 pages of meticulous topo maps with plat grids. In searching for it, I found three libraries who believed they had copies. One had a page or two missing. Another library's copy was lost when the library moved to a new building.

After explaining to the librarian at the University of Illinois what I needed and why it was relevant to me, she digitized the map and uploaded the images to me as beautifully scanned TIFF and PDF files. If you even suspect special maps exist, seek out a librarian for further help in locating them.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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