In this final article in this series, we will cover one of the most important parts of any genealogical research. There are basically three things you need to know to identify an ancestor: a name, a date and a place. Of these three, the most important, by far is the place. Names can vary over time and be spelled in a multiple of ways. Dates can be vague or unavailable. In order to find an ancestor, you have to know at least one place with certainty. The main reason is that genealogically important records are created in the geographic jurisdictions where the event occurred. It is also extremely important to be aware of the different political, social and religious jurisdictions that existed in the place where the event occurred. The general rule is that all events should be recorded as the different levels of jurisdiction, such as the city, county, state and country, existed at the time the event occurred. Additionally, any specific event in the life of an ancestor occurred at only one place on the face of the earth.
The focus of genealogical research should be on the place where events occurred. Without the identity of a specific place, the research is like shooting into a lake and hoping that you hit a fish. Given the importance of locations in genealogical research it is surprising that so little time and effort is usually expended on searching for places. Most genealogical research efforts involve searching for names and dates but these efforts are ineffective until an event has been tied to a geographic location.
To start your geographic search, all of the places mentioned in your accumulated research should be verified. Fortunately, there are extensive and virtually complete online tools that can provide both accurate geographic and historical data. The researcher should first search for places on Google Maps. This first search will provide most locations and verify if the information recorded about the person is believable. The next step in discovering more about the location is to search in Wikipedia for the place. Surprisingly, most, even very small, places around the world already have their own Wikipedia page. One advantage of finding the location in Wikipedia is that the articles give you the geographic coordinates of the place. Here is an example of the location of the coordinates on a Wikipedia page for the small town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky:
If you click on the coordinates of the location, you will go to the GoeHack Page of Wikipedia. This is a list of all the places on the Internet where the particular location can be found. Here is an example of clicking on the coordinates for Hopkinsville, Kentucky:
From here there are dozens of websites that can provide further information about the location. It is possible that a location’s name has fallen into disuse or been changed. In that case, you may wish to search in the huge database of geographic names maintained by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. This resource contains extensive searchable lists of both U.S. domestic geographic place names and foreign geographic place names. All of the names, such as towns, cities, states, provinces, lakes, rivers, cemeteries, schools and many others are linked to the geographic coordinates. If you copy the geographic coordinates, you can use them to find the place on Google Maps.
As genealogical research goes back into time, it becomes more and more important to do historical geographical research. Fortunately, there are a huge number of place online to look for historic maps. One good place to start is the website, OldMapsOnline.org. This is a portal linked to tens of thousands fully digitized historical maps. Here are some other valuable online resources for finding old and new maps:
- Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection Maps on Other Web Sites
- University of Chicago Library, Map Links
- Map History / History of Cartography: THE Gateway to the Subject
- British Library, Maps: Scanned collections online