Monday 29 April 2024

Leaving the Past for the Future 5: The importance of maps

As an earth scientist I have dealt with maps for most of my life, even created many. Using them in family history research was natural to me.

There is probably no type of map that I have not seen or used, among them:

·         geographical, topographical and bathymetric maps

·         town and street maps

·         geologic, weather and mineral resource maps

·         maps showing areas where natural events like earthquakes or hurricanes have occurred; .

·         air photos and in recent decades, satellite images, forms of maps that are especially useful in looking at changes to landforms

·         socio-economic maps showing the distribution of things like population, incomes, election results and tithe apportionment boundaries

·         Google maps, a prime starting point to look at local, regional, national and continental views

All types of maps have their uses in reviewing and imagining the homes of our ancestors, particularly the older ones.

Incorporating maps into a family narrative is one of the most useful tools a family historian can employ. Knowing where your ancestors lived or originated may be just as important as the era in which they lived and died.

I am a mongrel, having descended from many family lines from many countries and from many regions in those many countries. I have searched out maps for each of the locations in which my ancestors lived – hundreds in total. Regional maps showed me the broad geography of where my ancestors lived and worked. Local county or parish maps allowed me to focus on neighbourhoods or small communities. Property maps produced through the years demonstrated for me how family residences or homesteads changed or developed as families grew.

I have written several posts on this blog about using maps: where to find them, how to use them, what information about areas you can glean from them, and, of course, where people lived and worked. I have written posts about using maps of various kinds (Using Old Maps - 22 July 2014; More About Using Old Maps – 12 August 2014; Even More About Using Old Maps – 26 August 2014. I have pointed out the value of local map sources such as Tithe Apportionment Maps (23 September 2014) and War Diaries and Trench Maps from WWI (14 Apr 2020). I noted looking at the locations of some of the homes we had lived in as shown on Old City Maps & Aerial Photos (1 Mar 2023).

In a series of blog posts about Old Homes and Homesteads (18 February to 22 April 2014) I detailed the homes of many of my ancestors from the British Isles, the USA and Canada, most accompanied by maps of the areas: in Devon, England (Corntown, East Rooke, Lutton, Plympton St. Mary, Torquay); Virginia; Kansas to Alberta; an Alberta homestead; family farms in Alberta; Alberta and British Columbia.

In another series about Moving (14 July to 5 July 2016) I tracked the routes families took between their various homes across the USA and in Canada: the McDaniels, the Keiths, the Mayfields, the Andersons in Ontario and North Dakota, the McDaniels going west, the Millers going west, the Thompsons in Ontario and North Dakota.

In the many posts and articles, I have published about natural event and their impact on families, I have included maps showing where they occurred. In a more recent piece, I used a map of London, England to show where two of my ancestral lines likely lived and how they possibly got together (Marriage & Maps, Family Tree magazine, June 2024).

In one session of a recent course I have been taking (Research Skills Studio by Dr. Sophie Kay and hosted by Family Tree magazine), there was an emphasis on using maps to learn more about the daily lives of families. Sophie took participants through an ancestral walk in a village to get better acquainted with the areas in which their past families lived and the lives they led. “By stepping into your ancestor’s shoes, you’ll notice details about their location which had never occurred to you before.”

No dates have as yet been announced for a repeat of Sophie’s course but readers may find out more in future issues of the Family Tree newsletter.

I have previously listed some websites that are great for maps in the past, but here are a few as reminders or that may be new to readers (some are commercial organizations): National Library of Scotland, Bienecke Labrary, David Rumsey Map Collection, Family Search, Old Maps Online, My Old Maps, Historic Map Works, Old Maps, Norman B Leventhal Map & Education Centre, edmaps, Library of Congress, USGS, University of Calgary, University of Victoria,  Historical Topographic Map Digitization Project (Ontario, Canada), Arcanum Maps,