EDITORS NOTE: This is the first of a four-part series on using maps in genealogical research.
John Decker, age 53, was a well-to-do farmer living just outside Chancellorsville, Va., in 1860. His family included his wife, Letitia, and seven children, including the oldest, Marshall, who was a teacher.
His closest neighbors were Francis Beverly and John Aldrich, also farmers.
This little vignette about the Decker family and neighbors is based solely on their entries in the 1860 federal census for Spotsylvania County, Va. Many other records must be researched and harvested for details that will bring their stories to life.
One key element that will add perspective, but often is not included in basic research, is the use of maps. There are hundreds of them on the Internet, and thousands more in libraries and archives around the county. Success probably will be limited only by the researcher’s imagination.
For example, the first thing that pops into most minds when “1860” and “Virginia” are mentioned is the Civil War. That four-year saga birthed many maps that any researcher of the area should explore.
On the Library of Congress, American Memories Map Collection website (http://memory .loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/ gmdhome.html), there is an 1863 map titled “Map of the Rappahannock River fron [sic] Port Royal to Richards Ferry.” Examination of this map shows “Decker” and “Aldrich” properties just outside Chancellorsville on an unnamed road.
The map site also has a “More maps like this” section that includes a map titled “Map of a portion of the Rappahannock River and vicinity, Virginia to illustrate the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia C.S. and the Army of the Potomac U.S. from the close of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Decem. 15th 1862, to the Battle of Chancellorsville, Saturday, May 2nd 1863.” A peek at that map doesn’t show the Decker farm, but it does show Aldrich and indicates it is on the Plank Road.
Further research revealed a map of the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, which includes the Orange Plank Road. Comparison of the maps showed this is the same road on which the Decker farm was located. A check of a National Park Service map of the 1865 Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse shows the battle lines right at the Decker front door, putting into perspective what their lives might have been like during the Civil War: they lived in a hot pot of turmoil and fighting. This and similar maps are at www.nps.gov/frsp/historyculture/trpmaps.htm.
The Civil War was the largest-scale military action that ever took place on domestic soil. The resulting maps are dotted with the names of families in the farming communities, locations of churches and cemeteries, creeks and waterways that aren’t named or included on many later maps. Also included will be community names that appear in records but now are extinct.
Used in combination with deeds, census records and details from estate files, researchers more often than not can create their own graphics to illustrate family histories.
Next week this column will discuss the importance of a written analysis of maps a researcher collects.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.