EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series of using maps in genealogical research.
Few things can be more exciting to a genealogist than finding an ancestor’s farm on an 1864 map or spotting an 1880s community that became extinct and is seemingly impossible to document.
In our excitement we sometimes fail to process a map the same way we do other pieces of genealogical information and evidence.
Why was the map created? Was its purpose to show a distribution of population, transportation routes, waterways for the area, military troop movements, or did it have some other objective? How would those elements impact the land on which you believe your ancestor lived? For example, if his cornfield were in the middle of a Civil War battlefield, you’ll need to do an analysis to determine the impact on him and his family.
Does the map show some geographic element, such as a mountain range without over-the-hill roads offering quick travel to the other side? Is the map a mere hand sketch or a full-color mechanically produced rendering? Are there marginal notations to provide guidance in how to use the map?
What is the date of the map? This is important: If you use the map to show how it looked when your ancestor was there, it must be contemporaneous with his tenure in the location.
How does this drawing compare to a modern-day map if it is to be used as an overlay? Are the old and modern maps the same scale?
How do you analyze all those details and what do you do with them? How do you turn all that information into evidence of a point you want to make about your family? How is this map important to your family history?
A pitfall for many researchers is taking a piece of evidence — such a map — and tossing it into a pile with “other stuff” at the end of a research trip. Eventually, several of these piles collide, get swooped together into a box and pushed under the bed or into the back of a closet.
When the researcher gets back to it in a few years — or worse when family members are cleaning up the estate of the dearly departed (that would be you) — the importance of the map is lost and the map gets tossed.
Anything worth collecting or copying is worth analyzing. So sit down with the map and start to write. Title it, for example, as “Analysis of Plan of Battle of Cold Harbor, Va.: June 1st and 3rd 1864.”
Record a citation that reminds you and tells others where you found the map. For example, “Plan of Battle of Cold Harbor, Va.: June 1st and 3rd 1864. Robert Knox Sneeden, 1864. Digital image. Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/cabib20007470.”
Include answers to the above questions and then discuss what the map tells and why it is important to your family research. You could point out that your ancestor’s mill is indicated on a waterway and that the nearby “ploughed fills” probably were a part of his farm.
Next week’s column will explore the use of topographic maps in genealogical research.
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.