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As I followed my husband’s ancestors’ movements throughout eastern Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey via census and other records, I was reminded of the need to be familiar with the geography of the places we’re researching.
When I was working on Mark’s grandmother’s family, I noted that in most census years they lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1930, most of the family was in Camden, New Jersey, with the exception of a brother who was in Gloucester City, New Jersey. Clicking on the place name “Camden, Camden, New Jersey” on his great-grandmother’s Profile Page on the Ancestry.com tree I had created for the family allows me to view a map with pins marking event places in her life.
From here it was easy to see the close proximity of Camden to Philadelphia, to note that the brother in Gloucester City wasn’t far either.
Land Ownership Maps
While reviewing the pages around your ancestors’ pages in the census can acquaint you with their neighbors, you may find a better view through the U.S. Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918 on Ancestry.com. You can search for a name or browse the maps for the location where your ancestor lived. Here’s the map that shows Bushkill Township on the land ownership map for Northampton County, Pennsylvania, in 1874.
Atlases are collections of maps that may show the place in which your ancestor lived from various perspectives. For example, the U.S. and World Atlases, 1822-1923 on Ancestry.com include atlases dating from 1822-1923, including Olney’s School Atlas of 1844. Through this atlas we can get a feel for what the U.S. looked like at that time.
Another map in that same 1844 atlas gives us a closer look at the “Central States,” which includes Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia (which included West Virginia at that time). Zooming in we can look at the counties in those states as they existed in 1844. Here’s a snippet for eastern Pennsylvania.
Gazetteers are basically geographical encyclopedias, typically describing physical characteristics, historical information, and sometimes population statistics. Here again, we can gain a little historical perspective about the places our ancestors lived as found in gazetteers that were created around the time they lived there. Here’s the description of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as found in the U.S. Gazetteer, 1854.
Gazetteers can be particularly helpful as we take our research overseas to ancestral hometowns. World Wars I and II redrew many lines in Europe, so for those of us whose European immigrant ancestors left home before the outbreak of World War I, this can present challenges. Lippincott’s Gazetteer of the World, 1913 lists major towns, cities, and counties and describes them as they were before the war.
Learning about the places your ancestor lived is an important part of your family story. Their location determined their proximity to other family members, goods and services, employment, houses of worship, and social opportunities. Being familiar with their corner of the world can help you not only fill in the family story, it can lead to more records—the marks they left in the place they called home.
Juliana Smith has been writing articles and editing newsletters at Ancestry.com for more than thirteen years. When she’s not writing about family history, she’s probably off trying to track down her own or her husband’s ancestors.
Other articles in the 17 July 2011 Weekly Discovery