How to write your family history, part 1: develop a sense of place

So you’ve done the detailed work of proving your ancestors’ names and birth dates, and you’ve linked back a few generations.  And among the details you’ve discovered is the appealing idea that your family was not just a nebulous string of names on paper; instead, your family was part of a small town or a rural county or a thriving city – a place that had an important influence on your family’s fortunes.  The space we live in can make or break us, and it’s important that we place families in their geographic context.

It can be difficult to envision the terrain of our ancestors’ lives.  The terrain of 17th century mid-Atlantic America, for example, has been fundamentally changed by hundreds of years of political, commercial and natural modifications.  To take a specific example, the Maddox family‘s 17th-century settlement of Port Tobacco, Maryland, was once a thriving port town that attracted leading politicians and businessmen during its heyday, but deforestation resulted in over-silting of the riverbed, making it too shallow for commercial vessels from England.  The later establishment of the railway a few miles away meant Port Tobacco’s demise by the early 19th century.  To look at Port Tobacco now, it’s nearly impossible for the Maddoxes to imagine the place’s former vitality.  But explaining that vitality is crucial to developing an accurate narrative for posterity.

Researching geographic features can take a lot of time and patience.  Starting with two maps is a good way to begin to understand where your family lived.  First, find a map from the time of your family’s residence.  Second, compare that historical map with a modern map of similar scale.  Compare borders, transportation routes, place names and any landmarks.  If you’ve spent a good amount of time researching your family line and their close associates, there’s a very good chance you’ll find many familiar names on the maps.  The USGS provides a good guide to map use here.  Using the Maddox family example again, a map of the area around Abbeville, South Carolina, would include hints of the Maddox family’s 18th- and 19th-century presence there – such as Maddox Shoals along the Saluda River, Maddox Mill, and Maddox Bridge.  These landmarks tell a story of their own.

Plat maps, available in city and state archives, are the best resource for finding the precise location of your family’s former land or city property.  Colonial plat maps include sometimes fanciful descriptions of the land, along with hand-drawn maps.  More recent plat maps are much more precise, including clear perimeters and latitude/longitude details.  Compare the plat map with both your old map and new map to geolocate your family’s site, and then use Google Maps to zoom in on the land.  Record the Google Maps location in your records.  It will be useful when you want to visit the location.

A Maddox family member visited an ancestor’s 19th-century farm after locating it by comparing modern and old maps.

If you persevere, you’re likely to be surprised by existing research into the historical geography of your ancestral home.  Most libraries’ local history sections include such studies.  Another great place to look is in the digital library JSTOR, which houses an incredible array of studies.  A great example of a “good find” is the research done by Smithsonian archeologist C. Malcolm Watkins into the Marlborough Town, Virginia, Colonial site.  The archeologist definitively located Edward Maddox’s plot #15, which Edward bought in the 1690s, and it was easy to compare Watkins’ maps with Google Maps details despite the antiquity of the original maps.

The Maddoxes discovered their ancestral land in Virginia had been well studied, and could easily find their ancestor’s plot (#15, above) on modern maps, making the place accessible literally and figuratively.

As always, don’t expect immediate success with this genealogical research effort.  It can take a good bit of luck to bump into the right information.  But the more you know about your family, the more you can relate bits of seemingly disparate information to the geographic terrain of their lives.

And as always, Narratio Vitae is standing by to help!


Leave a Reply