Maps and gazetteers are necessary tools for family historians. They are the key to finding the records of our ancestors.
Pinpointing where your ancestors lived is critical to locating records. Addresses are often found in directories, vital records, court records, military, and naturalization records. By plotting these addresses on a map along with local churches, it is possible to determine where our ancestors worshipped, and where more records are kept. The addresses can also tell us what civil districts to pursue in checking for locally created records.
Knowing addresses can also help us overcome misspellings. For example, I was recently searching for my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Howley, in the 1870 census. We had found him in the 1860 and 1880 U.S. federal censuses in Brooklyn, NY, but our attempts to locate him in the 1870 census had failed. So I decided to try some Soundex searches on the AIS Census Index. A search for Howley in NY using the Soundex got me 32,000 hits, and entering subsequent information helped to narrow the search results down a bit, but not enough. I had an address for him on Front Street from an 1870 city directory of Brooklyn. Using a map that listed ward numbers, I was able to determine that he lived in the 2nd Ward, and upon entering 2 W Brooklyn in the Township field (as I had noted it listed in a previous search), I was rewarded with only seven entries, the last of which was one Thomas Holey. The actual census record showed that it was indeed Thomas Howley; the census taker had just left out the 'w.'
One thing that you might want to keep in mind is whether your ancestor lived near a boundary or border. Did these boundaries or borders change over the years? Your ancestors may appear in a different county, state, or even country without ever moving. My great-grandparents were from Gomor County (or Megye) in Hungary. Looking for Gomor Megye in Hungary on a current map would be fruitless, though, because it is now in Slovakia.
Changing Place Names
Changing place names are another challenge we face as family historians. Places of origin that were given by our ancestors in records of the day may no longer exist, or may be called something entirely different. It may be necessary to learn a bit about the area and its history to find out where the records will be located and/or what the area is called now.
In researching those same great-grandparents in Gomor, I was given several town names by my grandparents and a grand-aunt. Thankfully, the Internet has brought many maps online, and after quite a few queries on search engines, I was able to compile the following information from online sources.
2) 1882 Gazetteer of Hungary—county now listed as Gomor- es Kis-Hont Megye, and towns listed as Hoszuszo and Horka in Tornaljai Jaras (District)
3) Map of Gomor es Kishont Varmegye, 1900—Gomorhosszuszo and Horka are not shown
4) 1920—the Treaty of Trianon allows Czechoslovakia to annex a large section of northern Hungary, which includes Gomor Megye
5) January 1, 1993—following the collapse of the communist regime, Gomor becomes part of the new country of Slovakia
6) National Council of the Slovak Republic document detailing a law from July 7, 1994 (link below), which listed by district the "name of a community in the official language" and the "denomination of a community in language of the national minority"—both towns are listed in the Roznava district; a listing for Hosszuszo in the language of the national minority, is now Dlha Ves in the official language, and Horka, listed as Gomorhorka in language of the national minority, is now Gemerska Horka in the official language.
Because of the different names on the maps, I used geographic features like rivers to locate the towns and make sure I was referring to the right places. It was interesting to see the different ways these two towns were listed at various times. The knowledge of the variant names for the towns, the different districts they fell into, and the history of the area will help me when I am ready to begin searching for the records of my ancestors. This is not only true of Eastern European research, but also in any area of the world.
Maps help us trace the migration paths our ancestors took. More detailed maps will show what routes were available at the time, including railroads, waterways, early roads, etc. The Library of Congress has a wonderful collection of railroad maps online that show great detail, listing stops and spur lines (link below).
It is important to trace the path our ancestors took because there may have been records created along the way. The naturalization process may have been started at the port of entry, and the records may be scattered in stops along the route to the final destination. Ethnic and religious groups often traveled together, and your ancestors' travels can be traced by tracking others in their group. Also, on the long journey west in the United States, babies were born, people married, and people died. There may have been records of events created along the way.
Other Reasons to Study the Area
It also pays to study the area around that of your forebears. What was the region like? If there was a mountain, river, or some other topographical feature between them and the county seat, they may have chosen to take an easier route and create records in the next county. This is also true of areas with differing regulations. In states with less stringent marriage laws, "marriage mills" sprung up. Lake County, Indiana is a well-known example of this. Many couples from the Chicago area crossed the border into Indiana to get married.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of how maps can help with research. You will doubtless find many more uses for them as you set out to familiarize yourself with the areas that hold the key to your roots.
Juliana Smith is the editor of the Ancestry Daily News and author of The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: email@example.com, but regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research.