Introduction to Geographic Tools
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|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
What is a geographic tool? By definition, it is a tool related to geography, a science that deals with the earth and its life. Commonly used geographic tools are maps, atlases, gazetteers (geographical dictionaries), and postal guides.
A town is a specific place somewhere on planet earth. It might be in a valley, on a plain surrounded by lush farmland, in mountains in the midst of evergreens, or in a desert far from other habitation. Its surroundings will affect the lives of the people who live there and also its economy. There can be many towns with the same name, but only one of them can occupy a specific portion of land; thus, each town is uniquely identified by its location.
A map is a graphic representation (usually flat) by means of signs and symbols and at an established scale of the physical features (natural, artificial, or both) of a portion of the earth’s surface. A topographic map will show the terrain of the land; the proximity of other communities; physical barriers, such as large rivers and mountains; roads and trails; and the approximate size of the town.
An atlas, another useful geographic tool, is a bound collection of maps; descriptive text usually is included as well. There is an atlas for nearly every place, and the types of maps and the information provided in each atlas can vary considerably. Historical atlases, atlases showing political boundaries and boundary changes, state and county road atlases, and commercial atlases can be particularly useful to family researchers.
If the location of a place name is unknown and it cannot be found on a map or in an atlas, a gazetteer is the tool to consult. Gazetteers list place names in countries, states, or geographical regions alphabetically for particular time periods. If a town is not listed in a gazetteer, it might be found in a postal guide; postal guides list post offices alphabetically by state.
The tool which the genealogist or family historian should use first depends on the nature of the problem.
- If the location of a place name is known, obtain a map of the location.
- If the location of a place name is known but there is a discrepancy with the jurisdiction (perhaps the record shows a different county name than the one indicated on the map), the answer might be found in an atlas showing county boundary changes.
- If the place name cannot be found on a map, the name might have changed, or the place might no longer exist. The name and additional information might be found in a gazetteer or a postal guide.