Zachary Levi: Mapping out Your Ancestors’ Locations
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Location, location, location.

Just like in real estate, when we build a family tree, where we are looking is just as important as when we are looking. 

Land and property records are some of the most underutilized genealogical records for the budding genealogist. When we are working on sorting out the details of a family tree, land records can help fill in a lot of missing details, particularly when we work in a time period before there are vital records or detailed censuses.

For Zachary Levi’s family, land records proved critical in extending his Clason lines back into Connecticut where we made the connection to his 10x great-grandfather, Stephen Clason. Land records can help a researcher see whether their ancestor followed a specific migratory path and may suggest additional counties or states to investigate. As we were researching the Clason family, land records helped us follow and understand their movements confirming that we were on the right track.

The Clason line migrated from Connecticut to New York, before settling in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a public domain state, also known as a federal land state, where the federal government was responsible for distributing territory through their land offices. In June 1834, Congress created two land districts in Wisconsin which likely triggered the Clason family’s move from New York to Wisconsin. The Clasons appeared as early as 1840 in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin and quickly took advantage of the land patents being offered. Ancestry® has General Land Office records for this period, and we found several references to the Clason family. Federal land states use the township and range system which makes it quite easy to map out the locations of where the Clasons received land patents. ​

Federal Land Grants for the Clason family

You can clearly see the cluster of Clason families living close to one another in this section in the 1840s. These original land grants can also help you show the evolution of familial relationships. For example, if you do not have a will but a probate file that suggests a relationship, such as someone receiving property or acting as an administrator, you can use land records to show they were neighbors and build conclusions that way. 

A detail from the town map in Milwaukee Wisconsin. More recent township maps may also include names of the landowners. Unfortunately, the original map for this area in Wisconsin did not. 

Many of our ancestors did not live in the country but rather the city. While you can still have deeds for families in the city, you have the benefit of city directories to help you pin down where your ancestors were living to help map out your family locations. In the other part of Zachary Levi’s episode, we looked at his Schenck family in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis is a larger city and has city directories that can be found on Ancestry®. 

John Albrecht and his family, lived at No. 1901 Shenandoah Street in 1890. Henry Schenck, Zachary’s great-great-grandfather lived at No. 2103 Gravois Avenue. At some point, we knew that Henry and John’s daughters’ paths would need to cross. Using GoogleMaps, you can clearly see the two locations are only 0.2 miles away from each other and are only a 4-minute walk.

GoogleMap of the two addresses.

This helps show how close the two families were. If you ever identify possible relatives who are living in the same city, it can be helpful to map out their locations using city directories to prove if they lived close to one another. 

A little bit of time plotting the locations of your ancestors can go a really, long way.

To watch Zachary Levi’s entire journey and discover more celebrities uncovering their family history, watch full episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays at 7/6c on NBC or stream on Peacock.


Tips from AncestryProGenealogists

When trying to find your ancestors in property records, keep these tips in mind:

  • Determine if your ancestor had land. An easy way to check this is in the 1850, 1860, or 1870 censuses. These censuses have a field called “Value of Real Estate,” typically right after the occupation column, which indicates whether they had real estate, or not. 
  • If your ancestors lived in a Federal Land Patent State, check General Land Office Records to see when your ancestor received the original land patent.
    • Remember, this is only the final certificate. You can order the full packet that goes along with the certificate through the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The actual packets can sometimes contain even more information. 
  • Map out your ancestor’s property. You can sometimes find the land already mapped out and indexed by land occupier in databases such as U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918 and U.S., Indexed Early Land Ownership and Township Plats, 1785-1898. Visual representations of the property can sometimes be key to understanding your ancestors’ family and their neighbors. 
  • If your family lived in a city, check to see if they can be located in city directories; do not hesitate to map out their locations to see if they lived close by to others with the same surname or with other possible extended relatives or in-laws.
    • Remember, street names may have changed since the time your ancestor lived there. It may be beneficial to locate an older street map created close to the time your ancestors lived in the area.
    • As another tip, city directories can also act as a great supplement for the lost 1890 census if your relatives may have moved or died between 1880 and the 1900 census.  City directories sometimes would record a person’s death date if they died the year the directory was published.