Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Important is Geography to Research?

Tomorrow I'm giving a webinar on "Researching Your Connecticut Ancestors" for Legacy Family Tree. That has got me thinking a lot about Connecticut. It is a bit of a stroll down memory lane because I spent the first half of my life in Connecticut.

As I consider what is important for the audience to know about Connecticut, I am thinking about all the ways you can slice and dice a state. As genealogists, we want to know about records, record groups and how and why those records were generated.  Right now I'm trying to think beyond the records to see how different aspects of a state can impact research.

For instance, how many researchers really take the time to focus on the geography of a location? The small state of Connecticut, for example, has mountains, a coastline along the ocean and farmland.  That geography has greatly impacted how the people of Connecticut have interacted with each other and their neighbors and even impacted their economic development (ie the creation of a shipping/merchant industry).

Sometimes genealogists limit their vision unintentionally by peering through blinders.  It's just so tempting to take the easy route.  Here's a classic example.  Recently I gave a talk to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society about researching the history of your house. Typically when I give a house history talk I use a local historical house as an example.  In this particular case I chose a random house because I liked the name of the Swede who lived their in 1900 - Knut Bergstrom.

I used a lot of census records, city directories and maps in my research on Knut's house.   I looked at assessor's maps and even aerial views.  I felt like I really knew the house by the time I got ready to go give the talk. I decided to swing by the house and see it in person beforehand.

Well, wasn't I in for a surprise. As I approached the street, I was astonished to find a forty-five degree (or so it seemed to me) incline.  No map had prepared me for this steep hill. I am a bit squeamish when it comes to steep hills.  I think learning to drive on standard transmission car did that to me.  I paused for a moment and considered how badly I wanted to see that house. I really did want to see it.  The final determination was the condition of the road.  It was under construction.  All the pavement had been dug up and the top layer was dirt and rubble.  There is no historic house I want to see so badly that I am willing to drive up a steep incline on a dirt road.  I made the decision to pass this one by.

I had done my research, hadn't I?  Why had I been surprised by this unexpected situation?  Even though I had looked at many maps including aerial photos I still never got the sense of the lay of the land.  If I had looked at a topographical map that may have alerted me earlier.

Our genealogical research is often like this example.  We've done so much research that we are sure that we have a thorough knowledge and understanding of our target.  Yet without realizing it we overlook important clues that impact they way we interpret how our ancestors lived their lives.  I can think of many ways that steep hill impacted the lives of the people who have lived on it through the centuries, especially when considering wintry New England.

Take a second look at one of your ancestors and see if you can determine how geography impacted them.  Look at both the regional and the street level.  What was it about the terrain of the state that helped or impeded transportation and travel?  How did the geographic conditions impact industry and economic well-being?  Then look at your ancestor's town and neighborhood.  What type of place did they live in?  How did the surrounding land impact their daily life?

Dig deeper into the geography of your ancestor's home and you'll come away with a broader understanding of how they lived and the decisions they made.

Photo Credit: Photo by taberandrew used under the creative commons license.


  1. Great points, Marian. Context is vital - as vital as the records.

  2. Right on target! This whole concept - that geography can be destiny - is something I'll be covering on my talk on Saturday in Maine. The lecture slide that introduces it says, "The Importance of Developing a Sense of Place" and goes right to using topo maps.

  3. Great post! I am not there yet in my research, but I hope to get there soon.
    I was going to attend your webinar before I realized that I had signed up to volunteer at the library run by our local genealofy society in conjunction with the local historical society tomorrow afternoon.
    I am "inventing/reiterating" a standard genealogist's complaint: "WHY can't I be two places at the same time?!"

  4. The Dimond Library in NH has New York and New England topo maps online.

    I think the US started publishing such detailed topographies in about the 1890s.

    I think maps in general (other than early platt maps) became more detailed and accurate over time with the development of the railroads, insurance and cadastral maps.

    Mel probably knows more about this evolution.

    In addition the LOC American Memory maps, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, the Perry-CastaƱeda Library Map Collection, and many smaller digitized map sites, HistoricMapworks.com is a great resource with some techie angles.

    Sharon Sergeant

  5. Mel - Thanks! I hope to be able to hear your talk sometime soon.

    Frustrated Sue - LOL! No worries, the webinar will be recorded. You'll be able to go back and watch for at least 10 days.

    Sharon - thanks so much for the links.

  6. Knowing the geography is essential for genealogists! It an explain why someone married the person they did (they took produce to that market town), why they went to that church, it was this side of the river while their Methodist church was over the river.

    And of course there is also the geography with history bit: which county were they in when? This is particularly true of Europe where a friend of mine's ancestors lived in seven different countries without moving house over a 250 year period!

  7. Great webinar, Marian! Congrats on now being a discount code... :-)

  8. What a great point! I have ancestors who farmed, that left the hilly ground of eastern Ohio for the flat land of western Ohio during the early 1860s. Locale had to play an important part in their move. Was it the close proximity to PA and the encroaching war? Or better farm land?
    Your post reminded me of this and how I need to research these ancestors more.
    Thanks for your post!

  9. This is a very vivid explanation of the importance of really doing your research, Marian. I can just imagine your face when you first saw that unexpected hill!

    As a researcher who lives far from a number of my ancestors' homes, it is often a challenge for me to learn as much as I'd like about the lay of the land in the places where they lived. There is nothing as valuable as going there.

    Great article!


  10. I'm in total agreement with you, Marian. When helping folks search one of the first things I show them is how to map (even on modern Google Mapping) the addresses they find.

    I remember one research project where three different children born in three different states and the fourth born in the same state & town as the first. Checking into the history of that particular town found out that it was there because of a mining boom and then listed dates of other booms nearby, and they all matched up with the children's births.

    You have to love the political jurisdictions that make no sense of the lay of the land!