By Jodi Bash
Have you ever taken a really long road trip? The kind that takes days to get where you’re going? It’s not as common anymore with cheap, safe air travel.
I love the road trip personally – no time constraints, no restrictions on shampoo bottle size, no turbulence! After each trip I understand so much more about terrain, road quality, how long it takes to get somewhere. We take all this for granted when flying, or even when someone else is driving.
One such trip was a hot August with my mother to several small central Texas towns in search of family evidence – we called it the dead relative tour. We toured highways, back roads, and some that were barely recognizable as roads. The more off the beaten path we got, the more I could picture my ancestors traveling these same routes – in cars with non-modern suspension, or on horseback, or just walking. The maps and terrain of your past give so much insight into your family history – it’s hard to realize that until you literally walk in their footsteps.
But, we can’t walk in everyone’s footsteps. So the map, that thing we thought we’d never need again once our smart phones started telling us where to go, has taken a central role in my genealogy research.
Map Out Your Ancestors for Free
You don’t need to spend money on software to map your ancestors travels. I started with Google maps. The first time I used it was when I was transcribing the diary that my grandparents kept during the first year of their marriage; May 1934-May 1935.
This couple drove everywhere! They bought their first car together in this year, took tons of road trips around Texas, and did a fair amount of drinking and diving! As someone who loves a good road trip, it occurred to me one day that it would be nice see where they had traveled on one Saturday drive.
The diary entry read: “Left Midland [Texas] about 10:00 this morning – ate lunch in Colorado [city not state] – stopped in Abilene and in Brownwood for a while. Got home [Mullin, TX] about 5:00 o’clock. Howard fixed the radio, and it is working real good.”
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When I plugged the stops they recorded into Google maps I was impressed with the amount of road they traveled – and these were 1934 roads and cars! According to Google maps, this drive today is 245 miles. It was probably longer in 1934, and they certainly would have felt it!
I used the mapping technique again, when writing about my great-grandmother, Sinia Covey Guthrie. Her move is traced below: from her Virginia parents, her own birth in Tennessee, married in Arkansas, and eventually settling in Texas.
I started mapping out more ancestors from the same time period and found this was a common path for many east coast families to Texas. I now had an ancestral route that could provide many new research opportunities.
The two best things about using Google (or any GPS mapping tool) to do this type of initial mapping is that it’s free and it’s fast. Saving the map is as easy as a screenshot but other free tools work just as well – my Mac comes with the Grab utility that I could not live without!
Not many tools can give us such quick and illuminating insight into our family’s history as maps. You may want something more “oldie timey” looking for a printed family history, but for just gathering and comparing information Google maps will do the trick.
Know Your Counties
The next technique I recommend is to download or view a current county map of the state you’re researching. A great free place to go for this information is the FamilySearch wiki. They have a clickable map that can take you to any part of the world to see state and even county divisions.
It’s important to know what counties surround or were in a travel path to the location your ancestors settled – or at least where they put down some vital stats! Keep in mind that county lines change, then and now. You may be looking for a record in a courthouse that didn’t serve your ancestors location until 50 years after they lived. Or maybe your great-grandparents went to a neighboring county to marry. The county descriptions on FamilySearch.org will tell you if and when changes occurred to these boundaries.
Annotate Places Where Your Ancestors Lived
The other important part of learning from these maps is being able to annotate. You probably won’t want to put a pen to your family’s atlas, or to your grandfather’s hand drawn maps. But there are free tools on your computer that let you make notations on a map graphic. This photo is an example I did for a client when we were trying to determine where their ancestors lived and how they had moved around the state.
There are many good tools for this – some free, some not. PowerPoint has more ways to track notes and ideas on your map image then you’ll know what to do with. Just know that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to play with these indispensable ways of looking at your history!
Editor’s note: Evernote is one of the best free tools for capturing and annotating screenshots and it can be used on most devices. They have an online version and a downloadable program that sync together. Find it here.
Jodi Bash is a genealogist living in Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She is founder of Family at Your Fingertips and is passionate about finding creative and tangible ways to connect with family history. She runs two blogs: Unclaimed Ancestors is an effort to connect old photos with descendants, and a way to scratch the ever-present research bug! A more personal blog at Family at Your Fingertips explores family heirlooms and the love of history. Jodi has been researching family history for over 15 years, and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She is the Director of Communication for Covenant Church in Houston, holds a B.A. in History and English from the University of Texas at Austin, a Masters in American History from the University of Houston, and an M.B.A. from Rice University. You can reach Jodi at [email protected] and follow her on twitter via @famatfingertips.