By Janet Meydam
As family history researchers we often get caught up exploring the people in our family tree and we forget to take into consideration the impact locations had on these people’s lives. But, often, location research can reveal as much or more about an ancestor as the vital records you’ve likely already collected.
Religious and club affiliations, occupations, connections to local events and tragedies, community involvement, medical events and so much more can surface when you take the time to dig in and understand your ancestors’ communities.
Location research is an extremely important part of building your family tree and can help solve some of your long-standing dead ends, as well as reveal details that may otherwise go completely undiscovered. This type of research is especially useful when exploring an ancestor who is lacking in records, or a family you want to more intimately understand.
This article will explain why researching locations is so vital and how you should approach this aspect of your research.
Start by Knowing Exactly Where Your Ancestors Lived, Worked, Went to School and Worshiped
As you have been collecting data about your ancestors, you have likely also been collecting the names of towns, cities, counties, states and countries. These place names may seem straightforward, but as you begin to dig deeper into these locations you might discover some surprises – shifting boundaries and place names changes are just a couple.
Changes in population resulted in changes to the names and boundaries of places over time. For example, as the United States was populated, state and county boundaries were changed to accommodate the needs of state and local government.
As an example, an ancestor who lived in the city of Marinette, Wisconsin would be found in Marinette County on the 1880 census, Oconto County on the 1860 and 1870 censuses, and Brown County on the 1850 census, even though that ancestor lived in the same spot for 30 years.
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European place names can be even more confusing. Towns are listed in civil records under government districts, while in church records, they were often organized by parishes. The identifying districts in these two sets of records were sometimes different. In addition, place names changed as borders changed following wars.
A prime example is the dissolution of the German province of Prussia following World War II. Prior to the war, this region was settled by large numbers of ethnic Germans. Towns had German names and followed German government structures. Following the war, large portions of Prussia were returned to Poland. German place names were replaced with Polish place names that are still used today.
My ancestor Fredrick Schoenrock was born in a small village called Piepstock in Pomerania, which was once the northern portion of Prussia. This tiny town is now called Podlipce and it is located in northwestern Poland. Many historical records from this region are located in the state archives in Szczecin, Poland, which uses Polish place names. To research ethnic German ancestors who lived in this area prior to World War II, the researcher must know both the Polish and German place names.
Knowing the correct place names for the time period when your ancestor lived will save you a lot of frustration as you search for records. Start by making a list of place names for the family you are researching, with the dates that each location was relevant, and then start digging into the details of those places. Make sure your place names and county/parish, state/province and country boundaries are correct for each date range so that you can be sure where to look for new records.
Being organized at this stage will make all of the difference as you progress in your location research.
Here are a few tips to follow when researching locations:
1. Complete a general internet search of the history of an area. Basic histories will often include dates when towns, cities, and geographical divisions were founded, changed, or abolished. Look for place names that were used before, during and after the dates when your ancestor lived in the area. Records may be indexed by these earlier or later place names. Most changes to state and county boundaries can be located this way when researching locations in the United States.
2. Make sure you have identified the correct town or geographic area before you begin researching records. The name Maine can refer to the state of Maine, or to townships in both New York and Wisconsin. Obviously, these places are very different, and you would want to make sure you have the correct Maine.
3. Use the Family Search Standard Finder to locate places that have undergone name changes. To do this, login to Family Search at www.familysearch.org, go to the Site Map, and click on Standard Finder under the Historical Records list. Once here, you can type in the name of the place you want to research. The Standard Finder will locate the place on the map and will give you a list of alternate names. Here are the results I found when I searched for the town of Piepstock in Pomerania.
The old name of Piepstock is listed first, and the modern name of Podlipce is listed just after.
4. Search genealogy pages that are specific to the area where your ancestor lived. These pages can sometimes provide you with clues regarding a specific location that other resources don’t provide. For example, while reading one of these pages about genealogical research in the Czech Republic, I found out that portions of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) were often referred to a being part of Austria. This was a game changer for my research, as it told me that the ancestor, I was looking for was probably not from Austria, as we thought, but actually from a northern region of the Czech Republic. You can find many resource pages for specific countries or regions by searching Cyndi’s List.
Now, Take the Time to Understand the Institutions, Trends and Events That Impacted These Locations
Now that you have taken the time to understand just where your ancestors lived at different dates (and made note of them in a timeline) you can fully research the major institutions and events that affected these places.
Know who the major employers were, where people went to school, the houses of worship, the clubs that were active, and the hospitals and asylums. All of these places kept records and knowing their history may help you discover details about your ancestors.
Major events – such as migrations, disasters (such as fires or train wrecks), unusual laws, local epidemics, or annual festivals or gatherings – can also reveal clues about your ancestors. Even if your ancestors were not directly involved you will gain a much deeper understanding of the type of community they lived in and what challenges they faces. Doing so will help you create a mental image of your ancestors’ lives.
To learn about these things read newspapers from your ancestors’ communities and use sites like GenDisasters to research local happenings. Know your history by reading books about these communities. Take the time to really understand how your ancestors may have fit into the bigger picture by considering their occupations, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, ethnicity and native language. All of these things would have played a part on how they lived and were treated in their communities.
As you research these places and discover new things take notes so that you can use what you have learned to create a picture of your family’s life in the location they lived in – and so you can explore institutions they may have interacted with for records. As you jot down new pieces of information you are likely to discover many new opportunities for research. You can make educated guesses, for instance, as to where your family members may have worshiped or worked and then contact these places, if they still exist, for records.
Also be sure to reach out to local libraries, historical and genealogical societies for help.
Location research can reveal a plethora of new details about your ancestors and the environments that shaped their daily lives. It can help you go beyond simple dates and place names and connect with your family’s past in a whole new way.
For more help with this topic and how to use these tactics to break down brick walls in your family tree see our online courses.
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Janet Meydam is a freelance writer who has over 40 years of experience in genealogy as a hobby. Her knowledge includes researching many different records from the United States, Germany and Poland. She is also a co-author of her parents’ family history book “I Come from a Long Line of Dilleys.” Janet works as an occupational therapist. She and her husband Tim have three adult children and live in Wisconsin.