Where in the World: Technical Tools for Locating a Place

Despite an expand­ing wealth of online resources, geneal­o­gists will always need to “hit the road.” In addi­tion to vis­it­ing local repos­i­to­ries, court hous­es, and libraries where unique and “not-yet-online” resources are avail­able, geneal­o­gists want to vis­it old farms, church­es, and ceme­ter­ies. They want to see the home places of their ances­tors. They want to feel the wind on the prairie of Nebras­ka or see the snow fall on a New Hamp­shire field.

Through the use of some handy soft­ware and hard­ware tools, the tra­di­tion of the geneal­o­gy trip is becom­ing eas­i­er to man­age and eas­i­er to accom­plish.

The key to a suc­cess­ful jour­ney, whether it’s a genealog­i­cal research trip or a vaca­tion to the islands, is plan­ning. You want to pack the right stuff, get the tick­ets, and arrange for pet sit­ting. More specif­i­cal­ly for a geneal­o­gy trip, in addi­tion to your research plan, you want to know how to find the old home­stead, the repos­i­to­ries, and the ceme­ter­ies. In oth­er words, you want to place your fam­i­ly his­to­ry locales on a con­tem­po­rary map.

Many of the places geneal­o­gists want to vis­it are easy to find on a map. You can start with the key gen­er­al-pur­pose online map­ping ser­vices, and see if the locales you desire to vis­it are on con­tem­po­rary maps. The fol­low­ing sites pro­vide the abil­i­ty to view road maps, as well as satel­lite maps of any­where in the Unit­ed States and Cana­da and many oth­er coun­tries in the world. Each ser­vice offers its own set of fea­tures. While all four sites pro­vide the abil­i­ty to save and share maps, to do so you will need to cre­ate a free account. If you already have an account with Microsoft, Google, or Yahoo, that might fig­ure into your deci­sion.

Trav­el plan­ners should also know about the online ver­sion of an old stand­by, the Amer­i­can Auto­mo­bile Association’s Trip­Tik® Trav­el Plan­ner travelinformation.aaa.com>. This tool is avail­able to any­one, whether a AAA mem­ber or not. With the AAA Trip­Tik®, or with the oth­er sites list­ed above, you can build an itin­er­ary for your jour­ney, com­plete with hotel and motel loca­tions, stops at nation­al or amuse­ment parks, and any­where else your jour­ney will take you. Build­ing this kind of itin­er­ary pro­vides you with turn-by-turn maps, which can be print­ed or con­sult­ed when­ev­er you have Inter­net access, includ­ing on your iPhone or sim­i­lar smart phone.

But more impor­tant for most geneal­o­gists than get­ting from one met­ro­pol­i­tan library or archive to anoth­er is vis­it­ing dif­fi­cult-to-find places. Geneal­o­gists love chal­lenges! Locat­ing on a map the places where your ances­tors built their lives is not always sim­ple. Often places have been renamed, annexed, known by nick­names, or demol­ished by the ele­ments of human activ­i­ty.

Per­haps you want to find the loca­tion of a church that burned down many years ago, or a bridge that washed away in a flood. How do you locate places that no longer exist or no longer bear the same name? In North Amer­i­ca, there are two notable gov­ern­ment pro­grams to assem­ble cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal place names as an aid in under­stand­ing geog­ra­phy. In the Unit­ed States, the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Survey’s Geo­graph­i­cal Names Infor­ma­tion Sys­tem (GNIS) pro­vides the names of more than two mil­lion geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures in its search­able data­base geonames.usgs.gov/pls/gnispublic/>. For Cana­di­an place names, you can use Nation­al Resources Canada’s Geo­graph­i­cal Names of Cana­da (GNC) data­base . The GNC col­lec­tion includes half a mil­lion place names, one-third of which are no longer in use. The sites oper­ate as clear­ing hous­es to eval­u­ate his­tor­i­cal maps and gazetteers and cat­a­logue their place loca­tions. You can search on sev­er­al fields (includ­ing fea­ture name, state, and coun­ty), and search results can be lim­it­ed to water­ways, church­es, hills, or oth­er fea­ture types.

Each of these sites pro­vides a wealth of map and coör­di­nate infor­ma­tion about his­tor­i­cal and cur­rent place and fea­ture names. You can use the coor­di­nates in the map­ping sites men­tioned above (except the AAA site, which focus­es on road trav­el) to cre­ate inter­ac­tive maps that include places on today’s maps as well as those places on yesterday’s maps that you have locat­ed in one of the geo-names sites. Both sites link direct­ly from their coör­di­nate data to maps from var­i­ous map­ping ser­vices. You can then plan your dri­ving route to include vis­it­ing the cur­rent places as well as the his­tor­i­cal places along the same route.

For exam­ple, when I go to Sum­mers Coun­ty, West Vir­ginia, I will want to find Graham’s Fer­ry, a loca­tion where the Gra­ham fam­i­ly oper­at­ed a pole fer­ry across the Green­bri­er Riv­er. If I search for “Gra­ham” in Sum­mers Coun­ty on the GNIS Web site, I receive a list­ing for “FeatureID:1556916,” the entry for “Gra­hams Fer­ry (his­tor­i­cal).” The USGS has clas­si­fied Gra­hams Fer­ry cor­rect­ly as a “cross­ing,” and told me that it is an his­tor­i­cal name, not a cur­rent one.

Graham's Ferry in GNIS
Graham’s Fer­ry in GNIS

The cita­tion refers me to plate 141 of the Unit­ed States War Department’s Atlas to Accom­pa­ny the Offi­cial Records of the Union and Con­fed­er­ate Armies (Wash­ing­ton, D.C.: Gov­ern­ment Print­ing Office, 1895). There are geo­graph­i­cal coor­di­nates near the bot­tom of the page. I can also click one of the map­ping links and see that the his­tor­i­cal riv­er cross­ing is near the present-day town of Low­ell. I also see some ceme­ter­ies that might not be on oth­er maps, and when I look at the topo­graph­i­cal (or sim­ply “topo”) map, I see the coun­ty bound­ary with Mon­roe Coun­ty, remind­ing me how close this is to the coun­ty line; also that Sum­mers Coun­ty came from Mon­roe Coun­ty and that I need to be search­ing there as well.

You might want to also use tech­nol­o­gy to gath­er some of your data. Today’s Glob­al Posi­tion­ing Sys­tem (GPS) receivers can pin­point loca­tions to an accu­ra­cy of three meters. This can be handy for plac­ing a stone in a large ceme­tery or pin­point­ing a land bound­ary.

You can take a hand­held GPS receiv­er into the field and cap­ture “way­points,” or spe­cif­ic loca­tions, to down­load to your com­put­er. These way­points include the lon­gi­tude and lat­i­tude coor­di­nates to put the loca­tions on maps, whether the maps you have in mind are dig­i­tal or print­ed. Sev­er­al com­pa­nies, includ­ing Garmin, DeLorme, and Mag­el­lan, make pow­er­ful hand­held GPS receivers. GPS receivers, and approx­i­ma­tions of GPS receivers, based on tri­an­gu­la­tion of your loca­tion based on a cell phone’s sig­nal — are becom­ing com­mon­place in smart phones such as the Apple iPhone, Palm (soon to be HP) Pré, and phones using the Google Android oper­at­ing sys­tem.

Pair a GPS receiv­er with a dig­i­tal cam­era and you’re ready to “geo­t­ag” your pho­tographs — to link or “tag” your image with geo­graph­ic coor­di­nates. This can be a pow­er­ful way to turn a trip to a ceme­tery into rel­e­vant genealog­i­cal data, help­ing oth­er researchers find exact­ly where you saw that tomb­stone or cor­ner­stone. The geo­t­ag­ging is often stored as meta­da­ta on the dig­i­tal pho­to itself and can be auto­mat­i­cal­ly read when the image is uploaded to pho­to or map-shar­ing sites such as Flickr www.flickr.com> and Picasa picasa.google.com>, where your image is placed on a map for your own use or to share with oth­er researchers.

If you would like to geo­t­ag your images, but would rather not have yet anoth­er gad­get to fid­dle with, you might con­sid­er a GPS-enabled pho­to disk. This kind of disk fits in a dig­i­tal cam­era just like any oth­er pho­to disk, but gath­ers posi­tion­ing data and auto­mat­i­cal­ly tags the pho­tos with that data as it stores them. With an accu­ra­cy of about ten meters, the GPS data is not as pre­cise as that from a top-of-the-line hand­held device, but the GPS-enabled dig­i­tal pho­to card is a lot sim­pler and less expen­sive than a hand­held GPS receiv­er. These days, cell phone images are gain­ing in qual­i­ty. If you are sat­is­fied with the qual­i­ty of the images from your phone, and if your phone is GPS-enabled, this may be the sim­plest and most handy method to get geo-tagged images of your trip.

Wher­ev­er it is in the world your genealog­i­cal curios­i­ty takes you, con­sid­er your options for mak­ing the jour­ney more suc­cess­ful. You need to do the hard work of prepar­ing your research plans and putting togeth­er the notes that will help you fur­ther your research. You need to for­mu­late spe­cif­ic research ques­tions to keep your­self on track. But you also need to place your­self in the world, and, as much as pos­si­ble, in the world of your ances­tors. Iron­i­cal­ly, the lat­est tech­nolo­gies can help you do this. So, sur­vey the maps avail­able online, build an elec­tron­ic itin­er­ary, locate the his­tor­i­cal places — some of which can no longer be found on con­tem­po­rary maps — and place them on your research map. Then, grab the dig­i­tal cam­era and the GPS (or just your pow­er­ful cell phone and its charg­er) and go. With a lit­tle invest­ment of time (and pos­si­bly some mon­ey), you will be ready for your genealog­i­cal adven­tures.

This arti­cle, which orig­i­nal­ly appeared in a slight­ly dif­fer­ent form in the Nation­al Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety’s NGS Mag­a­zine, is repub­lished here by per­mis­sion.

Jones, Jor­dan. “Tech­nol­o­gy: Where in the world? Tech­ni­cal tools for locat­ing a place.” NGS Mag­a­zine, Vol. 35, No. 3 (July-Sep­tem­ber 2009), 59–61.

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