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 <htt p://geonames.nrcan.gc.ca/>. 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 coordinate 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 coordinate 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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