Tag Archives: maps

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – More Thoughts on Topographical Maps

Last time we talked about topographical maps and using them to understand why ancestors might have migrated one way over another. Primarily looking at large land formations, like mountains. Let’s look at a topographical map on a smaller scale.

When you are looking at a topographical map, you will see lines that indicate changes in elevation, and if you “squint” at the map you can kind of imagine how flat or hilly an area might be. A topographical map shows you the contours of the land indicating mountains, valleys, rivers, vegetation (or the lack thereof), and other features. On a topographical map, you will see large swathes of green for vegetation, blue areas for water, grey areas for buildings and built-up areas. However, the contour lines tell the story of the three dimensional nature of the landscape.

Depending on the map, there will be a key that tells you at what elevation another contour line will be placed on the map. For example, if the map you are looking at uses a 10-foot contour spacing, then you will see a contour line for every 10 feet of elevation change. (i.e. a line will be in place at 0-, 10-, 20-, 30- foot change. A map might use a larger scale if the land is very elevated, showing the Rocky Mountains, for example. The lines on the map are only drawn for every interval of change, so every 10 feet, for example. If you have a relatively flat area of land, the map might be quite blank of the contour lines.

Let’s look at two examples. The map on the left is in Audrain County, Missouri, the map on the right is in Wood County, Ohio.

Topographical maps of Audrain County, Missouri on the left and Wood County, Ohio on the right.

You can see the difference in the land shapes even though I’ve zoomed in a different levels. Wood County, Ohio is very flat, whereas Audrain County, Missouri is much more hilly. I have ancestors that farmed on land from both of these maps. And each map gives me a bit of a different picture of how that farming might have happened. Audrain County land probably couldn’t farm right up to the river banks due to the steepness and vegetation. Those green areas indicate a lot of trees and vegetation where the white areas were clear and flatter, better for farming. And while there are some swaths of trees in Wood County, most of the thickest parts have been cleared out and the land is largely flat farm land for miles.

We will learn about where to find topographical maps next time.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Types of Maps – Topographical

When it comes to understanding ancestral migration patterns, it really helps to look at a map. The reason an ancestor ended up in a certain location might be explained by geography, and more specifically, topography. Using a topological map can be quite helpful in understanding some of the potential “whys” for things our ancestors did.

Topography is “the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area.”1 Examining the physical features can explain a possible migration route or why they stayed in a particular location.

One excellent example of topography affecting migration is that of large mountain ranges. Let’s look at Virginia as an example. Let’s say you had ancestors in early Virginia and they wanted to move west to the “frontier.” They set off past Richmond only to discover a large mountain range in front of them. The Blue Ridge Mountains caused a lot of adventurous folks to head north or south to go around them.

Map of Virginia from FreeWorldMaps.net

This barrier caused more settlements to the north and south. As I imagine it, you make a long journey to get around these mountains…why not just stop here a spell? And then just never leave. I imagine that happened quite a bit.

My ancestor, Samuel Cook Dimick, moved from Lyme, New Hampshire to Toledo, Ohio. One account says that after the business he was working for began shutting down (or he decided to quit working there, it isn’t clear) he was to move on further west (perhaps to Minnesota where his father owned some land). But someone told him of land for sale just one county to the south and he decided to stay in Wood County, Ohio. And that’s the reason I was born in Wood County, Ohio and not Lyme, New Hampshire.

We will continue our look at types of maps that can help us understand our ancestors’ decisions and circumstances next time.


1. Definition of “topography” from Oxford Languages (https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/)↩

Maps: Visualizing Ancestral Migrations

To understand our ancestors’ movements and decisions, sometimes consulting a map can clear up confusion. I have a simple example from my own research.

One of my favorite lines to research are the Dimicks. They moved from Massachussetts to Connecticut to New Hampshire and then later to Ohio. I find that I try to do too much in my head sometimes. My brain likes to try to convince me that I can remember things…corrrectly. Well, this demonstration just goes to show two things. One, I can’t remember much very well, and two, using a map is invaluable.

Here’s how I “thought” their migration went:

Gif demonstrating my imagination of how the Dimicks migrated.

It is an unusual migration pattern to cross back over a state you’ve already left. It’s not unheard of or impossible, of course, but usually, people migrated in more of a straight line. This realization got me to look at the exact locations of the Dimicks in each location.

When the Dimicks arrived in America in the 1600s, they lived in Barnstable, Massachussetts, which is located out on the hook of Massachussetts. Now this migration makes more sense:

The actual migration path of the Dimicks.

By looking at a map, instead of depending on my memory, the Dimick migration makes a whole lot more sense. This is now one of the first things I do when working on a project. I look at maps and get a good visual perspective on where all of the people involved were located.

There are several types of maps that can be useful for this. We will look at them in more detail next week.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors

Several things have come together recently that have prompted me to focus on maps and genealogy. First, you may or may not know that I run some study groups along with my friend and colleague, Cyndi Ingle (of Cyndi’s List). One of the groups studies National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) articles. The article we read for the May study group was “Southern Strategies: Merging Identities by Mapping Activities and Linking Participants—Solomon Harper of South Carolina’s Lowcountry” by Rachal Mills Lennon. This was an excellent example of using maps and locations to not only track ancestors but, in this case, to prove that was believed to be several men, was actually one man through the use of locations and connected associates.

Second, I just recently gave a workshop on using Google’s MyMaps for analyzing and planning to the Colorado Genealogical Society. This is a workshop I give frequently and throughly enjoy because I demonstrate to participants how easy, exciting, and beneficial it can be to use Google’s MyMaps to analyze ancestors, plan research trips, or work on a personal narrative.

Third, I recently worked on a client project that depended on the proximity of two families to each other, and I used some maps to share that information with the client.

Throughout my workday I am consulting maps, especially for areas that I am not familiar with. In many cases, I am looking to see how close one county is to another and asking, is it possible that this family intersected with that family? Are those two counties reasonably close or are they on opposite sides of the state? Are these two counties close together even though they are in different states?

This confluence of activities will inspire the next series of posts on this blog and we will focus on using maps. Primarily, using maps to visualize your ancestors’ lives, locations, and migrations. We will take a look at some map collections, I will provide some examples from my own research, and we will look at using Google’s MyMaps to make your own maps as well.

Building a Locality Guide: Geography

The second section I like to include in my locality guides is a geography section. Nothing helps you understand a new location like maps do. So, my guides collect links to a variety of maps that depict various aspects of the locality that is the focus of the guide.

I either add the actual item, but more often a link to:

  • General county map indicating townships, towns, land divisions
  • Landowner or plat maps
  • Topographical maps
  • Town maps showing streets
  • Modern maps
Sample page from my Wood County, Ohio locality guide.

There are some great general map collections out there that you can use to find useful maps and links, such as:

But also, don’t forget to check for local sources. You may find digital maps at local public libraries, genealogical or historical societies, university collections, museums, county government office websites, and more. For example, in Wood County, Ohio, the County Engineer’s office has a variety of maps available on their website such as tax maps, township maps, cemeteries, ditch maps, plat maps, and many others.

Example of the cemetery map for Weston Cemetery in Wood County, Ohio, highlighting the Businger plots, my maternal ancestors.

Except for a general county map and possibly a township map, I mostly just collect the links to important maps rather than adding actual images to my locality guide. This saves space, primarily. However, if you want to include maps directly in your guide, you should feel free to do as much or as little as you like. Always do what works best for you!

Next week we will move on to the Records section of the guide.

Village Genealogical Society Seminar

villagesI am VERY excited to be presenting an all-day seminar to the Village Genealogical Society and the Akansa Chapter, NSDAR on 17 September 2016. The seminar will be held at the Coronado Community Center, 150 Ponderosa Lane, Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. To register visit this website http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~arhsvgs/ or click here:  VGS Workshop 2016 Flyer and Entry Form (pdf).

The group has picked some fantastic topics. I will be presenting:

  • “Census Hurdles: How to Jump Over or Go Around”
  • “From Deeds to Dirt: Case Studies in Analyzing Research with Maps”
  • “Cluster Research and the Fan Principle: Finding Your Ancestors through their Friends, Associates, and Neighbors”
  • “The Heart of it All: Migration Research Methods”

This seminar will begin with some foundational research record sets and methodology (censuses and maps), and then build on those lectures in the afternoon with two methodology lectures. The “Cluster Research” lecture will explain the FAN Club principle (thank you Elizabeth Shown Mills) and demonstrate some of the best methods for identifying your ancestors’ FAN club. The second, “The Heart of it All” will bring together all of the records, techniques and methodologies from the day into a final case study on determining one family’s migration route and their reason for moving.

I’m looking forward to this opportunity and I hope to see some of you there!

What I Don’t Know, Part 6: Scroggins’ Land in Hardin County

After reviewing the census and getting at least a beginning framework for the families I’m researching, I like to turn to land records and maps. This allows me to put the people in a physical location, and in relation to each other.

Illinois is a public land state meaning their lands were surveyed using the rectangular system. For my search I used two online databases to help locate the Scroggins and Dimick families:

These two databases seem to index the same information, however, you may find that one site is easier to use than the other. The GLO site has the advantage of having maps and original documents attached to the entries. Regardless of which site you use, always use the information to locate your research subjects on a map.

Beginning with the GLO records I found several Scroggins entries in Hardin County, Illinois.

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Sanders Scroggins bought land with two other men in 1851.

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Many men with the surname “Scroggins” obtained land from the federal government, including Chatten Scroggins in 1825.

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In 1855 Sanders Scroggins obtains more land.

The area in green is where Sanders Scroggins 1855 land is located. (This map can be obtained at the GLO database site.)

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The land is located northwest of Elizabethtown and Rosiclare.

I won’t bore you with all of the maps for all of the land transactions described above, but take a look for yourself if you wish. The GLO database is a rich treasure chest of information. You can find the original land patents and maps showing their locations.

The Illinois State Archives has an index of their Public Domain Land Sales. When searching for “Scroggins” I found the following entries:

2014-03-31 03.01.46 pmOften a capitalized “S” can look like a capitalized “L” so I am willing to bet that all of those “Landers” Scroggins are really Sanders’ land purchases. The Illinois Archive does not have digitized copies of the originals, instead you will get a transcription.

The next post will discuss the Dimick family’s entries and how the two families relate to each other on a map.