Geography and history – not my favorite subjects in school. However, when added to genealogy, they become a fascinating way to travel back in time. Geography and history help “put flesh on the bones of your ancestors”. Names and dates are all good and well, but I want to feel what my ancestors felt and see what they saw. I want to be transported to the time and place my ancestors lived, if only in my own imagination.
To begin my journey to the past, I start with geography. The first step in any travel is to get maps of where you are going. So, I get maps of all the locations my ancestors lived, from the time periods when they lived there. Some good historical map choices are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, historical atlases, plat maps, and census maps. Topographical maps are also great because they show the terrain, or how the land looks. Terrain maps can show you whether your ancestors had to cross a river or mountain on the way to where they settled. After I have my historical maps, I plot my ancestor’s locations on them. Next, I get current maps of the areas, compare them to the historical maps, and then plot my ancestor’s locations on the current maps. Sometimes the county or town place names or locations will have changed over time, so I may have to research county formations or boundary changes to pinpoint my ancestor’s locations. Now the fun part, since I now know where my ancestors lived, I can actually travel there and stand on land where they stood! If I am not able to travel to my ancestor’s home, I can try to find someone who lives there to take photos or videos of the location for me. Rootsweb.com, and its mailing lists, and Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness are good places to find people to take photos. Now, I close my eyes and picture myself on my ancestor’s land. But, part of the picture is missing, so I must continue my journey to get the rest of the picture.
The next leg of my journey will take me back into the history of my ancestor’s time period. I will start by researching the major events that occurred during my ancestor’s life. Maybe my ancestor lived during the American Civil War or the Great Depression. These major events would have had great impact on my ancestor’s life. My ancestor may have fought in the war, or known someone who did. I can find books and diaries that were written by people who lived then to get a sense of what it was like. I can also read historical books on the events. I will also research the local history of my ancestor’s town, county, and state. This history would have been more important to my ancestor than events in other parts of the world. Things like the weather affecting crops or a new sheriff being elected would have been of more interest to my ancestor than a prince being born in a royal family in Europe, for example. Reading historical newspapers from my ancestor’s location and time period will greatly aid in my discovery of these facts. I will also read county histories and biographies from my ancestor’s location. A great place to find these histories is the local historical or genealogical society in your ancestor’s area. The Family History Library also has many of these sources, and you may even be able to get them on microfilm at your local Family History Center.
Now, I close my eyes to see where my journey has taken me. I picture my ancestor’s land, house, and town. I can imagine my ancestor reacting to historical events. I can picture the stream that runs through the neighbor’s farm, and my ancestor fishing there. Wow, this trip back in time is great! But, alas, I must travel back to the present so I can gather more facts about my ancestor and his ancestors. I will have to take another trip back in time soon!
Genealogical time travel, by researching the geography where my ancestor lived and the history of the time period, allows me to imagine what life was like for my ancestor. It makes my ancestor come alive for me. It may even inspire me to write that book about my ancestor’s life. In any case, this type of time travel is simply fun!!