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Find Your Family - The Genealogy of Geography

Article Date: 
2 September, 2011 (All day)


The heart of genealogy is the evidence that forms our conclusions.  We search for clues of our ancestors among the records of the past.  All of genealogical research focuses on a name, a place, and a time.  Finding that elusive record that contains our ancestor is the key to success.

We often think about genealogy in this light.  It is the search for records, in many formats, that occupies much of our time.  An understanding of records is key to our search.  Discovering where records are located is sometimes straightforward, but often requires knowledge.  Most of the lectures at genealogical conferences focus on where to find records and how to use them. In order to be most effective in our searches it is important to come to understand the genealogy of the geography in which our ancestors lived as much as their genealogy.

We live in a different world than most of our ancestors.  The world in which we live changes at a rapid pace, while that of our ancestors remained the same for most of their lives.  One of the other major differences is that we live in a world of relatively stable borders.  Most of us will not have lived in a country whose boundaries changed in our lifetime.   In many cases we will not have lived in a county whose boundaries changed.  This was certainly not the case for our ancestors.

In our hunt for records it is important to understand the history of the geography where our ancestors lived.  In one case in New York, one county became 45 counties over time.  This is an extreme case, but illustrates the challenge.  If a researcher does not understand boundary changes he may often be searching in the wrong place for the records of his ancestors.  The boundaries of many countries changed because of wars and colonization.  European boundaries steadily shifted up until the end of World War II.  Parts of Eastern Europe have shifted within most of our lifetimes.

The best way to understand the geography of our ancestor’s lifetimes is to find a map of the place in which they lived at the time they lived.  Genealogical libraries and historical societies will be the most likely places to find these maps, but local libraries may have resources as well.  Using Google Maps for genealogical research may help pinpoint the current town on a map, but relying on a current map to identify the jurisdiction for records will often lead to wasted research.

A few other resources can help you understand boundary changes so you are searching in the right record repository.  A county history will often give information on changes in county boundaries over time.  The Red Book from Ancestry, most of which is now available online at, is also an excellent resource.

It is important to take time to understand where our ancestors lived and the record jurisdictions at the time in which they lived.  It can save hundreds of hours of wasted research and as a side benefit can give us more information about the communities in which they lived and clues to their lives.  The genealogy of geography is an enjoyable and essential part of genealogical research.