30 July 2011

Map Your Family History

Preston Idaho neighborhood where Harriet Johnson
and her sisters, Julia, Olive, Susie and Elsie lived, also
James Johnson's brothers Lorenzo and Joe
Map created by Annalee Barajas

I just attended some presentations made by Dan Lynch of Google Your Family Tree fame. Dan recommended Google Maps and Google Earth to enrich our family history knowledge and our family history writing. Have you ever tried finding the address listed on a census, then switching to “street view” and looking at the house there now? My sister and I used this method to determine if the original house a great-grandmother lived in was still standing and worth a trip to photograph it. We also mapped homes on the block where another great-grandmother and her sisters lived in Preston, Idaho. From this exercise and from the letters and histories and interviews we did, we were able to draw a little map to include in our latest book.

What about mapping an address on an old certificate or document of some kind? Often, public buildings are still standing and can be viewed from the satellite or from the Google cars that photograph the readily available Google street view. Try looking at a childhood home or neighborhood and writing down memories that are evoked by seeing familiar places or buildings or noting the differences time has brought.

Map of Denmark with insert of area
in which our Danish ancestors lived
(created by Annalee Barajas)
Maps are needed to get an idea of where the next county or town begins, how close different places mentioned in a journal or letter may be, where the rivers and roads run, as well as other details that add to our understanding of someone’s story. Maps from the time period being written about are particularly useful in this regard. Of course it is important to get permission before using these maps in a written history that will be disseminated to others.

A map is not just a visual picture of the outdoors. The insides of a building can also be mapped. One interviewer asked two of her uncles to draw a map of the inside of their grandparents’ home. Neither included any furniture, but both noted the position of the Victrola. Creating such a map sparks memories as we use pencils to bring back a long-forgotten place. I recommend using maps in various ways to create a personal history as well as to illustrate it.

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