May 7th, 2013

Putting Your Family on the Map – Finding Your Ancestors and Mapping Their History

I remember when I was young that my grandfather had a large wall-sized Map of the World which he used to plot the travels of one of his sons (my uncle) around the globe. Said uncle was a merchant seaman, and would let my grandfather know exactly where he was or had been, and granddad would place colored pins on those locations. After 15 years of my uncle’s travels the map was so heavy from the huge amount of pins it was literally falling off the wall, but what a conversation piece it made! Peopled love talking about both family and exotic foreign locations and this is what inspired me to plot the immigration patterns of my ancestors in a similar fashion.

Organizing Your Family Immigration History

The first thing I did before even purchasing a decent sized map was to list every ancestor that I knew of at the time, their place of birth or burial if applicable, last known place of residence, their dates of birth and death, and if I knew it – the year of their emigration. Of course for some I had more information than others, but what data I did have led me to other important facts about my family. I first sorted through all of the old documentation and photos I had in my possession, and put aside any information that placed somebody at a particular location at a specific time. These would become my first map points.  I chose red colored pins for this purpose, but of course you can invent your own color code system. For some ancestors I had information about where they lived, but not the time frame during they lived there. For these challenges I found the Period Approximation Chart very useful.

How to use the Period Approximation Chart

In one instance I had the birth dates of my great-great grandfather’s children, but there were rumours amongst our family members that they might not have been married. I decided to search for a marriage record for them, and the Period Approximation Chart gave me a ballpark time span to look for it in. You will notice that the chart is quite simple. It has three columns; one marked Date Wanted, the second titled Known Information, and the final column contains the Formula you should use. The date I wanted was Marriage, the Known Information I had was the birth dates of several children, and hence I used the corresponding Formula. I haven’t as yet found the marriage record, but at least I have minimized the time frame in which I should look.

Use Gazetteers to Pinpoint Place Names

In some instances documentation I had referred to place names associated with some of my relatives, yet contained no details of where that place might be. In some cases there are villages or towns around the world bearing the same name, and consequently finding the exact one in which your ancestor lived can prove challenging.  In such cases gazetteers are extremely helpful, as they list every place with that name and give a variety of information about each one. The minimum that they will do is to provide you with the region where your relative lived, and some even provide the latitude and longitude. Many countries have their own gazetteers, so if you have an idea of the country or region, you can simply Google a gazetteer for that area.  Keep in mind though, that especially in the UK regions, more than one village with the same name can be located in a single county, so take the time to make sure you have the correct one before searching for further documentation.

Using Land Records to Plot Your Map

I found it much easier to use land records and enter them into some land-plotting software before I transferred the information onto my wall map. I used DeedMapper, but there are others available that you can find by searching online for land plotting programs. What you do is take the information that you glean from land records and enter it into the software which creates a map showing land boundaries, but also organizes your data in a compact, easily accessible format. Before you decide whether or not to purchase and use DeedMapper, you can view their nine tutorial videos which show you the full potential of the program.

Use GIS (Geographical Information Systems) Software to Create Maps

GIS software is also a neat and unique way to create maps, as it allows you to build them using layers of information. You can start with a simple outline of a country, then add a second layer showing towns or villages, then a third denoting specific house or building locations and so on. You can build as many layers as you wish, even showing natural features such as rivers or streams, but to utilize GIS software you’ll need a GIS data viewer. This is basically another type of software, and a free version can be found at The software is called ArcGISExplorer, and can be downloaded, or you can use an online version. You can research data at Data.Gov or the GIS Data Depot.

Directories and newspapers can also yield a wealth of information, both biographical and geographical. Make use of as many sources as you can, including libraries and local genealogy and geographical societies. Once you have collected and organized as much data as possible on your ancestors, you can begin transferring it onto your wall map. Mine took me the better part of three years to complete, but I never lack for interesting conversation when we have visitors!