Genealogy & GIS: Are You Making the Connection?

Jen at the Pacific Ocean for the first time
Jen at the Pacific Ocean for the first time

Last month I had the pleasure to present at RootsTech 2015 and introduce a large crowd to a favorite topic of mine!  Ever since I was a kid I have loved maps.  By the time I had my driver’s license I had traveled all over the United States with my family.  Most of the trips were back and forth from Ohio to Indiana and back, but the best one was with my paternal grandparents.  It was an epic trip across the continent and included such fun stops as the Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, Redwood Forest, a brief visit to the Pacific Ocean, Knott’s Berry Farm, Disneyland, The Grand Canyon, and many other awesome places.  During that trip I kept track of the license plates I saw along the way (47 states) and wrote in a journal about the trip.  When I began to consider a career and Civil Engineering became a possibility I was pleased to see that maps and technology would end up taking a role in my job.  As an undergraduate I learned the basics of surveying and computer aided drafting.  My first job was a year’s worth of deed mapping and writing legal descriptions.  It wasn’t exactly fun, but I saw a lot of interesting documents and learned a ton.

Fast forward a decade and I found that the resources available for mapping had boomed!  Not only could I see aerial photographs and maps all over the world, but I could even manipulate that platform to share the information that I wanted.  One of the first Google Earth projects that I worked on was a map which showed the route that I took with my grandparents around the US.  I used this map to develop a short book that I gave to my grandparents as a thank you for that trip many years ago.  So you may be asking, what is GIS?  Well in a nutshell it stands for Geographic Information Systems. It is a method to use hardware, software, and data to display information geographically.  In genealogy this can be used to visualize family data geographically.  Unlike a regular map this provides an additional layer where you can add information specific to the question you are investigating.  There are many programs “out there” that can be used to develop your information, but when you are just getting started I suggest you try Google Earth.

Here are some examples of maps that you may find on the internet that could be useful in your genealogical research.  You can then overlay these on Google Earth and see how it corresponds geographically with the world today. There are many websites that incorporate maps into the way they share information. Even a visit to your local county auditor’s website probably includes some kind of GIS resource.  These mashups can be invaluable as you dig into your research. Some of the most used maps in my own research include:

  • County Boundary Maps- Newberry Library
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
  • Historical Township Plat Maps
  • Historical County Maps
  • Census Enumeration District Maps

Want to find out more?  Download my Genealogy & GIS syllabus and get all the great links that I’ve found so far.

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