Learn Geography to Help Your Genealogy

Geography Awareness Week (November 16-22, 2008) is drawing to a close.  I was delighted to learn about it from Lisa, who had several posts at 100 Years in America related to her ancestors’ countries.  Inspired, Jessica also took up the cause and made us all more aware of our own geographical incompetence!  Their posts made me realize how much I enjoy geography.  As a traveler, I love to pour over maps and figure out where I want to go, or even to figure out where I was (maps were useless in Venice, so I was only able to see where we were in retrospect).  Fortunately, I inherited my sense of direction from my father; my mother actually got lost five blocks from our house when I was a child – I thought for sure we’d never make it home.  As citizens of this earth, it’s fun to learn about all of the wonders of it.  But as genealogists, it’s absolutely vital to develop a sense of historical geographical awareness.  By this I mean a knowledge of a place’s name or boundary changes throughout its history.  Without this knowledge, we might never actually find our ancestors!

This sense of historical geography awareness, which Lisa so eloquently called going back in time, helps us track the genealogy of a place.  I’ve noted many times on this blog how important it was to learn about Polish history in order to accurately determine where to obtain vital records for my ancestors, for Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire, Prussia or the German Empire, and Austria for over a century.  Parts of the country belonged to other countries as well as Poland expanded, shrunk, or disappeared altogether. Researchers who find evidence that their ancestor was born in Danzig, Prussia, need to know that the town today is Gdańsk, Poland.

Most European countries have had similar boundary changes in their histories as well.  Why, I was delighted when a commenter informed me that the origins of my Bergmeister family may be found in Bozen.  Bozen is a town in an area known as Südtirol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or Austria.  But I knew the town by its current name, Bolzano, which has been Italian since the end of World War I.  I finally found my Italian roots!  Who knew?

It’s important to remember that not only countries shift borders or change names, but also states and towns.  For example, the city of Philadelphia did not have its current borders until 1854; the original city limits were much smaller, and the city expanded over time.  Learning these changes throughout the years in which your ancestor lived there is a must, because you won’t know where to look for records.  Simply looking at a map is a must – if you can’t find an ancestor in a census but the state line is only five miles from where they lived, perhaps you should try the neighboring state!

I gained a greater sense of historical geography awareness in researching my Pater family.  When my 2nd great-grandfather Joseph Pater arrived in the U.S. from Poland, he went to Philadelphia.  When I found the passenger arrival records for his wife and daughters, I was surprised to see that they listed their destination as joining Joseph in “Eden, PA”.  Uh, where?  I couldn’t find a town called Eden nearby, and I had never heard of it.  I would have discounted the find entirely based on this, but the names and ages were a perfect fit.  With a little investigation into the geography of my corner of Pennsylvania, I discovered that the Borough of Eden had existed only for a few years before the name was changed to Penndel, a town I knew.  The Pater’s lived there for at least eight years, likely working in the local textile mill, before moving back into the nearby city of Philadelphia.  So remember, kids, learn your geography if you want help with your genealogy!

I’d like to close with a question to my readers: when recording your ancestral information, whether you use computer programs or just on paper, do you record the town/state or province/country as it exists today, or as it existed at the time of the event?  Do I record my great-grandparents’ birth country as Germany, but their ancestors birth country as The Kingdom of Bavaria – even though it’s the same town?  Do I record my Polish ancestors’ life events as taking place in the Russian Empire, or in Poland – even if it didn’t officially exist?  I’m curious how others deal with changing names or boundaries, so please let me know in the comments!


3 thoughts on “Learn Geography to Help Your Genealogy

  1. In my genealogy program (Legacy) I record all of my Polish ancestors as being from Poland. They spoke Polish, they read and wrote in Polish, they embraced the Polish culture… they were Polish regardless of what a map says. I know that if they were alive today and you asked them what country they were from they would say “Poland!”.

    When I write up my family history (one of these days 😉 I will include a brief summary about the partitioning of the country for a period of time. Anyone reading it who wants further information can head for the library or search Google.

  2. Genealogy and geography go hand in hand. I’ve learned much about each of them from the other! But geography has several aspects to it that may confound the genealogist. There may a distinction between geophysical facts and geopolitical facts. My example (much less controversial than the Polish one) is how to identify the mid-Mississippi River valley home of the French Negro families I write about. Is it Illinois or is it New France? Or is it Virginia (Illinois was once considered a county of Virginia)? The point one may take from Jasia’s comment is that it’s up to the writer or depends on the feeling of the people. This a good point. People are what they say they are and are from where they say they’re from. It’s a matter of belief and not science. Along those lines, a family member when asked if she should be referred to as African-American or black, said, “Neither. I’m Southern Illinois French.” If you want scientific precision, don’t deal with the goodness that is humanity.

  3. Personally, I always try to use the geographical names as they were at the time. Actually, I find that it is often an interesting exercise finding out what that should be.

    For example, my gg-grandparents spent a few months trying to establish a farm in America in 1880. According to family tradition, this was in Bladensburg. After his return to England, Henry Payne (1842-1907) was building houses in Derby and a street was named Bladensburg Street, presumably by him. However, I recently noticed that the 1880 Federal Census actually puts him in Washington D.C. I haven’t been able to determine the precise location yet, but it’s something of a dilemma to know whether the place they lived in – now it’s all part of the sprawling suburbs, of course – was referred to as Bladensburg or Washington at the time.

    Regards and best wishes, Brett

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