Tracing ancestral paths: Part Two

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My map of ancestral homes and work places in Westerly, Rhode Island

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, knowing where an ancestor was living within a town at a certain time can be extremely beneficial for a number of reasons. After listing all of the known locations of my ancestors in my hometown of Westerly, Rhode Island, I was able to plot all of these points on a map and see where they had lived and worked. One of the benefits of this knowledge is that, with modern technology, we can see the locations of many of our ancestors’ homes as they stand today. In many cases, the same houses they once occupied may still remain. Websites such as Google Maps, which offer virtual tours of locations around the globe, have greatly expanded the experience of discovering one’s family history.

Another reason to map the known homes of your ancestors is to see where an individual attended church (especially if their religion is known), where they went to school, and how far they walked to work each day. Finding the nearest church to the home of one’s ancestor may lead to church records that have not yet been explored, possibly revealing previously unknown information.

With this geographical and contextual knowledge, family historians can map out these locations and see the routes that a person’s ancestor could have taken to work or church. A text-based search of city directories will even allow a researcher to determine who occupied the houses next to their ancestors, which could reveal some family connections that might not have been noticed before. Tracing the paths of our ancestors is one method through which family historians can develop a narrative for the lives of their ancestors. No longer do we have to settle for simply knowing the town they lived in according to the census; instead, researchers can come closer to understanding the way their ancestors lived than ever before.

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary Garceau joined the Research and Library Services team in 2014 after receiving a master’s degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in History from the University of Rhode Island. Zack also works for the Rhode Island Department of Health as the Chief of the Office of Health Regulation. Areas of expertise: Rhode Island, French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History. He also enjoys working on heraldic and royal research.

10 thoughts on “Tracing ancestral paths: Part Two

  1. Great articles. I’ve been meaning to do this same thing. What program do you use to create the markings on the map? And where did you find a good map?

    1. Nicely done. I’ve also used google street view to locate and look at homes of ancestors and it’s a terrific way to help visualize my family. I’m from just up the coast of RI in South County. The southern coast of RI has a rich history and Westerly, in particular with the granite/stone industry was a bustling town throughout the 19th century.

    2. thank you! Quite honestly, I just used Microsoft Paint this time, and traced the roadways in different colors. Other times, I do it the old fashioned way and using a ruler and a marker and do it by hand. I found this map by searching google images, but one good method for finding maps, especially maps from different time periods around the early 20th Century is to locate digital version of the Sanborn maps. You can find them here:

  2. I’ve found where some ancestors lived by using Street Addresses on Ancestry. Then I’ve simply put that address on an internet search and often found the house still in existence with a picture. I’ve downloaded the picture if it’s of particular interest though I don’t know if that’s legal.

    1. I hadn’t thought of mapping moves in quite the way you describe. It sounds interesting, and I’ll have to try it. In King Co, WA, which includes Seattle, the office of the county tax assessor has a website which includes many properties in the county. If you know the address, you can get a photo, plus additional information. I’ve found both houses I lived in growing up, and the house my grandparents lived in for many years, and which my sister bought from their estate. In all cases, the data also included the assessed value of the house for at least two data points, presumably times when each house was sold, since the dates were different for each house. This is helpful in putting together a history of the house. The pictures were at different points in time, as well. We were the first owners of one, and there was no landscaping yet. So the picture must have been taken by the county when they assessed it originally for property tax purposes. Similarly, in the case of my grandparents’ house, the picture was probably taken soon after they bought it in the mid 1940s, judging by a car parked in front, as the car looked to be pre-WW II. I didn’t find my brother’s or my sister’s current houses, so there must be a cut-off date. Still, this website provided some interesting info I didn’t already have. I don’t know how far back this website will take you, or if it will include pictures and assessed values on properties that have been torn down. My mother moved into the Seattle area in her early teens about 1928, and my father in 1930, at 15. I do have their addresses from the 1930 and 1940 censuses, from where the lived when they got married, and when I was born. I should try putting those into the same county website to see if I can find photos.

    2. I learned in the school of family history hard knocks to always record any address I find for an ancestor. My best result from a google search of my 2nd great grandparents’ address was a contemporary real estate listing! Their historic home happen to be for sale and I was treated to a virtual tour of the interior.

  3. Beware of searching modern maps with an old address. Many cities have done a renumbering to standardize even/odd sides of the street or other inconsistent numbering issues.

  4. Mara’s right…I ran into this issue in Denver, where nearly every street was renamed or numbered. You do need an old map to compare. I think the google maps site has a “thing” where you can overlay old maps on new, tho I haven’t used it myself.

    But my other comment was on neighbors: I found my hubby’s family lived a few doors from Lydia Pinkham, who ran her business out of the house. In addition, I found one brother had moved to the far end of town about the same time that he changed the spelling of his surname. If that doesn’t tell all ! No one in the family knows what happened, cousins all say they heard there was a rift, but they all say their greatgrandparents wouldn’t talk about it. Ah, well. We’re all reconnected and friends once more. I almost wonder if the “rift” is what brought us together again, given our strong curiosity about it.

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