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Research Tip 6: Gazetteers and Atlases

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
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Learning Where Your Ancestors Lived
Gazetteers and atlases can give you an idea of where your ancestors lived and which jurisdiction recorded events in their lives. Gazetteers often provide descriptions of towns and atlases help you understand your ancestral terrain.
Hitting a black hole when it comes to finding information about your ancestors? At times researchers find their efforts stymied because they do not understand how various jurisdictions recorded the information.

A jurisdiction is an area that falls under the authority of an agency or institution. Most of us apply to the state in which we live for a driver's license, but may register the deed to a newly purchased home with the county clerk. Non-government jurisdictions also recorded ancestors' lives. Forebears in a small village may have traveled several miles to a parish church for the christenings of children, marriages or burials. Their village may have had no church of its own, but was within the jurisdiction of a parish in a neighboring town. Learn the names of seats of jurisdictions that included the ancestral home town or village. Determine if archives or libraries in jurisdictional seats or state capitols have records that name persons who lived where your ancestors did.

How can you learn which jurisdictions recorded events in ancestors' lives? The easiest tool to use is an atlas. A valuable atlas for localities in the United States is the latest edition of Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide (Chicago: Rand McNally) or an edition published near the time forbears lived in an area. The index makes it easy to find cities and towns, and county and state boundaries are clearly marked. Maps also show the range and township numbers printed on maps of public domain states, generally east of the Mississippi. Knowledge of the range and township numbers will help you track down lands purchased from the federal government or homesteaded under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Atlases published in other countries near the times forebears lived there will also show state and national boundaries. Check the collections of the map library at your local college or university to learn which titles they have. The maps librarian may be able to help you locate atlases at other libraries that cover countries of interest to you. National church organizations in the United States and abroad often publish maps showing the jurisdictions within the church. For England, The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (Cecil Humphrey-Smith, ed. Chichester, Eng.: Phillimore & Co., LTD., 1995) is particularly useful.

Gazetteers are helpful in isolating most of the jurisdictions that covered the city or village where ancestors lived. Again, it is helpful to look in local libraries for gazetteers published near the time your family lived in the area. You may learn where the nearest church was, where probate offices were, where the registrar of vital events was (registry of births, marriages, deaths) or the state office where emigrants applied for exit permits. Local reference librarians can help you search library catalogs for these books.

Often college and university map collections contain historical gazetteers the institutions have acquired. An example from the United States is The National Gazetteer: A Geographical Dictionary of the United States (Leo de Colange, London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1884). Meyers Orts-und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutsche Reichs (Leipzig and Vienna: Bibliographisches Institut, 1912) is important for jurisdictions within German states, since most of the cities in this gazetteer remained in the same jurisdictions after 1815. The relatively stable jurisdictions in England make John Bartholomew's The Survey Gazetteer of the British Isles in any edition a handy tool (Edinburgh: John Bartholomew & Son LTD.).


About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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Previous Research Tip: Your Family in Print
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How-To Article: Maps in Family History Research

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