Geography is an essential discipline for genealogy because it helps us understand the spatial and temporal context in which our ancestors’ lives unfolded. In this regard, maps are more than just drawings or images; they are narratives that tell stories about the past and the present, about us and those who came before us.
Have you ever wondered where your surnames come from, what places your ancestors traveled to, or how your family tree was formed? If you’re interested in uncovering your family history, you’ve probably conducted some genealogical research or at least have a curiosity about it. Genealogy is the study of a person’s or a family’s ancestry and descendants. It is a way to learn about our personal history, our origins, and our identity. However, to conduct effective genealogical research, it’s not enough to collect names, dates, and places. It’s also essential to understand the geographical context in which our ancestors lived, how they moved, how they interacted, and how they influenced their environment. Geography, therefore, is a fundamental auxiliary science for genealogy that helps us interpret and analyze the data we discover.
In this article, we will explain why geography is important for genealogy and how you can use maps to enhance your research. You will discover how maps can serve as a valuable source of information, a visualization tool, and a means to communicate your findings. We will also provide you with some tips and resources to help you make the most of maps in your genealogical quest.
What Information Can Maps Provide Us?
Maps are graphical representations of a portion or the entirety of the Earth’s surface, showing the distribution and relationship of natural and human elements that comprise it. Maps can have varying scales, projections, symbologies, and themes, depending on the purpose for which they were created.
Maps can be a highly useful source of information for genealogy, as they allow us to:
- Geographically Locate Our Ancestors: We can determine where our ancestors were born, lived, got married, died, and were buried, as well as the places they visited or passed through. This helps us contextualize their lives and gain a better understanding of their social, economic, and cultural situations.
- Trace Their Migrations: Maps enable us to trace the routes our ancestors followed when they moved from one place to another, whether for work, family, political, or religious reasons. This allows us to learn about the causes and consequences of their movements, as well as the connections they established with other people and places.
- Compare Historical Changes: We can observe how the territory has evolved over time, what modifications it has undergone due to human or natural actions, what borders have been created or erased, and what names have been retained or changed. This helps us understand how historical events influenced the lives of our ancestors and how they adapted to them.
- Identify Documentary Sources: By using maps, we can pinpoint the archives, libraries, churches, cemeteries, or other places where documents containing information about our ancestors are stored. This facilitates access to the primary and secondary sources we can consult to verify or expand our data.
How Can We Use Maps for Our Research?
Maps not only provide us with information but also allow us to visualize and effectively communicate it. Maps can be a powerful tool for our genealogical research if we know how to use them properly. Here are some suggestions:
- Choose the Right Type of Map: There are many types of maps based on their scale, projection, symbology, and theme. Not all maps serve the same purpose or display the same information. For example, a physical map shows the terrain and hydrography of a place, while a political map shows administrative divisions and borders. A historical map depicts what a territory was like in a specific period, while a thematic map focuses on a specific aspect, such as population or climate. Therefore, it’s crucial to select the type of map that best aligns with the goals of your research and the level of detail you wish to convey.
- Compare Different Maps: Enrich your research by comparing different maps with each other, whether they are from the same area in different periods or from different areas in the same period. This allows you to see the changes that have occurred in the territory and how they have affected your ancestors. You can also identify similarities and differences between the places where your ancestors lived and where you currently reside. This helps establish connections and contrasts between the past and the present, between history and geography.
- Create Your Own Maps: Customize your research by crafting your own maps using the data you have collected about your ancestors. You can employ computer programs or web applications that enable you to create interactive maps. These maps allow you to add layers, markers, lines, polygons, images, text, or links. Consequently, you can visually and dynamically present information, emphasizing the aspects that interest you or integrating various sources. You can also share your maps with other researchers or family members to exchange opinions or collaborate on joint projects.
What Resources Can We Use to Access Maps?
Maps are highly accessible and abundant resources today, thanks to the advancement of information and communication technologies. You can find maps of all kinds and from all eras in various formats and media. Here are some examples:
- Printed Maps: Printed maps can be found in books, magazines, atlases, guides, or brochures. These maps are typically static and limited in terms of scale and theme, but they can be valuable for consulting basic or general information. Examples include the Akal World Historical Atlas, Georges Duby’s World Historical Atlas, or the Historical Atlas of Spain.
- Digital Maps: Digital maps are available on websites, databases, archives, or digital libraries. These maps are usually dynamic and interactive, allowing you to modify their scale, projection, symbology, or theme. They also provide access to more specific or detailed information, as well as associated documentary sources. Examples include Google Maps, Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap, GeaCron, or the David Rumsey Map Collection.
- Collaborative Maps: Collaborative maps can be found on web platforms that allow you to create, edit, or share your own maps with other users. These maps are often personalized and creative, reflecting your vision and interpretation of the information. They also enable participation in interest or learning communities, where you can learn from others or teach others. Examples include Google My Maps, ArcGIS Online, Wikimapia, or Historypin.