Mapping genealogy? Yes, we can!

31 May

I tried something new in my research when I hit a “brickwall”, I decided to take a map and pin all the places my elusive ancestor went (or was recorded being at) to gain a new understanding of his life and where he went. Now most of us, old school style, would have taken a real “paper” map to plot the course of a person’s life, however it is more than efficient (if less romantic) to do it using online tools and websites. So here a few suggestions that could get you started in mapping your genealogy.

Before I start, let me explain why I feel that this is a important feature of researching your family tree, especially online. As I have stated in my first post, genealogy is more than just dates, charts, pedigrees and statistics: it is also living people who had houses, farms, plots of lands, work, etc. They also traveled a lot, this applies effectively to our north-American ancestors who did not shy from immigrating to look for a better quality of life. Sometimes when I looked at a branch of my family tree, I felt I was losing sense of “the big picture” and so I came up with the idea (no, really I did not, it just popped in my head that it was a good idea) that mapping my ancestors trails would help me gain a better understanding of their lives. I started researching this subject, I found a couple of projects and tools on the web that are truly exciting to use.

For the geek genealogists out there, you all know of Google Maps and Google Earth. It is relatively easy to use and it encompasses features that enable you to pin locations, draw routes and shapes as well as pull data to enrich your research like pictures, videos and public data from governments. I tried it myself, I’ve mapped the life of my great-great grand uncle Octave, brother of Joseph Camille my great-great grandfather, in the US using Google Earth.

Mapping the life of Octave Goulet

Mapping the life of Octave Goulet

As you can see from the image above, I colour-coded Octave’s life events and pinned all the locations I found in the data I gathered for him. I have yet to discover new clues as to where he disappeared for 15 years but it did help me to understand where and how he moved. Now all I’m missing is more data.

There are other projects out there that have similar mapping features:

  • Ancestral Atlas :  a UK-based website that enables you to pin your genealogical data on a map and share it (or not) with others. Useful especially if you are looking for more information on one of your ancestors, maybe somebody mapped him already! Registration is free however it costs 20£ a year for full features (view member trees, access historical maps of Ireland, etc.).
  • What was there – Put history in its place: a most exciting project using Google maps. Users can upload, and view, historical photos allowing you to tour cities as if you were in a time machine! The pictures actually overlap the Maps interface and you can trawl through the old streets of New York back in the 20’s for example.
  • Map Your Ancestors : Integrates maps with your Family Search account or account, you can view a example of Bill Clint0n’s life events here.
  • Boston Streets – Mapping Directory Data : my favourite mapping project so far. It uses the data from Boston city directories, digital collections and other archive materials in order to visualize in context the lives of Boston ancestors. Not only can you relive famous events or discover famous people, the Cowpaths geospatial tool makes it possible for you to input a individual’s address in Boston (let’s say in a 19th century city directory) and overlap other city directories layers to retrace your ancestors footsteps in the city!

Now, this is just a sample from my researching the subject and I do believe that it is a very useful complement to genealogical research. Who knows, you might discover an old image of the neighborhood where your great-grand father lived or a relative that you never knew about. I also can’t stress enough the importance of neighbors in your family tree research, your family was not living in a bubble, they had people living next door, sometimes investigating the house address next to the one you research can yield fascinating results!


5 Responses to “Mapping genealogy? Yes, we can!”

  1. chmjr2 May 31, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    What a great idea! I have bookmarked some of the sites you recommended. I can see how this will be very useful to me in my family research.

    • Marylene June 4, 2013 at 6:35 am #

      Thank you! I have found another similar kind of website you can add to your bookmarks, it’s called HistoryPin, it works the same way as WhatWasHere, Here is the link, enjoy your research!

  2. Su Leslie May 7, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

    Great idea, and good to learn about sites I can use. I’ve tried using actual maps on occasion, but it’s always a nightmare and you are right — getting a sense of someone’s geographical presence can really help understand them. Cheers, Su.

    • Marylene May 7, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

      Hi Su, thanks for the comment! If you’re still up for it, there are new ways to map your genealogy with Google Maps. I was trying out this method today :
      I still have issues with adding custom fields (apart from the obvious ones: birth date, death date, etc) but the post is well made and EASY, so I definitely think you should have a go with a couple of ancestors to see if it works out for you.
      Let me know if ever you need help,
      Cheers back and have a great day,


  1. Mapping & Timelines for Genealogy | The Family History Rogue - June 24, 2015

    […] of my fellow geek genealogists, my first try was by using Google maps (you can read all about it here). It was interesting work and it enabled me to verify my data thoroughly before using it for any […]

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