Thursday, October 16, 2008

Using old maps, Google Earth, deeds and census records to find your ancestral home place

One of the neatest things in genealogy is finding the actual homes or land where your ancestors used to live. You never know if the old ancestral home is still standing or if perhaps there is a family cemetery on the property. The problem is that most old deeds were written in such cryptic language that the average person cannot figure out what they were saying. All of those metes and bounds get rather confusing. However, there are some was to cut through the confusing terminology and find the old home place. I have done it many times and here is an example that you can use as a road map to finding your own.

When I look at an old deed, the only things I really focus on are the date, county, name of neighbors and any creeks, rivers, roads or other named boundaries. These are all you need to get started. Forget about how many poles and rods there were along one boundary line. Unless you are trying to redraw the entire property, all you need are the aforementioned items.

I am going to show you an example of how this works, using my ancestor Royall Spain of Mecklenburg County, Virginia as an example. I started by finding all of the deeds that showed him buying or selling any land in the county. His case is kinda simple because he bought only three tracts of land and basically sold only one.

In Royall's case, he bought part of the estate of his mother and father-in-law, Ann and William Harris. He then proceeded to buy land adjoining his property, to make one large tract that totalled roughly 155 acres. Royall later sold the entire tract to his son-in-law, Joshua Spain.

Here is a rough summary of each deed, providing the year, parties involved, the number of acres and the body of water upon which they were located. I did not include the names of neighbors in this example but you should jot those down as well.
  1. 1821, Harris to Spain, 57 acres on Butcher's Creek
  2. 1826, Norment to Spain, adjoining Spain, 66 acres on Middle Bluestone Creek
  3. 1827, Harris to Spain, adjoining Spain, 31 acres on Middle Bluestone Creek
  4. 1866, Spain to Spain, half of 155 acre tract where he now lives
  5. 1870, Spain to Spain, remainder of 155 acre tract where he now lives
The main things that sticks out are the names of the creeks, Butcher's and Middle Bluestone. Looking at a topographic map of Mecklenburg, it does not take too long to find the named creeks. Sometimes you have to look at contemporary maps because names change, creeks get diverted or what have you. I know that the land I am looking for has to pretty much touch both creeks, or at least be between or around them. Zeroing in on that area is a good start.

Seeing that Royall lived on the land between 1821 and 1870, I can look at census records and get the names of his neighbors in at least 1850, 1860 and 1870. Those might come in handy later...

The next step is a bit tougher but you need to find a good map of the county in question, made near the time of the deed transactions. In this case, I know that Gilmer maps exist for Mecklenburg during the Civil War period. The Virginia Historical Society and the Library of Virginia both have copies to review. You cannot copy the ones at the Library of Virginia but the Virginia Historical Society offers copies for sale at their facility. (You should read an earlier article I wrote on the Gilmer!)

Using the creek names and the names of neighbors I picked off of the 1860 census, 1870 census and the actual deeds, I find that there is a Spain farm named right on the map. There are lots of Spain farms throughout the county but I can pretty much rest assured that the one in question is the Royall Spain farm. There are other family names as neighbors, including Lawson and Harris. If you recall, the Spain farm was part of the larger Harris farm. Royall's daughter also intermarried with the Lawson family. Add to that the proximity to Butcher's and Middle Bluestone Creeks and I have a preponderance of evidence here to prove that this is the farm I am looking for!

It is great to find the farm on an 1860s map but that does not help me much today. A lot of the roads and landmarks have changed so I need to turn the old map into a new one. I do this using Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth. I used Google Earth to find a modern satellite photo of the area with the roads and churches called out. I saved it to my computer and went to work.

I opened the satellite photo, along with a scan of the 1860s map, in Photoshop and shrunk the Google map until it was roughly the same scale as the 1860s map. I then changed the transparency of 1860s map and laid it on top of the modern image. It took a little adjusting but I had New Hope Baptist Church and two roads as fixed points on both maps. After about five minutes of fine-tuning the scale and transparency, I came up with one image that merged the old and new maps into what I would call...perfection.

Just look at the way the old farms fit perfectly within the modern tree lines. Look at the Harris, Spain and Lawson farms. You can tell that they fit within the boundaries of the woods like a glove! I was impressed myself over how well this turned out.

I now know that the Royall Spain farm was located near the intersection of modern-day New Hope and Skipwith Roads , specifically 36°43'58.74"N, 78°29'31.68"W. I have not gone down to the site to check for an old home or cemetery but I will eventually, powered by the knowledge of knowing where to look.

I realize that a lot of pieces fell into place in my example but it took more effort than I make it sound like. I had to go find the deeds and the maps. I had to do census research and a good bit of photo-editing. I make it sound easy but I admit that this type of research can be quite challenging. It might seem a daunting task to find the home of an ancestor that lived over 100 years ago but it is possible. When you do find it, with all of this work behind you, the reward is all the more sweet as opposed to someone just telling you where it was!

1 comment:

Virginia Robertson Queen said...

my maiden name is Virginia Robertson(now Queen)(moved 1949) my mom name was then Georgia and dad was William Roberton we lived in a house before crossing the bridge coming from Skipwith until the water start coming close to the house and we had to move. The Bowers and Hayes lived up the road and the Tuckers on the other side of the brige my parents went to the old school there called springfield I name live in Maryland email is