Using documentation you already have in your possession

When you attempt to geographically locate your ancestors, start by using any copies of records or online data that you or someone else has already collected. Sifting through all of those photocopies and original documents from the attic and printouts from online sites provides a good starting point for locating your ancestors geographically. Pay particular attention to any material that provides a definite location during a specific time period. You can use these details as a springboard for your geographical search.

For example, Matthew's great-great-grandfather, Uriah Helm, is listed in the family trees at the WorldConnect Web site (for more on the WorldConnect project — — see Chapter 4). In the record, the submitter states that Uriah was buried in the German Reformed Cemetery in Fayette, Illinois, around 22 February 1911. The mention of Fayette, Illinois, gives us a place to begin our search.

If you have information about places where your ancestors lived, but not necessarily the time frame, you can still be reasonably successful in tracking your ancestors based on the limited information you do have. Aids are available to help you approximate time frames, such as the Period Approximation Chart ( For example, say you know the birth dates of your great-great-grandmother's children, but you don't know when great-great-grandma and great-great-grandpa were married. You can use the Period Approximation Chart to calculate a date range in which you can look for the marriage record. The Period Approximation Chart uses average ages for events in history and typical lifespans during certain periods of time to make the calculations.

For additional information about using documents you already have, take a look at Chapter 2.

Grilling your relatives about what they know

Your notes from interviews with family members, or from other resources you've found on your ancestors, most likely contain some information about locations where the family lived and hopefully the approximate time frames.

Chances are you have at least some notes with statements, such as "Aunt Lola recalled stories about the old homestead in LaRue County, Kentucky." Of course, whether Aunt Lola recalled stories firsthand (those that she lived through or participated in) or her recollections were stories she heard from those before her has an effect on the time frames within which you look for records in LaRue County. Either way, these stories give you a starting point.

For details on interviewing your family members, see Chapter 2.

Where is Llandrindod, anyway?

At some point during your research, you're bound to run across something that says an ancestor lived in a particular town or county, or was associated with a specific place, but contains no details of where that place was — no state or province or other identifiers. How do you find out where that place was located?

A gazetteer, or geographical dictionary, provides information about places. By looking up the name of the town, county, or some other kind of place, you can narrow your search for your ancestor. The gazetteer identifies every place by a particular name and provides varying information (depending on the gazetteer itself) about each. Typically, gazetteers provide at least the names of the principal region where the place is located. Many contemporary gazetteers also provide the latitude and longitude of the place.

By adding the information you get from the online gazetteer to the other pieces of your puzzle, you can reduce the list of common place names to just those you think are plausible for your ancestors. By pinpointing where a place is, you can look for more records to prove whether your ancestors really lived there.

For research in the United States, one of your first stops should be the U.S. Geological Survey's Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) Web site. The GNIS site contains information on more than 2 million places within the United States and its territories (including those in Antarctica).

To find the precise location of the cemetery where Uriah Helm is buried, we can use the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) site.

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