On Old Maps, Family Histories – U. S. Geological Survey Offers Unusual Tools for Genealogy

Paper: Washington Post, The (DC)
Title: On Old Maps, Family Histories – U.S. Geological Survey Offers Unusual Tools for Genealogy
Author: Julie Sevrens Lyons
Date: August 12, 2007
Section: A Section
Page: A8

To track down the former site of her great-great-great-grandfather’s fruit orchard, Pamela Storm turned to a seemingly unlikely source: the federal government’s repository of earthquake information.

Perusing one of the U.S. Geological Survey’s historical topographic maps and comparing it to a current city map, Storm and a friend were able to find the site of Amory Gale Rich’s onetime home and orchard. They were in an industrial area that is now home to Microsoft, Siemens and other high-tech companies.

“If genealogy is a history of families, it’s reflected in the history of land, which is recorded on maps,” said Leslie Gordon, a USGS spokeswoman. “There are a lot of genealogical tools out there, but I think ours is a tool that will help you dig a little deeper.”

Indeed, perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in genealogy is the wealth of tools that the USGS has to offer armchair detectives investigating their family roots. The tools include:

Tens of thousands of topographical maps dating as far back as the late 1800s;

An easily searchable database listing more than 2 million places named after families, including some schools and towns that no longer exist; and

Old aerial photographs that may provide clues about abandoned buildings, old railroad lines or other pertinent geographical features.

“Maps are just like books. They’ve got a wealth of information in them,” said Joseph Kerski, an expert on geography education and a former USGS employee. “People think about maps as road maps, but there’s a lot to mapping. There’s old tax assessor maps. There’s old property evaluation maps and old flood maps.”

The USGS has been producing maps since it was founded in 1879.

“In the Bay Area, people know us for earthquakes. In the rest of the country, people are probably most familiar with our topographic maps,” Gordon said. “That has been our signature project since the very beginning.”

Such maps show the country in great detail, including fence lines, homesteads, towns, rivers, mountains and cemeteries. The agency did not complete its topographic, to-scale series of the country until 1990, Kerski said.

Other agency products include satellite imagery and maps of mines, geology, earthquakes, floods and land use.

The USGS Geographic Names Information System database is a free Internet feature that provides clues about who lived in certain regions and when they were settled. Searching the database for a family name will pull up information on rivers, cemeteries, schools, villages and post offices containing that name. The results include latitude and longitude coordinates to help searchers find each spot on a map.

“People move. They migrate. But they have left their imprint on the landscape through cemetery markers, through names on maps,” Kerski said.

Author: Julie Sevrens Lyons
Section: A Section
Page: A8
Dateline: SAN JOSE

Copyright 2007 The Washington Post

About Louisiana Genealogy Admin

I manage several RootsWeb mailing lists and message boards, support Louisiana Cemetery Preservation, am a former Louisiana and Mississippi librarian, have been researching genealogy of my family since 1988, and write and promote several blogs supporting either Louisiana genealogy or Louisiana cemeteries.
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