Find a Place, Find an Ancestor

The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

Dollarhide’s Rule No. 37: The Post Office shown on the census page where your ancestors are listed is for a town which appears on no known map ever published.

Genealogical researchers are name collectors. We collect names of people and names of places. When a name of a person can be connected to a name of a place and a time period, the research really starts paying off. Here is an example. If you wanted to find records for a James Johnson in America, how many possibilities are there? From 1607, the date of the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown, Virginia, to 2012 is 405 years. How many persons with the name James Johnson have lived in America in 405 years? Clearly, we need to refine the information if we want to find the right James Johnson.

If we could say the life-span of James Johnson was estimated to be “between 1800 and 1870,” we could cut the number of years from 405 to 70. And if we could further determine that James Johnson lived in Boston during his lifetime, we could reduce the numbers even more. The more information we know, the greater we can reduce the numbers for a person named James Johnson.

Possibility of locating information………………..Possible
for a person named James Johnson, if he………Number

. . . lived in America between 1607 and 2012:………..188,000
. . . lived in America between 1800 and 1870:………..15,600
. . . lived in Massachusetts between 1800 and 1870:..1,424
. . . lived in Boston between 1800 and 1870:………….356
. . . lived in Boston in 1850:……………………………..63
. . . lived in Boston in 1850 at 21 Thacher Street:…….1

So, a key element in genealogical research is the process of locating the exact place on the ground where a person lived. If we can locate the exact place of residence for a person back in time, we can locate the records they left there. We know, for example, that finding the county of residence for an ancestor opens the door to the myriad of resource material in local courthouses, libraries, city directories, funeral homes, cemeteries, and so on.

Get a Good Map

Genealogical researchers need a highly detailed map showing the region where an ancestor lived. The map becomes a valuable tool in locating named places, such as cemeteries, churches, nearby towns, post offices, and other features on the ground that reveal the terrain and roads your ancestor may have known years ago. It is remarkable that there have been very few name changes to features found on a current map. Town or city names may have changed, but usually, the name of a mountain, valley, or stream never changes. Therefore, the names of places found on a current topographic map are just as good as having a 200-year-old map. A detailed map provides a real education to a researcher concerning the lay of the land where your ancestor lived. And, in virtually every case, a researcher will learn more details about an ancestor because of the map.

Undoubtedly the best maps for genealogical research are the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 7.5 series topographical maps which cover virtually every inhabited place in America. The 7.5 designation represents 7-1/2 minutes of one degree of latitude and longitude. Depending on the spot on the globe, this area is a rectangle which is about 6 to 7 miles across by 7 to 8 miles deep. The area of coverage on one of these maps is called a “quadrangle.”

The 7.5 topographic maps show this area at a scale of 1:24,000. This is the same as saying “one inch on the map is equal to 24,000 inches on the ground.” Each printed map sheet of the 7.5 series is about 24 by 30 inches in size. To give you an idea of how much detail can be seen on a 1:24,000 map, a square inch on the map is approximately 92 acres of land on the ground. A half-inch square would be about 23 acres, and a quarter-inch square would represent a little less than six acres. The 7.5 series maps are beautifully printed in seven colors, and they are an outstanding value.

With such great map detail, one can see virtually every stream or river, every hill or valley, the streets within every town or city, and even certain buildings in a town. In addition, the maps show obscure features, such as cemeteries, churches, back country roads, trails, mines, or ponds. If a feature on the map has a name, that information is given as well. Hence, a researcher can locate Toad Lake in Whatcom County, Washington; Dollarhide Swamp in Greene County, Alabama; or Braddock Heights in Frederick County, Maryland; or hundreds of thousands of other named features. Over 55,000 topographic map sheets have been produced for the 7.5 series, covering most of the United States. At this scale, it would take a wall 300 feet high and 460 feet wide to display the entire U.S. as one map.

With an average of 35 named features on each of the 55,000 sheets, the full list adds up to over 1.5 million place-names in the U.S. The only areas of the country not covered at the 1:24,000 scale are some mountain regions, deserts, or isolated areas with no agriculture or population.

The next best map series is the USGS 15 minute series. One sheet of the 7.5 minute series covers just a fourth of the area of the 15 minute series maps, but the 15 minute series maps may still offer a reasonable substitute. The 15 minute series covers 100% of the U.S., including all uninhabited mountains and deserts. For example, to first find a map showing the Dollarhide Mine on Dollarhide Mountain, located in the Smokey Mountain Range of Blaine County, Idaho; I had to find the 15 minute series map to see the name, and then find the road out of Ketchum and Sun Valley to get there. That map turned out to be very useful for the local climbers trying to scale any mountain over 9,000 feet in elevation in the area. But for me, the genealogist, I was able to finally understand the reason why Alexander Hamilton Dollarhide went to Idaho in 1868 – he was mining for gold, just like he a had done in Lander County, Nevada in 1861, and in Calaveras County, California in 1852. All of A.H. Dollarhide’s mining claims in California, Nevada, and Idaho, were named after him, and they all still hold that name today. And, it is the USGS topographic maps that show the exact named locations.

Locating Great-Grandfather’s Farm

Genealogists involved in land and property research in America may already know the value of the USGS 7.5 series maps. The range/township divisions in the thirty public-land states are used for all legal descriptions in those states. After a researcher has identified an ancestor’s property described in a deed at a local courthouse, a USGS 7.5 quadrangle should then be obtained. Since the range/township lines are prominently shown on the 7.5 maps, a researcher can easily determine the exact location of any piece of property, right down to a five-acre plot of land. Therefore, it is possible to precisely locate great-grandfather’s farm on a map.

In the twenty state-land states with metes and bounds surveys, a 7.5 series topographic map is also an excellent way to locate an ancestor’s property. Since most of the metes and bounds deed descriptions start with a watercourse, it is important in these land descriptions to first locate a river, creek, or stream. With the detail shown on a 7.5 quadrangle, watercourses are easy to find, because they are all named on the maps. It is quite possible to plot on the 7.5 series maps an irregular property description as small as five or ten acres in size. Metes and bounds property descriptions can be squares, rectangles, parallelogram, or polygons (five or more sides). Once you have located the starting point of the property description, each side of the plotted diagram requires a compass reading for an angle and a distance measurement for the length of each side, usually in feet.

For land ownership purposes, the topographic map becomes a powerful tool. Once an exact property site has been located on a detailed map, a genealogist can learn the answers to some very important questions, such as: where is the nearest cemetery? Where is the nearest church? Where is the nearest town? How far is it to the county seat? Is there a mountain or river that acts as a barrier to the county seat? Is it closer to travel to an adjoining county seat? What are the names of various features near the ancestor’s property? Are any of the names familiar? Where are the roads to or near the property?

Geographic Names Information System

For the past several years, the USGS has been extracting place-names from maps and entering them into computers. Their goal has been to produce the National Gazetteer of the United States, an alphabetized listing of every named place or topographic feature that exists in the United States. The final Gazetteer has not yet been published. An early version of the phase I database was published in eleven volumes by OmniGraphics, Inc., of Detroit, Michigan. Seen mostly in larger libraries, the cost to purchase the printed OmniGraphics gazetteer was over $1,200. But the same list of place-names can be now be accessed for no charge on the Internet.

Phase I of the gazetteer project was to extract the place-names from the 7.5 series maps, which is now complete for all fifty states and all U.S. possessions. Phase II of the project is well under way, which adds place-names from historical maps, post office maps, old road maps, old gazetteers, and any other known place-name source. Only a few states have been completed through the phase II stage.

Even though the project is not completed yet, the names that have been compiled and computerized so far comprise an enormous database of place-names. USGS calls this database the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). Recently, the huge GNIS place-name index was added to the USGS Internet site, so it is now possible to search for a place by name from the nearly two million place-names in the United States. The URL to access the GNIS search is as follows:

Once you have located a place from the GNIS, you may display and print a map at various scales. The maps are not nearly as good as the printed sheets available through the mail, but they do offer a good look at any region of the U.S., and the service is free.

As in the lyrics for one of my favorite Lovin’ Spoonful songs, Nashville Cats, “. . . And I sure am glad I got a chance to say a word about the music and the mothers from Nashville,” I’m so glad to say a word about the USGS maps for genealogists.

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 4: The cemetery where your ancestor was buried does not have perpetual care, has no office, is accessible only by a muddy road, has snakes, tall grass, and lots of bugs. . . and many of the old gravestones are in broken pieces, stacked in a corner under a pile of dirt.

3 thoughts on “Find a Place, Find an Ancestor

  1. I am a little surprised that no mention is made of Postal Site Application and Reports in National Archives Records Group 28. I have found the same invaluable for identifying alternate and extinct place names.

    People today have too poor an appreciation that historically place names were rarely static so both name and location could change.

    Early post offices were never stand-alone structures but within an existing business, usually a general store, and thus more often than not had the same name as that of the store owner. If the store changed ownership, so did the name of the post office. If the “population center” shifted, the store owner might relocate the business to be closer to where “the action is” and the post office would move with him.

    Holton, WV, is a good example of this. When first established it was in the same immediate area of Morgan County where those maps on which it now appears show it, but its post office was moved eastward on two different occasions, with the second move placing it in Berkeley County!

    It was not unusual for a post office to have a different name than the community it served.

    Petersburg, WV, is an excellent example of that, because when its post office was established, Petersburg was still in Virginia where another Petersburg already existed. Thus the post office at Petersburg, (West) Virginia was called Lunice Creek for the stream on which the town was located. More often than not, it was the post office name rather than the actual name of the town which won out, but when West Virginia became a separate state, Lunice Creek now longer could be confused with Petersburg, Virginia, and the post office had its name changed to Petersburg!

    Many of the site applications and reports will note the name of not just the community in which the post office was (to be) located when different from the name of the post office, but also those communities the post office was intended to serve and for that reason, one can find instances where there is an application for post offices that NEVER existed because it was felt another location would be preferable.

    Queens Point is an excellent example of the same.

    When Queens Point was proposed in the 1840s, the Baltimore & Ohio had just announced that it intended to establish a yard near New Creek, though the actual yard was to be on the opposite of New Creek from Queens Point. Because some one at New Creek had also applied for a new post office about this same time, that site was chosen for the new office because it was closer to both the railyard and the existing and expected commerical “district”.

    It is widely reported that Keyser, named for the president of the B&O railroad when it was chosen for the site of the courthouse for the newly created Mineral County, West Virginia, in 1867, was previous called New Creek (true), and originally called Paddy’s Town (false).

    That Paddy’s Town was a distinctly different place and location is established by the Queen’s Point site application, which identified the location as Paddy’s Town. For those familiar to any degree with the area, Queen’s Point is still “recognizable” by the fact that a large cemetery east of Keyser still bears the name and a bend in the North Branch of the Potomac River in the same immediate area is also called Queen’s Point.

    Additionally New Creek is an excellent example of how two distinctly different communities in the same immediate area can have, and have had, the same name, there existing today in Mineral County a community called New Creek that is about 6 miles south of the original.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Michael. The Postal Site Application database is one of several historical place-name lists that are being added to the Phase II U.S. Gazetteer in progress. There has probably been some severe underfunding, because the USGS has made little progress in adding phase II states in the last five years. In any case, eventually, all PO Site Application names will be added to the GNIS database. I did note that the numbers of features at the GNIS has gone up from 1.8 million entries to 2.2 milliion entries in the last year or so, so there are some historical place-names being added — the names from the 7.5 series maps were all done over five years ago.
    As to the stories of how some Post Office’s got their names, I love the one about Custer, Washington. The local postmaster’s name was Custer, the name he had submitted was something already used elsewhere, so the US Post Office in Washington, DC gave it the name Custer instead. -bill$hide

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