Genealogy & Geography
ACPL Genealogy Center
Monday, Jul 28, 2014
When I was in high school, I lived for a time in Texarkana, Arkansas-Texas. My mother had grown up there, and my grandmother lived there until she died. It was an interesting place, with the state line going right down the middle of town. That was the name of the street: State Line Avenue. We moved there in late summer, and before we actually had a house, I was registered to go to Arkansas High, but the house we moved into was on the Texas side. Every day, I had to drive across the state line to go to school. There were two different states, two different counties and two different cities. There were also different laws, especially of the blue variety: One could purchase liquor by the bottle in Arkansas, but not by the drink; one could not buy liquor by the bottle in Texas, but could join a “private club,” and get liquor by the drink (a private club was a legal fiction and anyone could be a member on the manager’s approval). When we lived in Texas, we went to church in Arkansas, but later, when my parents moved, they lived in Arkansas (lower taxes) but attended church in Texas (same tithe). My cousin, an Arkansas resident, attended church, married and had her wedding reception in Texas. And a number of Arkansas relatives are buried in Texas. So what’s my point? The county line and state line meant nothing to those of us who lived there. You crossed it several times a day, important for legal purposes, but not of much importance in our daily lives.
When you are seeking information on your ancestors, take a few minutes to look at maps. Many researchers examine plat maps. They show land ownership at the time of publication. But we also need to pay attention to the ponds, lakes, rivers and streams. These were valuable for water and transportation, but could also be barriers. Study county maps over the years to see how roads developed, what settlements came and went, where schools, churches and cemeteries were located, and how the railroad or canal moved through the area. Examine state maps to note where the roads and railroads went. What towns or villages were closest to your ancestor’s residence? Even if that place is in a different county, he or she may have gone there on a regular basis. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people would catch a train to go to a city several counties away to do business, make purchases or for entertainment.
Many also visited neighboring states on a regular basis, even if they didn’t live in Texarkana! There were a number of places, referred to as a “Gretna Green,” where eloping couples would marry without family or neighbors knowing. Our ancestors visited health spas, sanitariums, and visited physicians in neighboring states. Or someone might find employment elsewhere and move away for a while. We need to examine maps of all sorts, and look them with fresh eyes as we contemplate what our forebears might have been doing.
So take a few minutes to examine older, and current, maps of your ancestors’ home areas. Study the water courses and terrain. See where the roads led. And think about your ancestors’ lives.