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Geography

7. Unknown Place Names – When researching your ancestors it is not uncommon to come across an unknown place name. A quick search of Google maps and other online resources generally end up drawing a blank. What do you do? First of all, place names are often spelled incorrectly. Consider alternate spellings. Second, realize that if the genealogical record was written a long time ago by a clerk then the place name is most likely written out phonetically. That is, the clerk phonetically transcribed a place name given to him verbally.

For example, consider the spelling variations that could occur one hundred years ago if an American immigration clerk had to write down the name of the German town of your immigrant ancestor. Chances are your ancestor could not read or write so the clerk would just take a best-guess and phonetically spell out the name. In this example, find someone who is fluent in German and familiar with the general region of your ancestor. Then say the name to them out loud to see if it sounds similar to any place name in the region. Finally, place names change over time. When all else fails, check a historic map of the region and say the names on the map to yourself out loud (yes out loud) to see if there are any potential phonetic matches.

"You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus" Mark Twain

8. City Directories – A city directory is in some ways the predecessor to today’s telephone book. City directories, however, predate the telephone, contain much more information that a telephone book and often go back over two hundred years in most cities. Originally, most city directories were essentially business directories. They would list the name and address of the business, the name of the proprietor and other useful information. Over time, however, city directories expanded to include individual households. A typical listing would provide the name of the head of the household, their occupation, their address and (sometimes) their employer. City directories can be a very reliable means of tracking down individuals and provide a good proxy especially in regions and times where census data is not available.

1860 map of Philadelphia
Many old city directories contain street maps showing the original names and locations of streets. This can be invaluable in tracing ancestors to a particular location from either census records or the city directory itself.

9. Fire Insurance Maps – A fire insurance map (usually called a Sanborn map in the United States) were detailed maps drawn up by fire insurance companies. These maps list each building in a town, the structure and style of the building and (often) the owner of the building. Although these maps were originally intended to allow fire insurance companies to set policy rates, they can be a valuable source of genealogical information. You can use them to trace your ancestors to a specific building in town. Most fire insurance maps are now located in local archives or local universities. It is always worth checking to see if fire insurance maps were drawn up for the towns and communities of your ancestors.

Sanborn fire insurance map of New Orleans
Some fire insurance maps are extremely detailed and provide the location, size and structure of specific buildings along with information on ownership and use.

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