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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

Just Across the State Line

Genealogy is harder if you don't have an understanding of the geographical component of what you're researching. Clues are found at the intersection of time and place; missing one of those two elements can have a huge impact on your results and progress.

Individuals and family groups were often active in more than one clearly defined area--either simultaneously or within a timespan--so records and clues might be found across adjoining counties. Yet I've spoken with many family researchers over the years who simply could not get past the idea of looking in a whole different county for their ancestor, let alone a different state. Often people reject clues and information entirely because "my family was *not* from there."

As we search to connect the human relationships in our family trees, we can't forget the geographic relationships. Every place, no matter how small or large, has a neighboring place.

State maps, especially those that show county formation over time, can be very helpful in determining which counties are adjacent to the county of focus. However, there are 48 states in our country that border other states. There are therefore a lot of counties whose neighboring counties are in a different state.

That's an especially important point to remember about towns and cities along rivers. Rivers form the borders of many states, and there's always land on the other side. Sometimes the only clue we have is a mention in an ancestor's obituary that the person was "from Memphis" or "from St. Louis." Memphis is in Shelby County, Tennessee, but I always look in Crittenden County, Arkansas, and DeSoto County, Mississippi, when I'm looking for someone from that area. Regarding St. Louis, I always include Madison, St. Clair, and Monroe Counties in Illinois when I cast my net. Cincinnati is a stone's throw from Kentucky. And you know the struggle if you have ancestors from the "Washington, D.C., area." Comb through Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania--and West Virginia if it existed yet, remembering that a piece of West Virginia is east of Virginia.

map of Potomoc area
There are four states across this 24-mile stretch.

On the eastern side of my home state of Iowa, "around Dubuque" could include Dubuque County, Iowa; Grant County, Wisconsin; and Jo Daviess County, Illinois.

If you are looking for information on someone who had lived in Hancock County, Illinois, should you consider searching in Taylor County, Iowa? Iowa and Illinois have a common border... but are those counties geographically close? No. Taylor County is closer to Nebraska and would not be in my first 1,000 places I would consider checking based solely on geography.

If you are looking for information on someone who had lived in Hancock County, Illinois, should you consider searching in Lee County, Iowa? Yes, absolutely. Those counties share a common border, along with Clark County, Missouri. If I were looking for clues about a person in any of those three locations, I would certainly check the records of the other two counties.

Although in 5th grade I wrote the questions for the geography category of our classroom trivia game, I do not know every county in America by name and location. If I wanted to drive from one county to another, there are a couple of web sites that would give me great turn-by-turn directions. They're not great at helping visualize this geographic relativity though. What I have found instead is a website that shows U.S. unemployment rates in January 2018.

At first glance, it doesn't look like it would be a great genealogy research tool. But it is, because it's a map that shows all U.S. states and all U.S. counties in one view. I use it often:

Just mouse over the perimeter counties of any state, and then over the adjacent counties on the other side of the border. The county names as the cursor passes by. It's geographic relativity at a glance. It therefore helps me identify quickly which other counties I can search next when I'm trying to track down an elusive ancestor or break through a brick wall.

This is a modern map, so it doesn't show the changing borders over time. You can't look at it to see what the county structure of the Indiana/Kentucky border was in 1810, for example. However, you can see that the southwestern-most tip of Indiana is presently Posey County. Looking up Posey county or an Indiana formation map will allow you to follow Posey's history. It was formed in 1814 from parts of Gibson and Warrick Counties, which were themselves formed from part of Knox County in 1813. Present-day Knox County is separated from Kentucky by two Indiana counties. There was a time, however, when Knox County comprised nearly the entire Indiana Territory and did border Kentucky. If I were looking for clues about ancestors who lived in that northernmost swath of Kentucky around a certain point in time, Knox County, Indiana, might also yield some clues.

Weighing geographic relationships goes the other way, too. Records with the same person's name may exist in different counties of the same state. If the website "hint" for someone who lived in Highland County, Ohio, includes a random record from Portage County, Ohio, start by plotting the distance between those two locations. Don't assume that the state is the most significant geographic clue. If you don't know how close or far those points are, look it up. Any old map will do.


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