Researching the places your ancestor lived is essential for effective family history research. Sources of information vary by location, so it is logical that knowing more about each location will help you find more sources and help you identify which sources are likely to give the best information.
The top half of a hand tinted map of Jamaica and Barbados by John Speed dated 1676. Printed by Thomas Basset and Richard Chiswell, London England. Public domain.
Take civil registration, for example. Civil registration records were created by the government. (1) If you are researching a period after civil registration commenced you can obtain birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates. If you are researching a period before that time you have to rely on church records of baptisms, marriages and burials. You need to know this date so that you know what type of sources you are looking for. The date that civil registration commenced is different depending on the location. In England, civil registration began in 1837 but was not compulsory until 1875. In New South Wales, Australia, where I live, it began on 1 March 1856. In Tasmania, Australia, it commenced on 1 December 1838. And so, on… you get the idea.
Another good reason for learning about places is to help distinguish between people of the same name and to help decide whether your conclusions about a family are correct. Let me give you an example. I was researching a couple who lived in Tumut in New South Wales (Australia). The civil registration records showed children being born every 18 months or so in Tumut to parents with the same names as this couple. There was also a child listed with the same parent names, but in a different location – Morpeth. Do I accept this child as theirs? In Google I searched ‘map Tumut to Morpeth’. This gave me a map showing both locations and the distance between them – 566 kilometres! In the 1850s, this was a very long way to travel.
Knowing the distance between these two places was not sufficient evidence that the child did not belong, but it was sufficient to indicate that I needed to research this child in detail before deciding whether she belonged. And, if you are interested, I discovered evidence of another couple of the same name in Morpeth and decided that she did not belong in the Tumut family.
How do I get to know the places my families lived?
If you are doing a lot of research in a place, you will probably want to read local histories, gazetteers and so on. However, the two places that I begin are Wikipedia and the FamilySearch Wiki.
How to find them: A quick way to find a place page in Wikipedia is to type ‘Wikipedia placename’ into a search engine – for example, ‘Wikipedia Nottinghamshire’. For FamilySearch, go to www.familysearch.org, select the Search Tab, and select the drop down option ‘Wiki’. You will get a search page in the Wiki, where you can either select a place on the map or type the place name into the search box.
Both websites provide a general location map, which is useful if you are do not know where a place is. (2) Wikipedia entries about a place have a useful box on the right hand side listing information such as the country, region, county names, the flag, official languages, ethnic groups, religions, government and area. For countries such as England where county names and borders have changed, the box also provides information about these changes.
Wikipedia also provides information about the history and landscape of a place. It is pretty general and may not be 100% accurate, but it is a good starting point to get a feel for a place. If you are lucky, the entry may also have photographs of the church of your ancestors or historic landmarks that they may have known. Wikipedia photographs are usually not subject to copyright restrictions, which makes them a good source for family history. If you click on a photograph it will take you to a new screen which contains information about any restrictions on using the photograph.
The FamilySearch Wiki is a fantastic place to start researching a place. It is also good to come back to if you ever run out of ideas for sources. The Wiki is a tool for finding information about records that may have been generated about your ancestors and the places in which the records might be found. The Wiki has information from 244 countries, territories and islands. (3)
For each place, the Wiki provides general research strategies and research guides based on record types. For example, the section on Church Records describes the years covered by available records and how complete (or incomplete) the surviving record sets are. It suggests which record groups to look at and provides information on the availability of finding aids such as indexes. The Wiki also provides information about major repositories of records, such as archives offices and libraries.
The record types listed in each wiki page are standardised, but the information varies considerably by location. As with all wikis, it is written by the community. However, it is well managed and I have found that the information is of very high quality.
The FamilySearch Wiki is massive and it is hard to do it justice in a single blog post. However, I hope that I have tempted you to exploring it.
(1) This discussion of civil registration applies to countries such as Australia and England. The process will be different in some areas, such as Asia.
(2) For more detailed location maps, I start with Google maps or I use the inbuilt mapping feature in my family history software.
(3) FamilySearch Wiki: About Us https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/FamilySearch_Wiki:About_Us