08 November 2013

You Can't Get There From Here

Fauquier, VA
When I was young, the family would often spend a part of the summer vacation in Arkansas with my paternal grandparents. We'd go to Heber Springs and climb Sugar Loaf mountain. We would fish in grandpa's man-made catfish pond or the natural rivers. We investigated innumerable forests and caverns. After one trek out to see some of Arkansas' natural wonderment, dad decided to proclaim that he had seen all that was to be seen. A local quizzed him and found his knowledge was truly vast. He had taken the family as far south as Little Rock looking for new woods, rocks, and rivers. Ah, but the local man grinned a crooked smile when he discovered that dad's experiences lacked a view of the "Devil's Tea Table". He hadn't been? How could this be? Where was it? Kids, get in the car! Oh, the old man could tell us the way. Just past the gas station, we'd find the Piggly Wiggly on our right. Go 'bout a mile and half and hook a left. 12 miles later we would come upon an old barn. Well, not really. You see, the barn burned down, but the remnants were still there. Get to the barn and turn slightly right. It's a hidden road, but you'll know if you missed it if you end up at a fruit stand talkin' to a guy named Jim.

Well, we ended up talking to Jim. He told us that the road was out of use and over grown. But if we went back the way we came and turned left at the old school house, there would be another road. An hour later, we're at the gas station asking where the school house was. To which the attendant replied that the old school house was now a dress shop. Couldn't have missed it.... except we did. Exasperated, and with two unruly children in the back seat, we went home. For years dad was on a quest to find the Table. Always the directions seemed to send us on wild chases that often found us lost (and sometimes buying fruit from Jim). Some even suggested that the Table wasn't here, but a county or three over. Or maybe it was part of the national park. No, no, no, it was on private property. One time, dad asked what the address was. "You mean like a house number? We h'ain't got those out here." And then came my favorite reply: "Oh, you can't get there from here. You gotta go somewheres else first." Like the fabled unicorn, the Table became forever hunted and never found.

What genealogist doesn't have a similar story? You want to visit the places your family lived for sentimental reasons or to check local repositories for records not available online. You've made a list of relatives that lived and died in a particular location and you take off a few days from work, hoping to make some real progress and step inside history. And what do you find? Your ancestor is buried in a family cemetery that has been gobbled up by nature, leaving no markers above ground. Or the family lived in a county that was absorbed by the neighboring ones, so you're not sure if it's County A or County B that now houses the records you need.. The progenitor of your line helped to found a town that no longer exists and the local researchers have not heard of it before. The family purchased land and the boundaries are described in relation to physical markers that have moved or are worn away due to flood or earthquake. You've traveled miles to find out "you can't get there from here."

It is so very important to know the history of the land as much as the history of the people. We must always remember that borders are just lines drawn on paper. And a map will often describe a territory, but it is not the territory itself. In my own tree I am reminded of several examples: Germantown in Virginia. The German immigrants who settled in Fauquier County isolated themselves and soon were their own community. But Germantown doesn't exist now as the town was moved and renamed. Then there's Reelfoot lake in Tennessee. It was created in 1811 by an earthquake that actually caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards into the newly depressed land. Any territories described prior to 1811 would be underwater, or have a serious face-lift, when sought out by modern researchers. And there's any number of instances of territories becoming counties and states, like Kentucky being carved out of Virginia's territory.

In many genealogy circles, it's an accepted practice to use the place name that is listed in the document we are citing. First, it is more historically accurate; closer to the truth of the time. Second, knowing that the town was in an adjacent county 100 years ago helps you, because those early records will often be housed in the original county instead of the one in which the town now resides. I have a will for one 4th great grandfather that was in another state than the one he died in only because, after his death, the borders were redrawn. It's not like the counties exchanged records so future genealogists wouldn't have problems. Also, contemporary newspapers and literature will reference those old names, so knowing what it was called (even before your ancestor was born) may help guide your research to the correct collections. If I can't find a commonly named ancestor, I often search the towns he/she lived in. If I know that Newton was originally Jo-Bob's Bluff (random example), then I would be better off searching out Jo-Bob's Bluff.

But if we want to get a clearer picture, we must know what it was then and what it is now. I've always argued for the modern place name being used in all facts. First, many of us are using some sort of software or online option to house our research. These computer programs use either Bing or Google Maps or some other similar mapping tool. These tools use today's names, so having the historical name will confuse the mapping tool. When you plan a research trip, modern place names can help you. Your ancestor may be found in three censuses with three different counties listed. He didn't move three times, but the borders of the surrounding governments did. Knowing where his homestead is now listed will help you locate it. Second, it's not unusual for your family lines to converge on the same place at different times. So mom's side helped found Orange County, North Carolina. After World War II, dad's side immigrates to Caswell County, which was carved out of Orange County and includes mom's ancestral lands. Using the modern name helps you realise just how closely connected they are. Third, while the record may be using the contemporary name for the date of it's publication, it may not be describing a current event. A great example is my 2nd great grandfather Levingskas. His birthplace alternates between Lithuania, Poland and Russia dependent upon the time period and who "owned" the land at that exact moment that the record was created, not the event itself. The most accurate truth would be to name the birthplace by whatever location name was in effect on the day of his birth (or as close as I can get to it). But we again run into the problem of that map no longer describing the territory. What was one is now the other (and 100 years from now could be something else entirely!).

In reality, you need both the historical and the modern location names. The historical name is important for accuracy. I suggest putting the historical name in the description area if you use software (or as a note if you're using paper). If you're looking at an old map or land grant, the original name will be of use in describing the territory as it was. But I must reiterate that modern place names should be in the fact itself. Our new research options for organisation and mapping are easiest with modern place names. When talking to other people, they may not be familiar with the older names, but readily recognise the modern name. Genealogists don't live in a bubble. You may have to talk to a person who hasn't lived in the area "all their lives" and wouldn't know that the Wendy's used to be a Bob's Big Boy. Also, as borders are always changing, knowing what it is then and now can give you a leg up when the area becomes the next thing. We can't keep looking back to the exclusion of looking forward........

..... or we'll have to go somewhere else first to get where we're going.

*** Note: I found the Devil's Tea Table in 2012 using Google Maps. Dad's response? "Too late now, I'm bored with it."