Latter-day Saints can learn how to find where their ancestors lived.

Read Part 1 of this article here

“We’re going to Grandmother’s House today! Get dressed! Come on, we’re going to Grandma’s! Everyone get in the car! Put your seatbelts on! We’re going to Grandpa’s!  Everyone ready?  OK, turn on your computers!”  “…what?!  Hold on… turn on our computers?  I thought we were going to Grandma’s house?  What’s going on here?” 

Going to Grandmother’s House Through Genealogy Research

Yes, we are going to Grandmother’s House; but as we learned in Part One of this genealogy research series, going to Grandmother’s House doesn’t necessarily mean going “over the river and through the woods”, or even traveling in a car.  (Although, going there in person is one of the special rewards of doing genealogy and family history and should always be a desired option.) Traditional research and modern technology provide us with enhanced opportunities for finding the homes of our ancestors and to accurately climb the family tree.

Knowing the homes and where our grandparents lived can be a great boon for family history work. While the building itself seldom has any genealogical purpose, it does give us a point of reference relating to the location and lives of our family who lived there.  Plus, visiting the family home in person… standing where our ancestors stood, and seeing what they saw, can provide a powerful and personal emotional connection to our loved ones.  But the paramount reason in searching for and locating Grandmother’s home site and its historical and community setting, is that we can discover new ideas and additional resources to improve our family history record.  Grandmother’s House is not only a visual reminder of ancestors, but by seeking out the homes on our family tree, we can find hidden links to our ancestry and children’s hearts will turn to their fathers. 

Asking the Right Questions to Get the Right Answers

“Grandmother’s House” refers to the actual homes of our ancestors.  In Part Two we need to ask several very important questions to be able to accurately identify Grandmother’s House.

  • Which Grandma and Grandpa we are researching?  This will focus our research.
  • When and where did they live? 
  • What is the historical setting for their time period?   
  • In how many different places did they reside?
  • Did they own property? 
  • With whom did they live?
  • Who were their neighbors? 
  • What Church did they go to? 
  • Where were they buried? 
  • What was their profession? 

By asking the right questions about Grandma and Grandpa, we can come to understand and locate the records of their day and find the right answers for our family tree.  By researching these questions, genealogical discoveries can be made that can help reveal both Grandmother’s House and our heritage.  

Location! Location! Location!

Thirty-five years ago, before the advent of computers, the Internet, and digitized records, I graphically learned the value of “Location! Location! Location!”  I’d hit the proverbial brick wall in my research on the lineage of Ezekiel Slade of Harford County, Maryland.  Ezekiel had lived in the mid-1800’s, and was in one location and one home most of his life; but county records just didn’t seem to provide the information I needed on him and his family.  The opportunity came for me to visit Harford County, in Northeastern Maryland, and I went searching for the old Slade home. 

Using the Family History Library collection in Salt Lake City, Utah, I found county deed records which directed me to a township in the northwestern part of the county.  Following plat maps and county histories I was able to identify the actual home site once I got to Maryland and was able to search a county historical society archive.  Here I found an old county highway map that showed the residence of the Slade Family.  I drove to the community in a fairly rural part of the county, and found the home right on the main road, near the county border, which border also happened to be the state line between Maryland and Pennsylvania.  The home was a lovely white wooden frame house reminiscent of the 1840’s.  I walked up to the front door and looked around at the property.  To my surprise, directly across the road was a large Presbyterian Church, surrounded by a church cemetery where I soon found the whole family had been buried. 

Why hadn’t I recognized this church in my research?  Then I realized the answer.  The county and state border ran right between the Slade home and the Presbyterian Church.  I had been searching the records of Harford County, Maryland; but Ezekiel Slade and his family were worshipping God in York County, Pennsylvania!  This Grandmother’s House taught me to look at the area around a home; to see where a family lived, and died, and worked, and went to church, because that would be where the records might be found that would reveal their lineage and history. 

Tips to Help You Find Grandmother’s House!

What can we look at to identify where Grandpa and Grandma lived, keeping in mind, we may not be talking about our most recent grandparents.  We may be looking for ancestors who lived and died two hundred or more years ago.  How do we find their homes?

Most families do not stay in one place.  They have children who marry and move to their own homes, many times leaving the community where they grew up.  Within two or three generations the family home is empty, and is sold for others to use. Often, until someone in a later generation begins looking for their genealogy and family history, Grandmother’s House becomes forgotten by the descendants of its earlier residents.  This place that was once so familiar to one generation is no longer relevant to the next, and has to be rediscovered.  How is it re-found? 

Can’t we just check an old telephone directory and see what the address was?  Unfortunately, finding Grandmother’s House again isn’t as easy as that.  Grandparents in the 1800’s didn’t have telephones, and so… no telephone directories.  What did they have?     

The following is a list of recommended resources and techniques to use while researching where our ancestors lived.  Most of these are available either in published form, on microfilm, or digitized online for free through the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its various branches and their website www.familysearch.org :

 

  1. Family Records – In personal family collections, letters, journals, diaries, photographs, family papers, and CD’s, tapes and records, are all wonderful sources for information about the family and the home they lived in. There may be descriptions of the house, the yard, the access to town, the names and homes of neighbors, and the connections to their community.  Where they went to Church; where they conducted business; where the school was; and many other clues. And don’t forget to look at the envelopes; addresses and postmarks may be given that are far more valuable than the stamps!

My ancestor, William Henry Wright, once of Birmingham, England, upon returning there on an LDS Church Mission, kept a small journal in which he recorded the important names and addresses of people he visited, including relatives, the places where he once lived and worked, and other historical sites.


  Today when we visit Birmingham, that one hundred and thirty year old record provides us with an invaluable guide to our ancestor’s past.

  1. Census Records and City Directories – Census records in the United States began in 1790, and were made every ten years.  They are now available on-line through a variety of Internet websites (such as www.familysearch.org  [the free LDS Family History site], and www.Ancestry.com  [a commercial/subscription site].) Similar records are available for Canada, England, Denmark, and other countries. 

Census records provide lists of the inhabitants in communities, and detail the residents in individual homes.  Whereas early lists were largely statistical summaries, more and more detail became available in the later censuses.  By the 1880’s, the records were providing specific locations of families, and even provided street addresses in urban locations.  In America such census records are readily available up through 1930. 

City Directories are like yearly census lists, but usually apply to highly populated and concentrated communities, prior to the advent of telephone directories.  These records are extremely important for obtaining addresses (and maps) of cities between the 1850’s and mid-1900’s. 

  1. Deeds and other Land Records – The county courthouses of most American communities, maintain the property records of the jurisdictions they cover.  Deeds are a record of homes and lands purchased and sold in a community, and are generally accompanied with descriptions including addresses.  As with censuses, the more modern the record, the more detailed and specific is the information provided. 

In Colonial America property was surveyed and described in records by what was known as a “Metes and Bounds” system.  This method of describing property used physical objects as markers to establish the boundaries of a piece of land, such as an old oak tree (which had been marked), a large stone, a road, or a stream or waterway.  Property descriptions using this method, considered precise by primitive standards, can be affected by the removal of any of these objects.  Locating property using this method relies heavily on recognizing the roads, waterways, and the names of neighboring property owners in determining where property can be found on a modern map. 

In 1785, the U.S. government adopted what was known as the Rectangular Survey System, which provided that public lands be surveyed and divided into subdivisions, sections, townships and range; a system still used today.  This method makes it relatively easy to identify specific property on a survey map.

In conjunction with these survey processes, most county recorders offices also maintain collections of generational plat maps to assist real estate officials with identifying modern properties. 

  1. County Histories and Published Resources – Histories have been published for most US counties which provide accounts of the early settlers and the families living within local governmental boundaries.  These sketches often provide information about where a family farm or home was located.  Local histories are also available for international research.
  1. Maps – When the preliminary investigation has been made it is time to study maps. Many detailed and fine maps have been published over the past two hundred years in America; some so carefully drawn as to identify specific homes and buildings.  Similar maps are available for England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, and other countries as well; many of which can be found at the Family History Library, in published form, on microfilm, and/or in digitized form on the Internet.

A publication in America that is very useful in identifying specific personal properties in a county is a continuing series of volumes called “Family Maps…” by Gregory A. Boyd.  Mr. Boyd has completed scores of volumes covering counties in states all across America.  These “Family Maps” consist of a description of the individual townships within each county, with a series of maps for each jurisdiction identifying the original land owners, and portraying the roads, railroads, waterways, cemeteries, populated communities, and other geographical features.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is a scientific branch of the federal government that collects information about all manner of issues related to science in this country, including maintaining up-to-date mapping of the United States.  Begun in 1879, the USGS has produced some of the most detailed topographical maps in the world, with nearly complete mapping of the United States at various times during the past 130 years.  Modern digitized maps can be found on-line at www.usgs.gov , and historical maps produced from 1880 to 1980 are available on microfilm through the Family History Library.  These historical maps provide detailed portrayals of many parts of rural America which show homes, barns, cemeteries, churches, and other prominent buildings of the day.  Comparing early maps with modern maps often allows us to determine where family homes and properties can be found today.  

Grandmother’s House on Google Earth

When you have determined where your ancestor lived according to the available records, in relation to waterways, roads, and other geographical features and have identified the location of their property on detailed maps, it is time to visit Grandmother’s House.  The first visit however, is not over the river or through the woods; it is by way of space and Internet.  One of the marvelous, entertaining, and free resources available today is an on-line program called “Google Earth”.

Click on Google Earth and follow the instructions to install their free download program.  This will place a photographic image of the Earth on your computer screen.  With your cursor you can pick the area of the United States or other countries that you want to examine, and double click on that spot.  The screen telescopically enlarges the image until you can see the outline of the State or county for which you are looking. The program provides an overlay outline identifying the geopolitical boundaries of States, counties, and cities, as well as highways, and other useful features including names of buildings, churches and historical sites. You can click again and again, until the image on the screen is large enough to show individual houses and fields where your ancestor lived, even down to street addresses and the playhouse in the backyard, depending up the pictures provided by Google.  A final set of clicks in many parts of the United States and other countries will turn the scene into a street level view and you may find yourself looking at the front door of Grandmother’s House!

If Grandmother’s House is still standing, you will be able to see it, with its flower gardens, the apple tree in the backyard, and the mailbox out front.  You can then pan the surrounding area and find neighbors, the local churches, cemeteries, creeks and rivers, lakes and ponds, and all manner of modern information about the region. For those with a pair of 3-D glasses, Google now offers a 3 dimensional view of the home.  Plus, a real bonus is the feature to possibly view 50 years worth historical pictures of the site. 

Now you can really plan for next summer’s historical family vacation… We’re going to Grandmother’s House!

Coming Next: “To Grandmother’s House We Go!  Part Three: A Family Activity”

Look for the final article in this Meridian Magazine Genealogy series for fun family activities! 

James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”.


  He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc.
(www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.

For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including free genealogy, LDS Family History advice and expert answers to commonly asked ancestry questions, visit Jim’s website www.Heirlines.com for free consultations and ordering custom family tree research services, and his genealogy blog www.ProfessionalGenealogy.com.