New technologies profoundly impact established disciplines in pleasantly surprising ways. The Global Position System (GPS) has obvious and well-known benefits for drivers and hikers alike, but it also has ready applications to many other activities. As an example, handheld GPS devices continue to revolutionize field research conducted by personal historians and genealogists. Without a doubt, libraries, courthouses and Internet resources contribute greatly to family tree discoveries, but eventually a serious researcher will need to walk in the literal footsteps of his or her ancestors to truly understand and absorb the greater context.
GPS is particularly powerful because genealogists are a generous bunch who want to share their discoveries with "cousins" whether alive today or born a hundred years from now. Addresses may change, roads may be diverted, houses may fall, and tombstones may sink below the dirt, but longitude and latitude transcend time. A coordinate recorded in the field on a handheld GPS today will locate a valuable waypoint next week or next century. Family historians can record their findings in near perpetuity when GPS coordinates are combined with resources like the Internet Archive.
I will demonstrate how GPS can be used to intersect geography and mapping with genealogical research by providing a few simple examples. This is intended to offer some promising possibilities. My personal interest happens to be genealogy but these same methods could extend easily to other interests or hobbies.
The first example highlights a place, in this case a homestead. Various census records located the George Howder family in Cambria Township in Niagara County, New York through much of the nineteenth century. Archived township maps outlined property boundaries. A GPS device in the field was then used to record the exact location of the circa 1839 house. Now it would be simple for any researcher to enter the coordinates into readily available mapping software, retrieve door-to-door driving directions, and travel directly to the Old Howder Homestead
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The second example is also an object, but perhaps more colorful. It is a three-holed outhouse or privy. The way this would function, without getting too descriptive, is that each hole would fit either dad, mom or the kids. Our ancestors did not have flush toilets in this sparsely settled agrarian community on the nineteenth century American frontier. Outhouse were a necessity but few of these structures survived, having met with obsolescence, embarrassment and decay with the advent of indoor plumbing. The Witte Outhouse dates to about 1873-1880 and was donated by the family to Old World Wisconsin,a living history museum in the southeast corner of the state. Imagine trying to find this one small building set obscurely upon the several hundred acres of a sprawling outdoor museum in the summertime heat. I can because I did, and it was a difficult task even though I knew I should look somewhere in the German section of the facility. Now imagine how much easier it would have been if the waypoint had been preloaded into a handheld GPS device. Today that is possible because the coordinate has been recorded and released to the public domain.
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Finally I’d like to highlight what can perhaps be viewed as the classic example: grave location. Many genealogists like to record the exact location of their ancestors’ burial plots. I’m not exactly sure why this is done but that’s something we do, and I’ve certainly spent my fair share of hours wandering through cemetery fields in search of specific stones. This can be a daunting task. Large cemeteries often have offices that will provide a paper map or at least a plot number to help narrow down the search. Smaller cemeteries generally do not, and researchers have no choice but to zig and zag down each row individually looking at every tombstone until reaching the right one. All of this inconvenience can be avoided if a simple longitude and latitude has been recorded by a previous visitor. A waypoint displayed on a handheld GPS will locate a tombstone to within a few feet. In the illustration provided below, the map clearly shows the accuracy at which the Sylvester Family Plot has been marked, not just to a cemetery in rural Plainview, Minnesota, but to a specific spot within that cemetery and with an accuracy of about 15 feet.
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