Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Counties Have Genealogies, Too

If we look at the meaning of the word “genealogy” online, on the Merriam-Webster site, we find several definitions, including:
“an account of the origin and historical development of something”
This definition is helpful  because it makes us aware of the broader meaning of the word “genealogy” that includes more than just people. When we research the genealogy of our ancestors, we have to remember
that geographic places (rivers, streams, mountain peaks etc.) and man-made places (towns, counties) also have genealogies.

View from a bridge over the Smith River, Fieldale, Henry County, Virginia., MarmadukePercy, 24 April 2010, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Melinda Kashuba has written a very helpful book (the author is updating the material for a new edition) for genealogists, Walking With YourAncestors,
Used by permission of author 
that teaches how to use maps and geography to research the comings and goings of our forebears. We learn a very important fact in this book: counties in America (during and after colonial times) were not fixed. Rather they were fluid. Often counties divided and then divided again, forming new counties. Some counties get eliminated in this process.

What were the reasons for these changing boundaries? Kashuba gives several reasons. If you have traced ancestors during colonial times in America, you already know about land speculation. In Kashuba’s words:

New counties were carved out of sparsely populated regions for the purpose of promoting settlement because being part of an established county rather than unorganized territory was thought to be an effective selling point.” (p. 43)

Another reason for an existing county to be divided is explained by Kashuba:

Residents often promoted separating into a new county, particularly when the trip to their current county seat was especially onerous. The ideal trip from the outlying hinterland to the county seat and back would be about a day’s time. Smaller counties were often created to satisfy these complaints by residents.” (p. 43)

This desire of residents to have a county seat nearby is of great significance to genealogists. The way that residents could let their desires be known is by petition to the legislature and thus a record was created!

The Library of Virginia has an on-line, searchable database of legislative petitions.
You can find the title of a petition, the county it came from, the date it was filed and where it is located in the library. Unfortunately, you must go to the library in order to view the document on microfilm.

Facebook logo/icon introduced in April 2013, 19 April 2013, Facebook, Inc.
Wikimedia, in public domain.
Now, if you don’t live in Virginia, getting to the Library could be a problem. This is where belonging to a genealogical community is so valuable. Lincoln County GenealogicalSociety of WV has a group on Facebook, LCGS WV, where you can share information and ask questions.  Patty Butcher Tyler, a member of this group, transcribed two petitions, that she found in the Library of Virginia's legislative petitions collection, from Cabell County, WV residents, requesting a new county be formed. Both petitions, one dated 1840 and a subsequent one dated 1860, were sent to then Governor of Virginia, John Letcher (who served as governor from 1860-1864) in 1860.

Governor's House, Richmond, Va, Mathew Brady, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865, National Archives and Records AdministrationARC identifier: 524418, public domain.

These petitions are a godsend to genealogists because they can be used to place ancestors in a certain time/area. And their neighbors are also shown as signers of the petitions. Finally, we are so fortunate to have the original signatures of these petitioners. I am so lucky that my ancestor, Franklin Johnson, was one of the Cabell County, WV residents who wanted a new county.

Patty ButcherTyler first published an article, including some of the pages from the petitions, in the Lincoln Standard . Here is a page from the article showing the second petition with Franklin Johnson’s signature:
 
 Library of Virginia, Richmond, Legislative Petitions, Reel 32, Box 45, Folder 56 Petition of Citizens.

Now that we have seen how legislative petitions can be helpful for genealogists, let’s return to county boundary changes and see how these changes affect research. Melinda Kashuba cautions researchers:

To be efficient and successful in the research of a specific locality, you need to know what jurisdiction that locality fell under during the time your ancestor or research subject lived there. Your ancestor may not have traveled any farther than from his cabin’s porch to the well and back and spent his entire life in one place, but the territory he lived in became a county and that county became part of a state. Those county boundaries may have moved and shifted over time as new counties were added and old counties were abolished….Your ancestor may disappear from his county’s records, when in actuality the boundary shifted and suddenly he and his family were recorded in the records of a different  county.” (p. 42)

My Johnsons and their Franklin and Shelton cohort families lived near Peter’s Creek in Virginia in the 1780s to early 1800s. In order to see what county Peter’s Creek was in from the earliest colonial settlement to the 1800s, I needed a tool. AniMap is a database mapping program that “contains more than one million locations of: cities, towns, townships, courthouses, cemeteries (and geographic features) listing over 50,000 places no longer in existence.” (CD jacket of AniMap 3.0.2)

Used by permission of AniMap
When I plotted Peter’s Creek in Virginia in AniMap, here are the county changes I saw:
Date
County
1669
Charles City
1703
Prince George
1745
Brunswick
1749
Lunenburg
1765
Halifax
1773
Pittsylvania
1782
Henry
1791
Patrick

In AniMap, you plot a place and the program shows you the changing county boundaries of that place. A caveat is that minor geographic features or towns from two or three hundred years ago may not be in the AniMap database. If your feature is not in AniMap, chances are that another neighboring place will be in the database.

When you begin using AniMap, I suggest that you print out the manual (available when you install the program) to help you master the steps of “plucking” or selecting the place you want to know how the county changed over the years and “plotting” or placing that feature on the map.

An online database of geographic features is the Geographic Names information System (GNIS) at the United States Geological Survey.

USGS office, 30 July 2010, photographed by Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia, 
This database contains over two million feature names in the US and its territories. It's a great place to start searching for ancestral place names.


In this post, I have discussed the genealogy of counties in America and how important it is to know the county your ancestor lived in and to realize that the county may have changed several times over the years. In order to find an ancestor’s records, you may need to search in several counties. I have highlighted AniMap, a very helpful software program that lets you know with confidence the county your ancestor was in at what time, and GNIS, an online gazetteer

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