Harper’s Ferry and Your Virginia Genealogy Evidence

Sometime ago, I made a research trip to Virginia and Maryland accompanied by my husband Alma, my mother-in-law Mary Alice,  and my sister-in-law Betty.

The research trip was a sort of final exam for me ending a year-long genealogy class.  This class was probably the most influential event in all of my genealogy training, including the University classes I have completed…for it established research and study methods I have used throughout all the years since.

My sister-in-law Betty wanted to see her fiance who was stationed at Arlington VA.  My mother-in-law wanted a chance to break the same-old, same-old of her daily life.  My husband was the driver who paid the bills because it was his Eakle family we were tracing.

As we neared Harper’s Ferry, my husband asked me to check for a bridge across the Potomac River.  The map showed horizontal lines where the road touched the river on both sides–as if there were a boat launch there.  So I concluded that while the map showed no bridge, there was probably an active ferry. After all, this was Harper’s Ferry.

WRONG! The ferry was no longer in use and had not been replaced by a modern one.

The map we were using did not show the canal along the edge of the river, the tow paths along the river banks, nor the railroad tracks that paralleled the canal.

As we approached the river, Alma had to turn sharply along the tow path to avoid landing in the canal or driving along the tracks.  And, don’t you know, along came a train at that precise moment!  We all gasped and were sure that it was inevitable–the canal would get us.

Just as the train slowed 50 feet in front of us, with its newly-illuminated headlight rotating around and around, we saw a narrow lane that crossed the tracks and wedged between two wooden walls.  Swoosh, our car swept into the lane and the train accelerated as it pounded by us.

That was my introduction to using a variety of maps in genealogy research–whether navigating around a historic area, determining exactly where  places associated with specific ancestors are located,  identifying ancestral landholdings, tracing migration patterns, and spotting geographic and occupational realities.

I had read the history of Harper’s Ferry and the events surrounding the seizure of the ammunition magazine.  I knew the Baltimore and Ohio Canal bordered the Potomac River.  Until then, I had not mapped the event nor its environs. And I certainly had not connected the two historic facts together in the same place.

Now I hunt for as many maps as I can find for the specific area where the ancestor lived:  local and state boundaries, mountain ranges and rivers, canals and millraces, bridges and ferries, roads and lanes, historic buildings–including those that were at one time located on the land and now are gone.

And if the map is busy, with lots of details, I color-code them.  Blue for water, yellow for place names, orange and pink for family surnames and kinship networks, and green for items and families that are well-known and most likely to be written about in history books.

I want to know how far away major  geographical features are from an ancestral home.  Where are the churches and the graveyards and the historic buildings.  How far away are the neighbors, and the relatives, and the minister, and the town and county officials?

Which way does the river run?  What smaller watercourses pour into the river and where?  Especially important are those runs and brooks and creeks and inlets mentioned in land and tax documents.   When an estate is divided among the heirs, what watercourse drains each piece of land?

I hunt for maps that show all of these.  And I copy them.  And I include the map evidence in my assessment of  the documents. How can you determine which way your ancestor migrated if you don’t have the lay of the land?

Harder to find are maps that give the coordinates for section, township, and range. You can Google the coordinates and pick up both current and historic maps.

You can try the county courthouse–the assessor’s office, or the cemetery division of the public safety department.  Many roads are identified as Three-Mile-Road or by section lines along the range boundary.  The public safety officers are the first-responders.  They have maps, some mounted on the wall.  And they usually know where to get them.

Just Google your county or town and look for the public safety department.

If your ancestor lived along a boundary line–any boundary.  Look on both sides of the boundary.

If the roads run toward a town like spokes in a wheel, first, search the town, then search the wheels surrounding your ancestral locality for your family  surname and the surnames of persons who married into your family surname.

If your ancestor resides along a major river, search towns and counties the same direction the river flows.  Many states allowed citizens to transact their legal business down the river rather than have to travel several days journey inland to the courthouse.  The Connecticut River is a very good example.

Where did the ferries go? Search the other end of the ferry.  Ferries appear as early as people do.  And the ferryman was often the first to buy land–he had the money to pay cash.

And on.  And on.  And on.  Geography is one of the most important influences in the lives of our ancestors.  Don’t overlook this evidence.  Your favorite Virginia genealogist, Arlene Eakle  http://www.arleneeakle.com

PS  You might like a complimentary issue of  Catoctin History–the magazine of the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies.  Write Frederick Community College, 7932 Opossumtown Pike, Frederick MD 21702.  You can also subscribe for a very modest fee. The Fall Issue, 2003 included articles on “Civil War Graffiti” (including items found at Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park) and the “Guns of Harper’s Ferry.”  Imagine, they rescued the graffiti from annhiliation using a government grant.  The “Kilroy was here” approach to genealogy.

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