a black hole when it comes to finding information about your ancestors?
At times researchers find their efforts stymied because they do not understand
how various jurisdictions recorded the information.
A jurisdiction is an area that falls under the authority of an agency
or institution. Most of us apply to the state in which we live for a
driver's license, but may register the deed to a newly purchased home
with the county clerk. Non-government jurisdictions also recorded ancestors'
lives. Forebears in a small village may have traveled several miles
to a parish church for the christenings of children, marriages or burials.
Their village may have had no church of its own, but was within the
jurisdiction of a parish in a neighboring town. Learn the names of seats
of jurisdictions that included the ancestral home town or village. Determine
if archives or libraries in jurisdictional seats or state capitols have
records that name persons who lived where your ancestors did.
How can you learn which jurisdictions recorded events in ancestors'
lives? The easiest tool to use is an atlas. A valuable atlas for localities
in the United States is the latest edition of Rand McNally Commercial
Atlas & Marketing Guide (Chicago: Rand McNally) or an edition published
near the time forbears lived in an area. The index makes it easy to
find cities and towns, and county and state boundaries are clearly marked.
Maps also show the range and township numbers printed on maps of public
domain states, generally east of the Mississippi. Knowledge of the range
and township numbers will help you track down lands purchased from the
federal government or homesteaded under the Homestead Act of 1862.
Atlases published in other countries near the times forebears lived
there will also show state and national boundaries. Check the collections
of the map library at your local college or university to learn which
titles they have. The maps librarian may be able to help you locate
atlases at other libraries that cover countries of interest to you.
National church organizations in the United States and abroad often
publish maps showing the jurisdictions within the church. For England,
The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (Cecil Humphrey-Smith,
ed. Chichester, Eng.: Phillimore & Co., LTD., 1995) is particularly
Gazetteers are helpful in isolating most of the jurisdictions that
covered the city or village where ancestors lived. Again, it is helpful
to look in local libraries for gazetteers published near the time your
family lived in the area. You may learn where the nearest church was,
where probate offices were, where the registrar of vital events was
(registry of births, marriages, deaths) or the state office where emigrants
applied for exit permits. Local reference librarians can help you search
library catalogs for these books.
Often college and university map collections contain historical gazetteers
the institutions have acquired. An example from the United States is
The National Gazetteer: A Geographical Dictionary of the United States
(Leo de Colange, London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1884). Meyers Orts-und
Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutsche Reichs (Leipzig and Vienna: Bibliographisches
Institut, 1912) is important for jurisdictions within German states,
since most of the cities in this gazetteer remained in the same jurisdictions
after 1815. The relatively stable jurisdictions in England make John
Bartholomew's The Survey Gazetteer of the British Isles in any
edition a handy tool (Edinburgh: John Bartholomew & Son LTD.).