By Jennifer Fallon
Have you ever wondered what it was like for your ancestors to work and live in urban India in the 19th century? Maybe you would like to visit their hometown in Germany, Peru, or the Philippines? Or perhaps you would just like to know how they managed to survive on a rural Midwest farm during the Great Depression and what the old homestead looks like today. Now you can do all these things and never leave your home.
When you see your ancestors in the context of their environment, they become more real to you. You can’t go back in time to see where and how they lived, but you can see the places where they lived as those sites exist today. While many of the cities and towns where our ancestors lived have changed dramatically over the last century, some places remain remarkably unchanged.
For example, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather owned a small farm and ice cream shop in Panguitch, Utah. Panguitch reached its peak population of 2,500 people in 1940, but when World War II hit, the population began a steady exodus to work in the wartime industries. Just 24 miles from the world-renowned Bryce Canyon, Panguitch today remains largely the same quaint, unassuming historic town as it was when my ancestors lived and worked there.
You can take a virtual tour of the places your ancestors lived by using online tools such as Google Maps and Google Earth. These tools allow you to take a look at local courthouses, civic centers, main streets, museums, and social halls. In some cases, you can even see the old familial home.
Using these two websites, you can see an Inuit village in Alaska, an old homestead in the Black Forest of Germany, or an ancestral castle in Ireland. You can see the cemetery your ancestors were buried in and see if their tombstones are still standing. You can expand your sense of time and place and even stumble on the unexpected as you peruse these sites and the vistas they provide.
To see the landmarks that were there when your ancestor was alive, read up on local history. State government websites often contain information about the growth and development of the cities—both large and small—within the state.
To find your ancestors’ addresses, check census records. In later census records, addresses with street names were often listed on the side of the census page. City directories can also yield street names and addresses. National libraries in the United Kingdom have digitized city directories back to the 19th century. You may be able to find the address and perhaps even the profession of your ancestor.
As you begin a virtual tour on Google Maps, keep in mind the following tips.
- Go to maps.google.com and type the name of the town or the address you wish to explore. You’ll see a map of the city on the screen. A sidebar on the left of the screen will usually pop up with photographs and quick facts about the area. Click the photograph to view a photo gallery of the city.
- Scroll through the photo gallery, either by using the left and right arrows or by clicking a photo that interests you.
- You can pivot your viewpoint by using the compass in the lower right corner of your viewing field. This tool will give you a 360-degree perspective of the area. You can also click the arrow in the image to proceed along the road in the direction you wish to explore.
- You can also explore the city from an aerial perspective. When you first pull up the map of the city (see tip 1), you’ll see a small box in the lower left corner of the map that says “Earth.” If you click this box, you’ll see satellite images of the city, and you can zoom in and out by using the + and – signs in the lower right corner of the screen.
You may want to ask a relative who is familiar with the history of the town to sit with you and guide you through your explorations. Your parents and grandparents can likely give you a good idea of what the city or home looked like when they were young.
You can take other virtual tours too. Your tours on Google Maps and Google Earth will be mostly self-guided. During their lifetimes, your ancestors likely came in contact with some of the same historical sites that you will be viewing. And some of these historical sites provide virtual tours of their own.
If your ancestors came through Ellis Island, for example, you may want to take the recently published virtual tour, which includes images of buildings still off-limits to public visitors, including the immigrant hospital, isolation ward, and pharmacy. You can read about the background of each building and view historical photographs.
With Google Maps and Google Earth, you can virtually travel almost anywhere in the world to see many of the places where your ancestors worked and lived. You can even see the cemeteries where they are buried. Your family history experience can come alive in ways you never thought possible.
Jennifer Fallon is a freelance writer and editor working in Boston, Massachusetts.
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