Am I walking in the very footsteps of my ancestors?
It is an obvious question for those who have embarked on a journey of exploration into the former residences and locations of past family members.
For me this question arises on many streets in the East End of London but there are many other less accessible locations I would like to visit to ask this question during the course of my lifetime.
For those of us who live in the same region or country even as the majority of our ancestors this question can arise as part of our daily lives. Especially if we inhabit the same built environment as our forebears. For others, there is great excitement when a former ancestral location can be gleaned from the historical sources and a pilgrimage planned to that place. The trepidation is greater still if those locations are situated in an unfamiliar country and culture.
To get ancestral ground beneath our feet we may simply need an address. This can be found quite often in documents charting life events such as births, marriages or deaths. Then we need to identify where that address was or still is located. Being careful to avoid any false leads if streets have been renamed, completely eradicated and redeveloped, or if new streets have been created since with the same name.
To help this process you will need to look at both contemporary and historic maps of the location to evaluate if the location still exists today. Online streetview maps will also help you identify individual buildings if you are unable to go to the location immediately. You may also want to use subsidiary sources such as censuses or street by street entries in historic address books in order to ascertain the numbering system of buildings and their correlation to the street plan at the time your ancestors were in residence.
In many European countries historical events have brought changes of language and national identity to ancestral locations. The names of villages and towns may have completely changed and streets been renamed along new national orientations. Local, regional and national map collections held in the archives can assist with questions of name and location and in a surprising number of cases these can be accessed remotely online. There are several excellent urban and regional map collections online where downloadable maps can be purchased also, examples are The David Rumsey Map Collection and The 1900 Collection at Discus Media.
It may be possible to identify specific properties in which your ancestors lived or at least neighbouring properties, and you may feel an overwhelming urge to politely ask the current owner to let you peek inside. If the property is up for sale you may need to restrain yourself from an ancestrally motivated purchase!
If the dwelling no longer exists then you may be able to get a very good idea of what the street scene or rural setting looked like with the help of historic photographs and scenic postcards. These can give you a valuable visual impression of the surroundings in which your ancestors lived out their everyday lives. By learning about the history of that community of residence during the specific historical time frame, you can add even greater detail to the historic picture. Such as pinpointing key local institutions and well worn paths to the local school, to work or the shops.
I have been fascinated by what can be revealed at great distance through satellite imagery regarding the Viking settlement of North America. The Vikings Uncovered a BBC One programme with presenter Dan Snow and space archaeologist Dr Sarah Parcak has shown us how archaeological traces lying beneath the surface are hinted at in images taken from 383 miles above the earth’s surface. By contrast visiting our ancestral streets and neighbourhoods, even virtually, brings very close-up impressions of the well-trodden ancestral paths beneath our feet. If your forebears’ surroundings have remained relatively unchanged, then what you see with your own eyes may be very similar to what they saw.
I wonder, apart from the tangibility of buildings and locations, is it also the unassuming connection of the mundane which makes that association more meaningful? Although decades or centuries apart, the strong sense of walking in someone’s footsteps produces a whole set of emotions and questions. Perhaps it also helps us look differently at our own everyday surroundings and activities if we begin to imagine our family’s future descendants retracing the footsteps of our own mundane lives.
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 14/04/2016
“The Vikings Uncovered” with presenter Dan Snow and space archaeologist Dr Sarah Parcak, BBC One, broadcast 08/04/2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b076r0sr
The David Rumsey Map Collection, http://www.davidrumsey.com
The 1900 Collection, Discus Media, http://www.discusmedia.com
Historytrace can help you to explore your family’s ancestral locations and create ancestral itineraries to put your family heritage beneath your feet. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.
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