Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Vanishing peoplescapes & fun with maps

I pulled a brief program out of my hat for the Lucas County Genealogical Society last month and we talked more about the topic earlier this week --- it seemed to grab the imagination of those who attended. So I'm going to repeat some of the material here.

The topic was vanishing peoplescapes --- sometimes landscapes, too --- and ideas for recording features and locations that have disappeared or are in danger of doing so.

By peoplescapes, I mean the human overlay applied to natural landscape after an area was settled --- the 1840s for much of south central Iowa: Roads, farms, homes, schools, cemeteries. These were places, routes and locations that had significance for our ancestors, but have in many cases proved to be transitory and now are difficult to locate --- if they can be located at all.

Like, who can tell me where in English Township Cain Church once stood or in Benton, Otterbein, Mt. Carmel and Salem? Or where in Washington Township Xury West pioneered?

In some cases, the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, too, during the last century. The vast Red Rock and Rathbun reservoirs, for example, obliterated significant chunks of, respectively, the Des Moines and Chariton river valleys, drowning pioneer and prehistoric settlements in the process.

I was inspired by the late Pauline Vincent Barker, who left behind for her children and grandchildren maps of townships in Wayne and Lucas counties where her families had lived with specific locations numbered, keyed to separate sheets containing detailed information about places of original family settlement, homes, churches and schools attended, where people met and married --- and where they are buried.

Her base maps were photocopies of township landowner maps taken from the earliest available published plat books --- for Wayne County, 1897; and for Lucas, 1896. And her materials, ballpoint pens and paper.

Early plat maps of villages, towns and cities generally are available, too. And these would form the base for the historians of families who lived in urban settings --- or those just interested in locating vanished buildings or other points of interest.


A good place to start now, if you're interested in Iowa, is The University of Iowa Libraries' Iowa Maps Digital Collection, which you'll find here. Just type the name of the county you're interested in into the search form to the right and what's available will appear.

The collection is remarkably comprehensive, in part because of cooperative partners. A couple of years ago, for example, we drove precious copies of both the 1896 and 1908 Lucas County plat books from the Lucas County Historical Society collection to Iowa City so that they could be digitalized and made available. They came back to us in beautifully crafted archival storage boxes built by the University Libraries staff.

The 1897 Wayne County plant book is available here, too. 

Many of the county collections on this site begin with the original survey maps. There were only two settled places in Lucas County when our maps were made, but the route of the Mormon Trail was clearly marked by the surveyors, so these are of great interest.

These online maps can be downloaded in various sizes (generally opt for the largest available) and, if you like, printed out. It's possible to add data directly to the maps using photo-processing programs, too. In most cases you can find free programs online to work with (I like Pixlr "Editor") and only minimal skills --- my level --- are required.

I jiggered the 1896 Benton Township map used as an illustration here in about 15 minutes. By right-clicking and opening in a new window, you can see in bright red a few locations that are Myers-relevant, including the sites of the homes of my great-great-grandparents (Jacob Myers), great-grandparents (Daniel Myers Sr.) and grandparents (Irwin Myers) as well as the family church, Mt. Carmel; family school, Myers; and burial place, Salem Cemetery.

If this were a "real" project, however, I'd just have numbered relevant locations, keyed to more detailed explanations elsewhere.


There are other ways to record vanished or vanishing peoplescapes, too.

Some years ago, Miller cousins who had never set foot in Iowa before visited and we spent an afternoon touring historic locations in Lucas and Monroe counties. During those visits, the GPS locations of each site were determined and entered.

Miller Ridge is a Monroe County neighborhood relevant to my family, too. Some years ago I asked a cousin, Marjorie Miller Shaw --- then approaching 90 --- to sit down with a pen and legal pad and take me on a written tour of the neighborhood as she remembered it, from the Trimble Hills on the west to fork in the road where the neighborhood ended. She did a wonderful job, locating homes, churches and schools long vanished as well as burial places and other geographical features.

My cousin, Kathy, who happened to be at this week's meeting talked a little about a family home that had been torn down, but survived in the backgrounds of family snapshots. She had drawn a floor plan of the building and indicated where some of the photos had been taken, thus putting them into context for her children and grandchildren.

So there are all sorts of ways to preserve memories of vanished peoplescapes. If you're carrying some of these around in your head it's time to get them down on paper, or recorded digitally. So get busy!

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