I posted a question, Using web mapping and geocoding to track genealogical data, over at Geographic Information Systems SE awhile ago, so I was quite excited when I saw the proposal for this site. I realised that my question has two components, namely the GIS side and the genealogical side, which is why I thought I would post the relevant part here.

Over the last year, I have gotten involved in researching my family tree. My paternal grandfather came from a remote island in the Atlantic, along with hundreds of others of his generation, and many of them settled within the same area. As the island is very small, they shared a small number of family names (a few dozen surnames, with multiple variations of the same name).

The recently established Society has compiled a small contacts database of known descendants living in the city (and by extension, any family members who are in other parts of the country as well). At the moment, all they have is the basic contact details of the individuals, and once every few months, a meeting is held to touch base with everyone.

Coming from a GIS background, I know the Society can benefit greatly from my mapping skills to keep track of the descendants, and eventually start tracing back the family trees spatially. What I would like to know is, from a genealogical viewpoint, is simply starting with known family surnames enough? What data should I request from the Society members? I don't want to broadly request "all the data you have", as it would add too much complexity at this stage.

To clarify, I would not be keeping track of the family relationships per se, but more a case of "out of the 20 Jones who originally arrived here, there are now 300 Jones families" etc. I would be relying on the other members of the society to provide the genealogical data, while I would build up and analyse the spatial information.


7 Answers 7


You appear to be asking what data should you request from your Society members without adding too much complexity.

I would say from each member, get their ancestral surnames along with dates that those families were in a particular place.


 - Warsaw, Poland, up to 1846
 - Paris, France, 1818 - 1940
 - London, England, 1846 - present
 - Scranton, PA, 1902 - present
 - Miami, FL, 1920 - present

If you want to go one step further, ask them for their migration years, e.g.

 - Warsaw, Poland to London, England, 1846 
 - London, England to Scranton, PA, 1902
 - Paris, France to Miami, FL, 1920
 - Paris, France to Scranton, PA, 1940

That should give you enough to get started with mapping their ancestral homes and journeys.

  • 2
    This is more along the lines of what I was thinking, as a starting point. Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 5:01

What an exciting project.

Focused on the genealogical side, where to begin?

You asked if surnames would be enough. "Key" genealogical information consists of more than surnames. Full names, lineage, birth (baptism), marriage and death (burial) events, placed in date and location context ...

While there are certainly more informal approaches, the scholarly aspect of your project seems similar to the genealogical work done by lineage societies. You are probably familiar with some of these--the Mayflower Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, etc. (Separate from these lineage societies, many genealogical societies in the US have developed programs/databases that recognize the descendants of the early area settlers.)

Lineage societies typically have a formal application process and require that members document their line of descent from some qualifying individual. For example, membership in the Mayflower Society requires proven descent from one of the Mayflower Pilgrams.

Most lineage societies have been gathering family information and documentation for years, so that a certain database of "proven" descent exists. New application often work to document their connection to one of the accepted or "proven" descendants (rather than to document their descent all the way back to the originally qualifying individual).

As you have described the project, it seems that over time, there could be social, genealogical, biological and cultural heritage benefits/objectives. Most of these objectives can evolve, but there are probably some priorities:

  1. Pedigree Submissions. Encourage each of your society members to supply you with a Pedigree Chart. Pedigree charts capture key genealogical information about a person and three or four generations of their ancestors. (About.com has a free interactive chart online. Ancestry.com offers a printable "Ancestral Chart." Although I presume you would do this anyway, choose a format that includes not only names, but space for birth/marriage/death dates and locations. You may be talented enough to create your own online forms for this submission.)

  2. Family Group Sheets. Encourage the submission of a family group sheet for each of the immigrating families (and successive generations if there is interest.) A family group sheet captures key genealogical information about head of household and a partner/spouse, all the children born to that union and the names of their partners/spouses. (KBYU offers a nice two page interactive family group record/family groups sheet; page 1, page 2. You may be talented enough to create your own online forms for these submissions.)*

  3. Documentation about the original immigrants, especially digital images or copies of documents that would be considered privately held. (Family bibles, journals, pictures, personal copies of birth, baptismal and marriage records; passports/naturalization papers.)

Most genealogy software can generate pedigrees family group sheets; there are probably even some interesting collaborative sites where you might host an online family tree. Even if I were using one of those program/service solutions, I would probably still work to obtain the pedigrees and family groups sheets via e-mail as I suspect those documents probably retain a value as artifacts.

*You can obtain these for every union reported on the pedigree.


There is a software program called Family Atlas (www.familyatlas.com) that will import data from a variety of sources, including GEDCOM. If the coordinate of an event place is included, it will use it. Otherwise it will look up a coordinate based on the place name.

It has a variety of basic mapping capabilities but, in line with what you're asking, it can export the data to a KML file which you can use in most web and desktop GIS applications.


I think you need to clarify what you aim to achieve. As you have not stated where the remote island or the migration destination are, I do not know what records are available to you. Rather than take a miscellaneous collection of information, I suggest the you start work with one set of original records that you understand well. An ideal example would be an old map that records land ownership e.g. UK tithe maps, USA land plats. Then add another data set as a separate layer.

Questions you need to answer include: What scale and accuracy will you work at? Do you want to identify a town, village or an individual house? How will you deal with change over time? How will you handle incomplete or inaccurate location descriptions? How will you deal with jurisdictional changes?

Take a look at A Vision of Britain, England Jurisdictions 1851 to get a feel of mapping jurisdictions, DeedMapper and similar platting software, UCL's Surname Profiler. Would you like to produce something similar to these?

There is huge potential for GIS in genealogy, but I am not sure implementing and using its full power is at all easy.

  • Thanks Sue. The reason I asked this question is because I was hoping to get some ideas so that I could further clarify my aim. As I am approaching this project from the geographical side, I was hoping that someone here had already used GIS with genealogical data. Without getting too ambitious, for now I would like to do something similar to the Surname profiler you mentioned. So someone could log on to the website, and would be presented with a dynamic map of my region showing the surnames, zooming in would provide more attribute detail, and they could add their info. Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 5:23
  • That would just be a starting point, of course, and I would only use the surnames for now to protect individual privacy. I don't want to request too much information from the Society, since essentially I would have to demo my idea to them first and see the feedback I get. Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 5:25

To try and merge what you describe as the GIS and Genealogy sides, I would suggest thinking about how you can geocode the events and relationships stored in a family history software package inside a geodatabase so that they can be visualised using GIS tools.

I've looked unsuccessfully for a GEDCOM to Geodatabase conversion program, and am still hoping not to have to try and write one.

I defer to many other genealogists here on what you need from that perspective, but I suspect you will benefit from access to any existing family trees to go with the Society's contact database, and that surnames alone will probably not provide the detail you/they seek.

  • It was hard to phrase the "genealogical" side of the question correctly, so I'll think about it a bit more to clarify. Thanks for the tips though, I do think collecting any family trees the Society already has will help as those relationships will be established already. Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 10:21
  • Actually, I think her question was okay. Arabella started with an introduction to what she was doing, and her last two paragraphs asked the question and what she wanted.
    – lkessler
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 15:39

I love new gadgets, tools, programs, types of data displays and processing techniques. When I find one I often take some content from another project I am working on to see what the shiny new thing can do. When I do that, I have fun and I learn things about the tool. But I don't ever produce anything worthwhile at that stage. Later on, I may get the real benefit from that exploration of tool or technique X when I am working on a problem and I realise that I can use X to do Y.

A great product grows out of a genuine need, not simply the availability of a new tool. When you know precisely the problem that you are trying to solve by mapping, then the information that needs to be mapped will be obvious. It will be the stuff that has been frustrating you because all the other ways of dealing with it have not worked.

From your question, you are still at the exploration stage and it really does not matter what data the genealogy society gives you. So go ahead, ask for everything.

Or better still, use datasets from a field that you understand well to demonstrate to members of the society just what your GIS chops can do in areas other then genealogy. When they have an indication of its potential, one of them may say "What a shame that this thing cannot .... for us" And then you will have your problem.

  • Thanks for the answer. I think a demo with other data as you have said, might be the way to go, because first I thought just the surnames would be a good place to start, but then I thought of the variations of the names, then what about the family relationships, and I thought myself into a circle. Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 14:09

This is not a clear enough question. It sounds like you want to be able to show a map with dots on it representing where people and their ancestors lived, and you want to put arrows on the map to show how the families migrated. This is obviously the task of finding out where those places are, when people lived there and geocoding the places. I conjecture this is what you mean by "geocoding a surname."

Many genenalogical programs have done this for years. They use built-in or on-line gazetteers to determine where the locations mentioned in their databases are, and then they prepare maps of the migration paths that the families have taken.

  • I'll actually be approaching this task from the spatial side - it certainly will not be as simple as dots on a map. What I intend to do is build the spatial database from scratch, which can then be queried and presented to the end user in different formats. Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 14:03
  • What is a spatial database? How does it differ from the various "place authorities" that are available. There are some recent discussions on place names that might be of interest at the usenet group soc.genealogy.computing. Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 20:03
  • 2
    Both Wikipedia's definition of a spatial database and Esri's definition of a geodatabase look to me like they need work to bring them into layman's terms but the difference to me is that a place authority is information linked to a place while spatial databases (known to Esri as geodatabases) can hold information about relationships between places - e.g. perhaps visualise a person's timeline as an arrow on a map going from birth to marriage(s) to death locations
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 21:48
  • A place authority as I understand it, holds the geographical and political hierarchical relationships among places, and, fundamentally, knows the coordinates of the locations on the globe. Place authorities can also have dimensions of historical time, nationality and language. Reading the Wikipedia definition of spatial databases it's not clear whether a place authority is a subset of a spatial database, whether a spatial database is a subset of a place authority, or whether the two don't overlap completely. Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 5:09
  • Place Authority is a term new to me - I had assumed it was just a geographic feature with a name. However, geographical and political hierarchical relationships can also be modelled in a geodatabase so I would say that Place Authorities can be stored in a spatial database.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 21:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.