Why You Should Sometimes Ignore Boundaries in Genealogy

The importance of location is drilled into us from the beginning of our genealogy research. We need to know where our ancestors lived. Census records are based on location. Voter lists are based on location Land records are definitely based on location. But, sometimes we need to forget which side of the county or state line our ancestor lived on.

What is the difference between these two images?

Why we should sometimes ignore boundaries in our genealogy.

The one on the left was taken while I was standing on US 33 in Adams County, Indiana. The one on the right was taken when I walked forward 5 feet and was standing in Van Wert County, Ohio. Not much of a difference, is there?

That’s the thing — boundaries are, for many purposes, rather artificial. There was nothing preventing me from walking from one state to another. Other than the “Ohio Welcomes You” sign, I wouldn’t even have known that I crossed from one state to the next.

Yes, we need boundaries for census records, land records, and the like, but we shouldn’t let our research stop at the county line or the state line.

Willshire, Ohio (which is where that grain elevator is located) is just 3.5 miles from Pleasant Mills, Indiana. There’s flat land between the two towns. No major rivers. No mountains. In other words, it’s easy to get from one to the other. It would have been easy for our ancestors to do the same.

If your ancestor lived near Willshire, but didn’t like the Methodist Church there, he could have gone to the one in Pleasant Mills. If your ancestor lived near Pleasant Mills, maybe he sold his grain at Willshire, where he could have gotten to know the folks… maybe even joined a fraternal group over there.

This would be different if there were a big river or a mountain between them, which would make travel between the two difficult. But in this case, it would be just as easy for someone to travel between these two towns in two different states as it would be to go somewhere within the same county.

We need to know where our ancestors lived. But we also need to take a look around and see if there are other places where he or she could have interacted with others — places where he or she could have created more records. Our ancestors didn’t necessarily stay within the lines for all of their activities.

Why You Should Sometimes Ignore Boundaries

Posted: April 20, 2016.

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  • Hi Amy,
    When I still lived in Ohio, the house was physically in Pickaway county. However, the mailing address was New Holland, which is in Fayette county. Our phone was a Clarksburg number, which is in Ross county. Before they went to rural house numbering, we got mail twice a day, because the house was on the New Holland side of the road but the mailbox was on the Williamsport (Pickaway county) side. It could be difficult to locate me in modern times, let alone 100 years before. And that’s just counties in a single state, so your advice to be aware of the entire area is a great one!

  • Thank you for that reminder!

    I have ancestors that lived in Spafford, Onondaga County, New York. But in the mid-1800s, some of them showed up in the censuses in Summerhill and Sempronius, Cayuga County. And then within 5 years they were in Scott, Cortland County. All of those communities are in a small geographic area. If I stopped at county lines, I would miss a lot of their history, including records of marriages, births of children, and deaths.

  • I have been told by a professional genealogist that in bad winter weather births and other important information could easily have been filed at the nearest court house or the easiest one to get to rather than the correct one.

    • That’s true, Mary. Also, circuit rider ministers wouldn’t always deposit their marriage records in the county where they performed the marriage; instead, they would sometimes save them and record them all when he passed through the town with the courthouse.

  • In continental Europe there’s yet another aspect, more than in the US or in the Brittish isles. Not only did people cross boundaries, frequently boundaries crossed people.

    • Very true! We do have the same thing in the US, with counties especially. A person could live in the same place his whole life, but have lived in 4 or 5 different counties. Always fun to sort through that!

  • The Ohio River would occasionally freeze over. I usually do my Southern Illinois/Kentucky research in the summer but my eyes were opened by the Clerk in the Golconda Courthouse it was quite easy to walk across the Ohio most winters.

  • Most rivers, including those being State boundaries, were highways, not barriers. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, “Dutch” Reformed Protestant circuit-riders in the Minisink vicinity served congregations on both side of the Delaware River in NJ and PA (and some members lived in southern NY). The pastors might perform baptisms and marriages at homes and wait until getting to one of the meeting-houses having a churchbook to record the events. Thus one cannot always tell where folks lived by where family items were recorded, which could be across the river from their actual residences. Baptisms and marriages often were not performed ~in~ the meeting-houses.

    • Jade,
      I have been searching the Pike County, Pennsyvania area and looking in New Jersey and New York for information. Would love to hear about your resources in researching records in this area.

  • It was not at all uncommon for families to move back and forth across county and state lines. In my case it was the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia. I had a generation in Ohio, the next generation in West Virginia and the third generation back in Ohio. And we’re still doing it; I was born in West Virginia and now live in Ohio. Military service can also give us odd locations. My great grandpa never lived a day in Ohio yet he served with Battery K, First Ohio Light Artillery throughout the Civil War. Almost all the men in Battery K were from West Virginia but there was no one in their area who could afford to outfit the unit. There was a man across the river, in Ohio, who was willing to pay for all their equipment so they became an Ohio unit. Just another example of why we should sometimes ignore those imaginary lines.

  • A great reminder, Amy. I had this same lesson when I took a trip to Morgan County, Illinois this summer. I was looking for 3 different cemeteries. The third one was off the beaten path a bit. I knew I was close and then suddenly I was in a new county (Scott county). I turned around and turned off the highway and found it. It was literally yards from the county line, and the experience reminded me that I could look for records there (Scott County) as well.

    Although there are tools to help you learn what jurisdictions were adjacent to the one you “care about,” I wish there were better tools. For example, I don’t always like to go to another website when I am doing online searches and need to determine if a particular record is feasible or not.