Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Visualizing Ancestral Origins in Color

So it all started with one of those silly Facebook quizzes.

You know, the ones where you copy and paste what the first person wrote, but fill in your own information. Except, this time it had to do with family information; so it caught my eye!

I was born in _____.
My mother was born in _____.
Her mother was born in _____.
Her father was born in _____.
My father was born in _____.
His mother was born in _____.
His father was born in _____.
I live in_____.

It's simple enough, right? A few of my genealogist friends shared it, and I was *this close* to filling it out myself when I thought, "Mine will be so boring!" Mine would say Virginia for everyone!

But then I got to thinking, what if I could create a visual that showed the various places of origin for my ancestors...in color!? Instead of colors for each state - since my ancestors are nearly entirely from Virginia into the 1700s - I figured I could focus on specific counties and cities in Virginia.

I searched the internet for a free simple family tree template until I found one that I liked. I settled on one particular chart because the boxes were blank and it allowed for 7 generations including a box for me. I downloaded the free chart as a pdf, took a screenshot to turn it into a jpg, and cropped the image.

I still didn't know how to fill in the blanks, though! Then I remembered that I have the Paint 3D app on my Dell. Using this program, I tried to color each box until I realized that would be a pain...and then discovered the fill tool. This allowed me - with a click of a button - to fill an entire box at once. Super easy!

I chose a color for each county my ancestors were born in, along with a few other states (Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York) and Germany. 

Here is my color key:
Virginia Counties & Cities

Richmond City - blue
Powhatan - yellow
Dinwiddie - light blue
Norfolk City - green
Petersburg City; Prince George - orange
Halifax; Pittsylvania; Mecklenburg - purple
Charles City County - red
Chesterfield - dark red-brown
Brunswick - lime green
Lynchburg City; Nelson; Franklin - pink
Essex; King William - light grey
Cumberland - gold
Louisa - light red

Other localities & situations
Indiana - brown
Pennsylvania; New York - light brown
Germany - teal
Unsure of origin but known ancestors - tan
Brick wall/unknown ancestors - black

For my Indiana ancestors, some of their parents were from Pennsylvania and New York, but I didn't want to struggle finding a distinct enough color for only two people. There are also situations that needed to be specified - the unknown situations. For a few ancestors, I know their names but I have no direct evidence of where they were born (only where they lived). For two ancestors, I have yet to identify them for certain, so for now they are brick wall ancestors.

But wouldn't all of that look cool in one visual just for the State of Virginia?

How cool is that!? 

You'll notice that I used the same color for a few places. This was for two reasons. Two locations (Essex County and King William County) had only one ancestor born there. In the case of a maternal great-grandmother's side, Petersburg City and Prince George County, I thought it would be easier to keep them together. The same applied to Halifax, Mecklenburg, and Pittsylvania counties. My ancestors from those counties seemed to bounce back and forth between all three. The blank Virginia map that I used can be found here

But does this help any? Does this serve any real purpose - I mean, besides being cool!?

I think so, yes! It's not only a visually appealing tool to visualize my ancestral origins, it's also helpful to see trends and unexplained anomalies in my ancestry. 

Here are some examples:

The counties and city in pink are the origins of an ancestor who met a man who was studying at law school. Other counties, like those in light grey and light red are anomalies - they're outliers that I have yet to explain. How did those ancestors meet their spouses several counties over? I still don't know!

It also gives me a visual of trends in my family. While many of my ancestors stayed put for quite a while - most of them actually - some did migrate, to the East! My ancestors' westward migration must have occurred prior to the late 1700s because the trend in the mid 1800s was to move northeast closer to Richmond. 

One last thing I noticed - I'm much more from Halifax County (with a few ancestors passing through Pittsylvania and Mecklenburg) than I ever gave credit for! One quarter to be precise! I always knew that I had two great-grandfathers from Halifax (and they're somehow not related - that I can find so far!) but I had yet to have a visual to see it all laid out until now.

What had all begun as a passing glance at a few Facebook posts turned into a super helpful genealogical tool! I now have reason to research a few of my ancestors more specifically. I can also more confidently speak to the origins of my 4th great grandparents as a whole.

Oh! And before I forget; the top level in my ancestral chart - my 4th great grandparents - were born between 1745 and 1838. This huge range is due to several generations of older men begetting my ancestors on my fathers side, whereas there are several generations of young women giving birth to my maternal ancestors. 

Have you made a similar chart to visualize your ancestral origins in color? How could you use my methods described here to make new discoveries in your family?

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

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