Become familiar with the county you're interested in and its surrounding counties by studying several kinds of maps before your trip. You need present-day highway maps to find your way around and to give you an overview of the local scene. But even if your ancestor's town still exists on present-day maps, try to find maps contemporary with his life.
The Atlas and Gazetteer Series produced by DeLorme for all 50 states combines detailed maps with lists of historic sites and museums, natural features, scenic drives, wineries—whatever is pertinent to that state. They list the covered bridges, ferries, and lighthouses; the scenic-drives section features Amish sites and heritage tours, or suggests traveling the Old National Road. Look beyond the road map for historical perspective on your family.
Try to determine where your ancestors lived in relation to the county seat. Then remember the conditions they faced in trying to get to the courthouse to conduct official business such as recording a deed or getting a marriage license. If they had to navigate some rugged terrain, they may have opted to delay recording the deed. If they lived near the border of another county or state, they may have records in the other location. This can be crucial to your finding the records. Mystified as to why there was no marriage record for a couple I was sure must have married in a particular county, I expressed my puzzlement to the clerk. I learned that couples sometimes took the train 18 miles to a town in the next state to marry because there was no waiting period and the age limit was lower.
A topographical map is a detailed, precise description of a place or region. It will graphically represent the surface features, such as elevation and creeks.
Always seek permission before venturing onto private land. A simple explanation of your purpose will usually get you access.
The Lay of the Land
Topographic maps are another helpful aid to secure before you travel. The detail on these maps may literally take you in a new direction. Farm roads, cemeteries on private lands, and churches are all usually marked on these maps prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey. Done on scales such that it takes several maps to cover one county, they are more useful for research purposes than the usual county maps of today. Seeing a now-isolated family cemetery once accessible by a farm road can lead to a sought-after burial site.
You will enjoy poring over the maps, locating the creeks and ridges and comparing the features with the deeds you find at the courthouse to determine the location of your ancestor's land. When the deed reads “under and on the great mountains on the branches of Rockey Creek,” you'll know where to look.
The maps, also called quadrangle maps, are available for a nominal fee from the U.S. Geological Survey Map Distribution Center. Ordering them is a two-step process. Write first for the free index and catalog booklets for the states you are researching. Then use the descriptions to order the maps you need. Quadrangle maps can also be ordered online at http://store.usgs.gov, but finding the one you need is cumbersome because the corresponding indexes are not online.
Another map for your travel packet is a simple outline map of the state with only the counties and their county seats marked, such as is found in Ancestry's Red Book or in the computer program AniMap. You may need to refer to this map for ideas of other counties in which your ancestor's records might be found. If you are researching in Noble County, Indiana, and you find a deed that says your ancestor was “of LaGrange County, Indiana,” you'll want to look at your map to see where that is and consider the possibility of going there on this trip.
If your research trip is in a county bordering another state, be sure to take a map of the nearby state. You may uncover leads that take you into that state, and you don't want to spend time hunting down a map. With Internet connections commonly available at libraries nationwide, you can probably check for information on research facilities at that next destination and soon be on your way.
Never assume that you will be able to have immediate access to public records. Hours and rules for access change. Always call to check before making a special trip to a distant repository.
Take rolls of quarters and dimes to use for parking meters, vending machines, and perhaps copy machines. Larger facilities often use copy cards, but usually maintain one machine that takes small change from individuals not wishing to purchase a card.
This cannot be overemphasized. Make a list of all the places in the county that you want to visit; you can get ideas from state guides, comprehensive guides dealing with all states, and directories that list museums and historical societies. Try to determine what special collections of materials may be in the county. Call each and ask their hours and whether the records are open to researchers during those hours. Be sure to ask if there are holidays, special events, or unusual circumstances that will interfere with your access.
Even if the county or historical society has a website with hours and accessibility, confirm by phone. The website may be outdated or not cover irregular events.
Imagine my surprise to find a handwritten sign on the courthouse door saying, “Closed Monday for Deer Day Holiday.” This rural county closed government offices and schools on the first Monday of the hunting season! Another time, I called ahead but didn't ask the right questions. The courthouse was open on Columbus Day, but I did not ask if I would be able to research that day. Unfortunately, the small room housing the old records I needed was closed for research because county officials were counting absentee ballots in there. Another time, records I particularly wanted to see were inaccessible because they were being microfilmed.
Packing for Research
Pack comfortable shoes. You may have to do much of your research while standing. Old courthouses have limited research space and high counters. You may have to climb a ladder to reach the earliest volumes stored near the ceiling. Clothing should be “business casual.” You'll have better service if you are not in sweatshirt and jeans. Take clothes that won't show the dirt; old records are dusty and stored in areas that are rarely cleaned.