One of the toughest genealogy challenges is to track migration of an ancestor over time and across the country. They didn’t usually leave a trail of popcorn for us to follow, so we need to turn to other clues to determine their path of migration and place of origin.
Rules of Thumb and Guiding Principles
It is wonderful when then records – census, military, or otherwise – point us in the right direction. Ah ha! It looks like he served in the Virginia militia in the War of 1812, but he got bounty land or pensions in Missouri. That’s super, when it works out so well.
But in lieu of such a magic bullet type record it is helpful to have a guiding principle or rule of thumb to use to aid your search. One such prinicple has been researched by demographers, and they have concluded that migrants typically don’t move more than one or two hardiness zones away from their point of origin.
Time Out: What’s a Hardiness Zone?
I have had in the past visions of being a gardener…you’ll note that I do lots of genealogy, which may be testimony to my gardening successes. Nonetheless, you – as I – may have seen very colorful maps of the United States on the back of seed packages. Those are Hardiness Zone Maps. They tell the gardener when to plant the tomatoes based on the climate or hardiness zone she lives in.
Hardiness Zone Maps & Migrants
Demographers discovered that we as an agrian society for most of our migratory, “Manifest Destiny” years, we were very much tied to the land. We were farmers. My family tree is full of a bumper crop of farmers. So the farmers migrated to and from lands where the crops they knew how to plant and knew would succeed would grow. Cotton farmers moved to and from lands that grew cotton. Wheat farmers moved to and from lands that grew wheat. It makes perfect sense.
So, now let’s relate this back to the hardiness zone map. The map tell us what the farmers already knew, and that is where the land would be most receptive to the crops they knew how to grow. Or as the demographers stated it – they would be relocating in zones only one or two from the area in which they came. A farmer living in Zone 5 in southern Pennsylvania, may move to southern Tennessee, then to southern Kansas just like my Smarsh family did staying in Zone 5 the whole time. A farmer living in southern Minnesota (Zone 4), may move south to southern Kansas (Zone 6), which is two zones difference, and still in the wheat belt of the United States.
We can use this logic to back track and find our ancestors with a little more ease. If an ancestor is in southern Kansas, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to look for him – or follow the census record that puts him in Florida. Look to the hardiness map for a more plausible point of origin.
The Exception to the Rule
But wait! I hear you say, what if the ancestor isn’t a farmer? Doctors, lawyers, tradesmen – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – all came West, too. Did they follow the hardiness map rule of thumb? Not necessarily. Marsha Hoffman Rising did a study of 838 poineers of southern Missouri to determine their origins. Only two – a doctor & a lawyer – did not conform to the hardiness zone map litmus test. (“WOW” to the research and the results.) I can tell you from my own research that I have both carpenter and mechanic ancestors who migrated west, and both groups stayed in the two-zone variance in spite of their trades. Maybe because the ethnic groups, i.e. Germans, were common to both places.
So…try it out
You can “google” “hardiness zone map” in Google images and download your own copy of the map, or use the one above. I found it interesting to see if my ancestors conformed to the two zone rule. I suspect you will find it interesting, too. Oh, and keep the map handy for the next time you’re wondering, “where did they come from?”