My Ancestral Town Disappeared From the Map!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman, Kristin Britanik
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Map of Southeast North America, 1638
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“I have been researching my genealogy since 1996. This year, I discovered the names of my grandmother’s grandparents. However, their birthplace is proving to be a mystery. It is listed as Hacot Eurville, Ga. I have searched the Web for information about this place and find nothing. My grandmother and her parents lived in Lowndes County, Ga., and Hamilton County, Fla., so I suspect Hacot Eurville, Ga., may have been a community located in or near Lowndes County that is now extinct. Can you help me solve this mystery, please?” —Sam Henry

Occasionally, when researching your family’s history, one can stumble upon a place that can’t easily be found on today’s maps. There are a few reasons why this happens: Maybe the place was a small unincorporated community that is no longer populated, or perhaps the name of the location changed over time to something else. It is also important to consider the possibility that the name of the location was written or transcribed incorrectly in the records or indexes that you are researching.

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Here are a few tips to consider when you find a place name that you don’t recognize in your research.

Using Historic Maps and Atlases

As with most genealogical research, the more records you find for your ancestors, the easier it will be to build a timeline of their life and determine where they were living at a particular time. From your own research you know that your ancestors lived mostly in Lowndes County, Ga., and Hamilton County, Fla. Knowing this, you will want to begin your search for Hacot Eurville around Lowndes County, but be open to the possibility that it may be located elsewhere in Georgia.

Historic maps and atlases are good sources of information to find names of places that once existed but are generally not found today. Local libraries and historical societies typically have some historic maps and atlases that can be used for reference, but if you are researching from a distance, there are also many sources online.

The website Historic Map Works has a variety of historic maps and atlases that are free to view online and download for a fee. Then there are local resources, such as the Digital Library of Georgia, which has a wide collection of historic maps and atlases for the State of Georgia, including maps of Lowndes County.

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As you search, consider the year that the record was recorded. The record you provided to us shows that your ancestor, Mose Whitfield, was born approximately in 1861, and he died in 1933. Given this, you’ll want to search maps for those years and any you can find for the years in between.

We did a quick search of some historic maps of Lowndes County, and although we were unable to find any places named Hacot Eurville, we did find that there were many places that ended with the suffix “ville,” including Franklinville, Troupville and Clayattsville. Maybe one of these is where your forebears were born.

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Checking Other Sources

In addition to searching through historic maps and atlases yourself, you may want to also considering contacting the Lowndes County Historical Society to see if any local historians have heard of a town or place called Hacot Eurville or a place with a similar sounding name. You might also search published and local histories about Lowndes County. A quick search of Google Books reveals that there are several books on the history and development of Lowndes County.

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If you are unable to locate Hacot Eurville, there are several other possibilities that might explain this mystery. Perhaps the informant on the death record gave incorrect information for the death record, or maybe the record was transcribed incorrectly. The record you provided us is not an image of the original death record, but rather an online transcription. This sometimes leaves some room for error due to illegible writing. Given this, it is possible that there was a mistake when the record was transcribed and posted online. The best way to confirm that the place of birth listed is spelled correctly in the index entry is to look at a copy of the original record.

Finding Original Death Records

Obtaining vital records depends greatly on the time period and state that you are researching. Some images of original records are available online at genealogy sites, such as Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org, while others are only available through town and county clerk’s offices.

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In addition to online records, the Family History Library also has death records that are available through a microfilm loan. You can search their catalog to find if they have records for the place and time you are researching and have the microfilm sent to a nearby affiliate library. As you search for death records, remember that some states restrict access to certain records, so you may not be able to see an image of the original record.

To learn more about how to obtain vital records for a specific state and time period, you can search for more information on the Family Search Research Wiki, which has more detailed information about obtaining vital records for each state.

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Since your ancestor, Mose Whitfield, died in Hamilton County, Fla., in 1933, we looked for more information about obtaining vital records in the state of Florida. According to the Florida Department of Vital Statistics, anyone can order a death record for a fee of $5 as long as the cause of death is omitted from the record. You may want to order a copy of the death record to see how the place of birth is written on the record. Is it possible that it could be another town in Lowndes County?

In general, when researching using vital records, it is helpful to consider the source of information. Sometimes the informant was a distant relative who may be unsure of the details of the birthplaces of the deceased or information about their deceased’s parents. This could lead to incorrect information on vital records, which may be another reason why are unable to find Hacot Eurville.

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Search for Records of Other Whitfield Relatives

Locating other members of the Whitfield family might also give you clues about Mose’s birthplace. As such, you will want to search for records of his children. Vital records occasionally list the place of birth of an individual’s parents, and this information could help shed light on Mose’s birthplace and confirm whether or not it was Hacot Eurville. Additionally, the index entry for Mose’s death record also lists his parents’ names. Using this information, you will want to find a record of the family in the 1870 U.S. Census, the first census year to fully enumerate African Americans by name, to see if you can find where Mose lived when he was young.

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Through all of your research on the Whitfield family in Georgia, if you are still unable to find any other records that list a place called Hacot Eurville, or even a close spelling, it is possible that there is an error in the index entry and the place may have not ever existed. If this is the case, it will be helpful to find the earliest definitive record of Mose Whitfield and keeping working backward, using the information about his parents and other clues you have gathered along the way to find his birthplace.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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