When Map Locations Move Around

Where did it go? Do your map work when writing about the past.

Recently, I read an interesting piece about a historian who decided to do a little research on her own family.  There was a family story about an ancestor whose  rancho was in Mexico.  She was surprised to discover that the rancho is just outside of San Francisco.

The reality is that international boundaries move around as do coastlines, islands and bodies of water.  What do I mean?

As a recent lecture about the Sultana, a riverboat that exploded just after the Civil War, the lecturer showed a photo of the field that contains the wreckage of the boat.  Yep.  Its in a field although it sunk in a river.

If you are writing about a historic location, you should visit it if at all possible.  You’ll get a feel for the geography and what the sun feels like in New Mexican high desert vs coastal Maine.  But you also need to do your map work.

Maps will help you see what the place was like way back when.  You need to look for both the man made — buildings, roads and other physical structures — as well as what I consider the make-believe man made — political boundaries and the like.

But even that isn’t enough.  Look at the land itself.  Earthquakes, erosion and more shift land from place to place.  Bodies of water dry up.  Rivers move.  Islands shift downstream.

Geography isn’t nearly as static as we imagine it to be.  Keep this in mind and do your research.  Your editor will be glad you did.


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