7. Unknown Place Names – When researching your ancestors it is not uncommon to come across an unknown place name. A quick search of Google maps and other online resources generally end up drawing a blank. What do you do? First of all, place names are often spelled incorrectly. Consider alternate spellings. Second, realize that if the genealogical record was written a long time ago by a clerk then the place name is most likely written out phonetically. That is, the clerk phonetically transcribed a place name given to him verbally.
For example, consider the spelling variations that could occur one hundred years ago if an American immigration clerk had to write down the name of the German town of your immigrant ancestor. Chances are your ancestor could not read or write so the clerk would just take a best-guess and phonetically spell out the name. In this example, find someone who is fluent in German and familiar with the general region of your ancestor. Then say the name to them out loud to see if it sounds similar to any place name in the region. Finally, place names change over time. When all else fails, check a historic map of the region and say the names on the map to yourself out loud (yes out loud) to see if there are any possible matches.
8. City Directories – A city directory is the predecessor to today’s Yellow Pages. City directories predate the telephone and can go back as far as two hundred years. Originally, most city directories were essentially business directories. They would list the name and address of the business, the name of the proprietor and other useful information. Over time, city directories expanded to include individual households. City directories can be a very reliable means of tracking down individuals and provide a good proxy especially in regions and times where census data is not available.
9. Fire Insurance Maps – A fire insurance map (often called a Sanborn fire insurance map in the United States) were detailed maps drawn up by fire insurance companies. These maps list each building in a town, the structure and style of the building and (often) the owner of the building. Although these maps were originally intended to allow fire insurance companies to set policy rates, they can be a valuable source of information. You can use them to trace your ancestors to a specific building in town. Most fire insurance maps are now located in local archives or local universities. It is always worth checking to see if fire insurance maps were drawn up for the towns and communities of your ancestors.