I ran across an old road map for the county where I grew up. The former railroad track that defined the west border of my Grandpa’s farm was shown on it.

Based on the township lines (which were on the map) the railroad’s location was slightly off. The map showed it about a 1/4 further east than it was. The only reason I really noticed was because it changed the shape of Grandpa’s farm. There was another portion of the map that failed to indicate a triangular piece of property made by the highway and section line in another portion of the county.

But then I had to remember the purpose of the road map: to generally show where roads were located so individuals could get from point A to point B. This was also in a rural area where there are not a large number of streets and highways. Was the atlas sufficient for that purpose? Yes.

Was it the same as a property survey where boundaries, roads, and geographic features need to be clearly and accurately represented? No. A survey serves a different purpose and is usually a legal document that is recorded. A road map is not.

Think about the original purpose of that record you are using for your genealogical research. What need did the record or document serve? What needs was it not serving? What details mattered to the individual using the document?

All those things matter when we later analyze that record. Maybe a map would help us to see the way.

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