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In honor of my Irish Ancestors

Today is St. Patrick's day, and in honor of that and my Irish ancestors, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on my own heritage. My ancestors were Irish, German, Danish, Dutch, French, and American Indian. Some of them on my Irish side were pioneers, and early settlers in Iowa. These were brave people who worked harder than many of us can imagine. They broke the land and built community from the ground up. Through their efforts and perseverance are we able to enjoy the comforts of a more civilized lifestyle today.

Recently, I've begun looking into my family history and have learned all kinds of delightful things. For example, I just learned last week that my Mother's Father, Grandpa Joe, worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps as a young man. The civilian conservation corps started in 1933 and disbanded in 1942. It was an agency authorized by the federal government to hire unemployed young men who needed to earn money to keep their families off welfare basically. These young men built many of the state parks that I visit on a regular basis in Northeast Iowa and I often wonder which one or ones my Grandpa Joe helped build. Much like his ancestors, he broke the land and built something from the ground up. Maybe I'll make my next map all about the Civilian Conservation Corps' work in northeast Iowa during that time and spotlight the young men who were there. If anyone has an ancestor they know who worked for the CCC during this time, reach out and let's collaborate on a project!

As a geographer, I love maps. As a family history enthusiast, I love stories. Maps tell stories and they have this unique ability to stimulate our love for artistry and our desire to analyze and understand all at the same time.

It's natural for me to want to make a map with ancestral themes, so that's just what I did!

This map shows my 6th generation great grandfather's lands in 1887. He owned land in Lester township, Black Hawk county, and was one of the early settlers of the area. My understanding is that he moved here from Illinois, but I haven't learned exactly when he moved to Iowa. Still researching that. In fact, I use census enumeration district maps and records, and early land ownership maps to help me in my research. When you can piece together who lived where, and when, and who lived around them (like siblings or other family members, or in laws!) the pieces fall easily in place. So, that's my plan for learning about this line of ancestors. Make maps about where they lived and let the pieces fall into place.

One day while I was contemplating how art, maps, and history are probably my favorite things, it dawned on me that the old maps I plan to use in my research would be really cool if they were given new life in digital cartography. So, I put on my geographer's cap and got to work. I found an historic plat map of Black Hawk county and located my ancestor's lands. I knew I would find him in this map because of the previous research I'd done on him.

I brought this historic plat map into my work environment, and I basically started drawing on top of it with my digital cartography tools and I recreated the work of the original cartographers, Sedgwick Brothers and Stilson. These guys operated an abstract and title examination company out of Waterloo, Iowa during this time.

It's always struck me how folks in positions like this, or the clerks, recorders, and auditors in our county government offices, were also very talented cartographers. Their artistry came with the occupation and it was a skill they learned on the job. I don't think they went to school for it.

Let's take a moment to consider the amount of work that went into making one of these maps. Can you imagine the time time it took to make a map of an entire county's land ownership parcels and put all the other information on it too? Like locations of churches, schools, cemeteries; natural resources like the rivers, hills and valleys? I'd also like to point out that these are not merely maps, these are exceptionally accurate depictions of where things were. All the bends in the river you see on this old map, and my rendition of it, were accurate spatial representations. The work of all the land surveyors and engineers over the years culminated in accurate spatial representations of each land parcel and section corner.

Ah, yes. I'm a carto nerd for sure and could go on for days about the history of surveying. Anyway, here's the map of Patrick Harn's lands, in 1887 Lester township, Black Hawk County, Iowa. I'll leave this Irish blessing with you:

“May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again. May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

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