AncestorNews: GPS Genealogy

While on my recent Northern Plains adventure, I took along mapping software and a handheld GPS unit. A GPS is a palm-sized gizmo that uses satellites to tell you exactly where on earth you're located. Hikers can use a GPS to electronically mark their trail, then turn around and get back to where they started. Fishermen can use them to mark (and then relocate) their favorite backwoods fishing hole.

GPS is often used by genealogists to note the location of a family homestead or cemetery. Once the GPS has electronically latched onto satellites, it reads out your location in longitude and latitude. It will also tell you the altitude and the accuracy of the reading. I used one of the cheapest units on the market (a Garmin eTrex Personal Navigator), which cost a little more than $100. The most accurate reading I got was 20 feet (that means the latitude and longitude readings were accurate to within 20 feet—close enough for my use).

If you're in a city or town, you can enter the coordinates into an inexpensive mapping software program and then print out the locale. If you're really in the backwoods, you may need to visit a Web site like where the coordinates can be entered onto a topography map. Some of the sites I visited in Montana were miles from any city, so when I got home I went to TopoZone to generate maps. For those of you who use a GPS to mark the location of a family cemetery (which may be in the woods or on a farm), try TopoZone before buying mapping software—it will probably serve your needs just fine.

GPS is a perfect gift for the traveling genealogist. What fun it is to be able to exactly mark, map and print the locations of where you used to live, where your folks were married, the family homestead, cemeteries or even libraries you visit. And if you're technologically challenged, don't worry. The GPS does all the work. Just turn it on, let it find the satellites, then read the results in the display panel. You don't have to "do" anything yourself.

For more on GPS, visit these Web sites:

Using a GPS

More on how a GPS works