Eye in the Sky

By Steve Paul Johnson Premium


A few companies have produced GPS devices designed to w/ork with your handheld computer. These “modules” mount to your PDA (such as the 3Com Palm Pilot <> or Handspring Visor <>), leaving you with fewer gadgets to haul around. GPS modules tend to cost more and come with fewer features, though, so you’d be better off investing in a regular GPS device until the technology improves.

My wife and I, along with a friend of ours, were deep in the southeastern California desert in search of “Amos Cemetery,” a small graveyard used by workers of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the late 1800s. We’d been told it was about 14 miles north of Glamis along the Ted Kipf Road.

So along we drove, stirring up dust and sand in our 4×4s. We finally had to stop and ask a group of dirt bikers, who told us we’d overshot it about a mile back. We went back and finally found it.

When I later tried to write directions to Amos Cemetery for’s cemetery transcription database <>, I realized mine weren’t any more helpful than those we’d originally been given. If I try to go back there 10 years from now, I may forget how to find it. That’s when I decided to invest in a GPS device.

GPS, short for Global Positioning System, is a system of 24 satellites that orbit the earth, constantly measuring their positions. A GPS receiver communicates with the satellites to determine your current position. Boats and airplanes have used GPS devices for quite a while, but the technology has become so affordable that consumers — including the average family historian — can now buy them for personal use.

Searching out the cemetery

Like my desert adventure, many genealogists’ cemetery research includes U-turns, tangled maps and stops for directions. It can be tough to find the old or abandoned cemeteries where many of our ancestors are buried. But GPS technology can help.

With a GPS device, you can stand in the middle of a cemetery and it will determine the latitude and longitude (and even altitude if it has enough satellites tracked). It can store your location in memory so you can refer to it again later. When you share your cemetery transcription with other researchers, the coordinates will give them a precise location. They can plug them into their own GPS receiver or use an online mapping service such as <> to create a road map from the coordinates.

To find a cemetery, simply enter the coordinates into the GPS device and it will point the way. Basic models use a compass pointer to show you which way to go, the distance to your destination, your current traveling speed and estimated time of arrival. More advanced models include mapping data to provide a street map. Most GPS devices update their information every second.

So now it doesn’t bother me too much if my driving directions are really bad — I can just note the coordinates. It’s still wise to write a set of directions to at least identify a general region, but the coordinates pinpoint the exact location.

Finding your waypoint

All GPS devices have the ability to remember the locations you mark. My Garmin GPS 12 (see box) will store up to 500 locations (commonly referred to as “way-points”). You can assign a short name and icon to each waypoint. And with mapping software for your PC, you can assemble a list of destinations to download to your GPS device.

Most GPS devices also let you create a “trip” — a series of destinations you want to visit. Once you’ve assembled the destinations for your trip, the device will tell you the distance (in miles) between each destination. The cheaper models measure distance as a straight line, which usually isn’t practical for driving. But models with mapping data can plot a driving course and provide you with more accurate distance. You usually have to be within 500 miles of your destination to get directions.

You can expect to arrive pretty close to your destination. Latitude and longitude are measured by degrees, minutes and seconds; GPS receivers break down seconds into hundredths, which means you’d end up within 1 foot of the coordinates you entered. But a GPS won’t actually be that accurate — many weather factors can offset the timing of the signals bouncing back and forth between the device and the satellites. Still, navigation experts claim that you can expect accuracy to within 15 to 40 feet.

Marking your territory

With the growing popularity of GPS devices, people have been compiling databases of locations and posting them online. For example, the US Geological Survey (USGS) has compiled a database of geographic names, along with their latitude and longitude coordinates, that can be really useful to genealogists. The USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) <> covers dozens of “features,” including cemeteries, streams, bridges and buildings. You can enter the coordinates into your GPS device and let it point the way. (You’ll find instructions for using the GNIS on page 31.)

There is a hitch: The USGS coordinates might not be definitive enough. They’re accurate only up to about 100 feet because they don’t break down the seconds into tenths or hundredths, as a GPS receiver does. And the information in the GNIS database is somewhat old; many newer, larger cemeteries aren’t identified. But that shouldn’t affect the accuracy of the coordinates.

You might want to create your own database of locations important in your family’s history. You could mark coordinates for your great-grandfather’s old house or the church where your grandparents got married. In fact, it might be a good idea just to mark the coordinates of old graveyards and structures before they get torn down or covered up by the sands of time. Even if old buildings remain standing, the roads leading to them may wither away, and later generations may have a tough time trying to follow the original directions.

I’d love to see a huge database of cemeteries — one that’s more accurate than the USGS and that includes the tens of thousands of small graveyards that have been have left out. In fact, as a cemetery publisher, I’d like to see more cemetery transcribers invest in GPS devices and make a habit of marking coordinates. It’s probably the best means we have for preserving the locations of abandoned graveyards.


For marking the locations of cemeteries, churches or your ancestor’s homestead, a low-end GPS device (under $200) should suffice. Cheaper models mark coordinates just as accurately as pricier ones — they just lack a lot of bells and whistles you’ll probably never need for genealogy.

The two most popular brands are Garmin <> and Magellan <>. They’re equally accurate, but Garmin boasts strong, sturdy construction, while Magellan models come packed with features and offer high-resolution displays. Here’s a look at four models:

• Carmin GPS 12: The GPS 12 has a receiver strong enough to acquire satellites in some closed quarters. It can store up to 500 waypoints — more than any genealogist will need. It has a sturdy feel and an easy-to-read display Lasts about 24 continuous hours on four AA batteries.

• Garmin eTrex: Garmin targets its lowest-priced model to beginners and casual hikers. The eTrex is small enough to fit in your shirt pocket. It tends to lose satellites under heavy tree cover or in closed quarters, and doesn’t have the same sturdy feel as the GPS 12. But if you plan to use it in your car or in areas devoid of heavy tree cover, it should suit you just fine. Takes two AA batteries with an average life of about 20 continuous hours.

• Magellan GPS 315: This model is comparable to the Garmin GPS 12. It has a lot of features the Garmin doesn’t, such as a moving map display; a high-resolution, customizable screen; and sun and moon positions. Despite the high-res screen, I found the display a bit harder to read at times. With two AA batteries, it weighs less than the Garmin but only lasts 15 hours.

• Magellan GPS 310: The 310 is similar to the GPS 315 but stores fewer waypoints and has no moving map. For purposes of marking coordinates and helping you find your destination, though, it still does the job quite well. Uses 2 AA batteries, with an average life of about 20 hours.

From the August 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine