Sunday, July 20, 2014

Using GPS in Genealogy, A Marvelous Tool, Part 1

As a young man I began my love of the outdoors and everything about it. I was always kind of concerned about getting lost, so I took it upon myself to become an expert in navigation of all forms, including map and compass, celestial bodies, and yes, which side of the tree the moss grew on (environmental clues). Later in life, but not much though, only about ten or twelve years, I was introduced to the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Photo by USGS
About the same time I remember my mother talking to me about her Mom and Dad, and my Dad’s parents and how they emigrated from Europe to the United States. I was immediately interested in their stories of what it was like in the “old country”.

In 1995 I bought my first Magellan GPS receiver, and I was amazed that it had the capabilities to direct me to a point (or pinpoint one) to plus or minus a hundred yards! 2000 was an important year for navigators, professional and amateur. That was when selective availability was removed by the U.S. government, which improved GPS accuracy tenfold! Then about 2005 came the W.A.A.S. system, which improved accuracy again. So in a relatively short period, less than ten years, GPS went from football field to about car size accuracy. The cost of having this navigation capability for a person has always been about $100. The GPS satellite service is free.

In 2001 the game of geocaching started to grow. What some people call high tech treasure hunting, geocaching combines the internet with a handheld GPS receiver which lead the player to local and global “treasures”. I often told my 4-H kids that if they could master geocaching, which isn't hard because I've seen ten year old kids become experts in a week; then they would have navigation skills sufficient to guide them to any spot on the globe, like the early explorers did.

Simply stated, GPS allows us to pinpoint places on the globe, and find for that matter, locations that are foreign to us, near or far away, the size of a mountain to as small as a dime. For example, my grandfather, G.A. Johnson originally from Sweden got into an argument with his dad and left his countryside farmstead when he was eighteen (as the story goes). Today as far as I know, my third cousins still live there.  But where did he live EXACTLY before coming to America, and if I have distant cousins out there, where are they now?  You know if I could only find their house, in person or on Google Earth, I could pinpoint where my Grandpa, Papa Gus grew up.  If I only knew.  GPS and genealogy can help me here.

In a few days, in my next story I'm getting into the specifics about finding, marking and recording these locations so they can be found by current family members and future generations.  Until then, please follow some of the hyper-linked words above and consider how and why you would like to know where certain things are.  As always, please feel free to leave your comments and follow me on Twitter @guskoerner.


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