Land Evidences and Geographic Clues: Mapping As a Research Tool

It’s probably our most common research problem: A variety of records contain the same name; do those records refer to one person or to two or more? I’ve referred in the past to examples of solutions that differentiated men of the same name, including “Untangling the 15 Henry Hoffs of York County.”[1] There are instances, however, when the solution proves that one man was indeed in several, somewhat disparate places during the same time period.

In a passing comment in a 1944 The American Genealogist article, Donald Lines Jacobus noted that “in Virginia in the early decades, . . . often the first two to four generations of Virginia families have to be built on land evidences.”[2] More broadly, “land evidences” are useful in constructing families in all of the colonies during the colonial period.

In the most recent issue of the NGSQ, Rachal Mills Lennon phrases it somewhat differently: “[L]ocalizing actions helps sort identities, eliminate outliers, and find community clues to identity, family, and origin. Reconstruction of identities and kinships rests more on geographic clues than on wills, probates, deeds, court suits, or marriage records.”[3]

Lennon’s case study centers around Solomon Harper, who first appeared in South Carolina’s Lowcountry in 1768. Previous research had determined that twenty-two subsequent records in Charleston and far-flung locations in Beaufort District and Colleton District referred to as many as four different people, but that research had accomplished no more than the compilation of an odd assortment of records. Which of those records applied to their ancestor, and which to someone else? No one knew.

After a brief introduction, Lennon’s article starts with a simple table that compares the twenty-two records by location and activity, followed by an initial assessment: “If all twenty-two records refer to the same man, they suggest an atypical residential pattern. The widely spaced locations justify past assumptions of more than one Solomon Harper.“[4] Unlike previous researchers, however, Lennon didn’t stop at that initial assessment. Instead, she determined to examine the associates and locations mentioned in the twenty-two records. Could identifying and connecting them clarify the number of Solomon Harpers on record?

Lennon first sought to understand the complex historical jurisdictions of the area, including two earlier iterations of the county that were formed with different boundaries and subsequently dissolved, the creation of districts between the iterations of counties, as well as Episcopal parishes that overlapped civil jurisdictions. She also sought to understand the topography of the place: “a marshy honeycomb of bays, creeks, rivers, and islands.”[5] Swampy areas like this mean that locations 20 miles distant “as the crow flies” may be several times that distance apart by road or waterway.

Supported with an understanding of the local geography and topography, Lennon then methodically analyzed each record, one by one. The first goal was to locate the places referenced in each record. Places that were identified only somewhat broadly (regions, counties, districts) were pinpointed by locating the associates named in the records. A broad variety of sources was used for this phase of research: not just maps, plats, grants, and deeds, but newspapers, immigrant lists, environmental assessments, estate inventories, tax returns, jury lists, and personal letters and journals.

With the where established, Lennon’s attention turned toward the who. Who were Harper’s neighbors and associates to their families and communities? And what did that mean to Harper? Lennon identifies four key connectors from the list of associates, absentee landowners and political figures who turned out to be key in firmly binding the disparate locations in question to each other. “Mapping activities and linking their participants establishes that only one Solomon Harper is on record in Colleton, Beaufort, and Charleston before 1800.”[6]

Among the research principles illustrated in Lennon’s article, perhaps the most fundamental (and broadly applicable) is the importance and efficacy of reasonably exhaustive research. Researchers before Lennon had conducted reasonably exhaustive searches, perhaps, but not research. And while the research may not have been quick or easy, it was notably simple. The author describes the whole thing in three short sentences: “Researching associates pinpointed each site. Connections explain seemingly erratic movements and relationships. Geographic context and human links merge the twenty-two appearances into one identity.”[7]

Whether you’re looking for a model for reasonably exhaustive research, colonial research, Southern research, or South Carolina research in specific, Lennon’s “Southern Strategies” fits the bill.


[1] Patricia Law Hatcher, “Untangling the 15 Henry Hoffs of York County,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 42 (Fall/Winter 2001): 115–132.

[2] Donald Lines Jacobus, “Wodhull, Odell and Chetwode,” The American Genealogist 21 (July 1944): 70.

[3] Rachal Mills Lennon, “Southern Strategies: Merging Identities by Mapping Activities and Linking Participants—Solomon Harper of South Carolina’s Lowcountry,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 107 (September 2019): 165–184; PDF, NGSQ Archives ( : 14 October 2019).

[4] Lennon, “Southern Strategies . . .” (note 3), 167.

[5] Lennon, “Southern Strategies . . .” (note 3), 166.

[6] Lennon, “Southern Strategies . . .” (note 3), 166.

[7] Lennon, “Southern Strategies . . .” (note 3), 167.

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