As genealogists we know a lot about our ancestors. But what do we really know about where they lived? Nowadays, thanks to technology, we are positioned to not only learn about where they lived but to actually walk in their footsteps.
Recently, my family started vacationing on an island called Martha's Vineyard. After our vacation week was over I was afraid that I would forget how to navigate all the roads before our return the next year. When I got home a friend pointed me to some Facebook pages dedicated to Martha's Vineyard. These were mostly featuring photographs but I eagerly followed them, and one in particular called Vineyard Colors. The page very successfully kept my memories of Martha's Vineyard alive and fresh. I didn't have to worry about forgetting about the island, even though I admit it didn't help me much with navigation. As time went by I sought out other sources about Martha's Vineyard on sites beyond Facebook - I checked Instagram, Twitter and Flickr.
As time passed I realized not only could I use this strategy for my vacation memories but it would also work well for genealogy!
Recently, I have been focused on my great grandmother, Caroline Nunge who arrived in America through Ellis Island in 1893. Unlike most of my relatives I knew exactly where she came from - a small town in Alsace-Lorraine called Baerenthal which is now located in France near the German border. My German speaking ancestor settled in Pittsburgh among other German speaking immigrants.
I wanted to know more about this place called Baerenthal where my ancestors had lived. I first checked on Instagram which is a great photo sharing app for mobile devices. You need to set up an account to really make use of this tool but the app is free to download. There are couple ways to search on Instagram. When searching for a place you can either search for it as a keyword or as a location. They keyword search will bring up any results where people have tagged a post with #Baerenthal. The location search will bring up any posts tagged with a location of Baerenthal. What I'm looking for are mostly scenic photos that will give me a sense what the town looks like. I will ignore all the posts of teenagers and other non-related items. If I find photos of interest I will check who posted them. If they posted lots of scenic shots to their account then I will follow them in hopes of finding more in the future and so my journey begins. The key thing is to find active accounts which you can continue to follow and learn more about your target location.
Flickr is a photo sharing site that is available both as an app on mobile devices and as a website. Flickr is a favorite among photographs and has many thousands of photographs. It is easier to search than Instagram when you want to go deep into a topic. Simply type your place name into the search box and wait a moment for the results. My search for Baerenthal returned over 800 photos! Since Flickr is geared toward more serious photographers I'm less likely to find "selfies" and other types of un-related photos.
Just like on Instagram, photos are posted by users and tagged and if you find something that you like you can follow the account of the photographer. In this particular case I found an account for Moselle Tourism. Moselle is the region (called a Department in France) where Baerenthal is located. This is account is as perfect as I'm going to find when it comes to targeting Baerenthal on Flickr so I will definitely follow it. When I follow the account it shows me future photos in my main feed.
Unlike Instragram, Flickr makes use of "albums" so if you find one photo you like you can click on the link to its album and likely find many more photos on the same topic.
In addition to Moselle Tourism, I also found a wonderful photographer named Raymond Schaeffer who had an album of 27 beautiful photos just of Baerenthal.
Google Street View
Back in 2004 my Uncle Bob visited Baerenthal in an attempt to find traces of our ancestors. When he returned he shared some of the photos that he took. Here is a photo of the the church located in the tiny village. One of the really fun things you can do to follow in your ancestors's foot steps is to use Google Street View. I use this mostly for looking up locations in the United States but it works well in other parts of the world too. I simple typed Baerenthal, France into Google Maps and it brought me to the town. I clicked on what I believed to be the town center and zoomed in. I then clicked on the little yellow person found in the lower right corner of Google Maps and dragged that onto a street. That brought me into street view. You can then travel the roads as if you were there in person.
Here's an image that my uncle took during his visit in 2004.
And here's a view of the same location using Google Maps.
It's a slightly different angle but the church looks much the same as when my uncle visited over ten years ago. The advantage with Google Maps street view is that you can explain the surrounding area - you're not limited to a single image from a camera.
Exploring your ancestral village can be a lot of fun using Instragram, Flickr and Google Maps. These are just three tools of many that are available that can help you become acquainted with your homeland. Try them out and see what you discover. Then come back here and share other ways that you have stepped virtually in your ancestors' foots steps.