Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on April 22, 2014 in Ask Ancestry Anne
Physiographic Map of the US
“Physiographic Map,” Natural Resources Conservation Service, United states Department of Agriculture,
( : accessed 22 Apr 2014); citing Physiographic Map Reference: Fenneman, Nevin M., 1946, Physical Divisions of the United States: U.S. Geological Survey, scale 1:7,000,000.

I’m willing to bet at least some of your ancestors were farmers. Their livelihood, their ability to feed their children, to clothe themselves — it all depended on the earth.

And it depended on the type of earth.  All soil is not created equal, and not all soil is used to grow the same things. The type of soil your ancestors had available to them and the climates they lived in dictated the crops that they could grow. People grew what they knew. If you knew how to grow wheat, and you picked up and moved to a new location, you would want to grow it in the next place that you lived.

When your ancestor was looking for new opportunities, this might drive where they migrated to. To gain insight into the direction they went you might want to look at a physiographic map. A physiographic map, shown above, tells you the kind of soil that you will find in a specific area. The Great Road (one of its many names), which many of our ancestors used to migrate from Pennsylvania to places south, follows the same lines as the bluish and purple land swaths that you see there.

Look at this physiographic map of Virginia. The solid lines define the different physiographic areas.

Physiographic Map of Virginia
“Physiographic Provinces of Virginia,” Virginia Department of Environmental Quality,
( : accessed 22 Apr 2014).

So if your ancestors were living on the coastal plains in the early 1830s, do you think they moved west or south?

Did they move west or south?
Did they move west or south?

Probably south. Moving west would require traversing mountains and changing climate and soil.  Moving south requires a change, but it is a change that has fewer unknowns.

Do a Google search for physiographic maps for your state (for example, Pennsylvania physiographic maps). Every little bit of information that you can find about your ancestors makes you understand them that much better.

And dig into agricultural schedules on for another look at what your ancestors grew on their farms.  Five Minute Find: Down on the Farm will give you some pointers.

Happy Searching!


Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. Annette Crawford

    My maternal grandfather came to the USA in 1911 from Kauhava, Finland. According to what I know (he died in 1938) from and Ellis Island records, Emil went to Jacksonville, FL, upon arrival. He worked his way up to SC where he settled in a farming area. I now know that he did farm work in Finland too.

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