For the television show Who Do You Think You Are? our job is to tell stories we find in family trees. And a good story needs good characters, the more well-rounded and dynamic, the better. So when we research an episode for Who Do You Think You Are? we look to learn everything we can about each “character” in the episode. The story is always better when you understand details such as where each person comes from, their family relationships, their economic situation, their political leanings, and their motivations. Two important characters in Cynthia Nixon’s story were her 3x great-grandmother Martha Curnutt and Martha’s husband, Noah Casto.
Noah Casto was certainly a character—and he wasn’t one to stay in one place. Noah lived his adult life in the early 1800s and apparently embraced the idea of westward expansion because he always seemed to be moving on to the next opportunity. His habit of perpetual migration made picking up his trail complicated work, and we had to track his movements meticulously. We did this by using one of the family historian’s most basic and useful tools: a map.
Maps are often critical for piecing together a genealogical puzzle. They can help a researcher see whether various records fit a pattern of migration or suggest additional counties or states to investigate. As we were researching Noah Casto, maps helped us follow and understand his movements and provided evidence that we were on the right track.
Noah Casto’s name appeared in records scattered across multiple states. These included:
- 1820 census, Greene County, Pennsylvania
- 1830 tax list, Guernsey County, Ohio
- 1835 and 1836 land records, Shelby County, Indiana
- 1839 marriage to Martha Curnutt, Cole County, Missouri
Because of his uncommon name, it seemed possible that all these records were for the same guy, but would one man’s records really be spread across so many states over such a relatively short time?
We created a map detailing the movements in all the documents that mentioned a Noah Casto. If he was the same person, it turns out that his route closely follows the National Road established in the early 1800s, which stretched westward from Maryland through the southwest corner of Pennsylvania; onward to Guernsey County, Ohio; and through Indiana, north of Shelby County. Using this map, it is easy to see that Cole County, Missouri was connected to these eastern states by river, suggesting that Noah’s movements from Greene County, Pennsylvania all the way to Cole County, Missouri were very plausible. Additional research proved that almost all the records were about the right man.
With any family you’re researching—and especially for difficult research problems—it’s wise to study a map to see exactly where their county was situated and what counties or states were adjacent or nearby. Knowing what jurisdictions were within easy traveling distance can lead to records about people you are looking for. For example, we found several records naming Noah Casto in Ohio and Indiana, both of which border Kentucky. If we had ignored all Kentucky records, we would have missed an earlier marriage bond naming Noah Casto.
Maps can also inform you about a county’s physical environment, which can influence where you find records. For example, if a river separates a family from the county seat, a couple may have chosen to get a marriage license from a more convenient courthouse even if it was located in a different county. Taking time to create maps for the people in your family tree can be an invaluable tool to help direct your research—and it can also turn your own ancestors into characters in your family story.
Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.
Other episodes this season:
And if you missed our live tweeting of the premiere episode, check out the Storify we put together with some of the key tweets and comments shared on Wednesday night.