Google Earth: How it Can Help with Genealogy

By Breanne Ballard

Ipad with google earth on screen with title of post on top of image.

When I started learning about my family tree I remember getting so confused trying to keep track of things like what happened where, who lived where, where did my grandparents immigrate from, and where exactly is that?! When you’re connecting with family through genealogy and family history the list of places you come across gets really long, really fast. So, you might wonder, can Google Earth help me keep track of all these places?

Google Earth is an ideal place for identifying locations, organizing places and addresses, and sharing genealogical data that is found as you search for ancestors. Google Earth has many features that help to search for locations, measure distances, and create projects to tell family stories.

In other words, if you want to make better family connections through genealogy, then the possibilities of doing that Google Earth are endless. Ready to dive deeper into how Google Earth can help you with your genealogy?

Why Use Google Earth For Genealogy?

So much of genealogy and family history is related to location. The more you trace your family roots, the more you’ll find new places to explore. These places are many and varied, such as, birth places, marriage places, death and burial places, the old family farm, the community church your family attended, etc. It’s really easy to lose track of where those places are and how they relate to each other.

Organizing the places you find out about through genealogy by saving them in Google Earth will help you not only keep track of them for future reference, but also help you to visually see the movement patterns of your family and give you ideas about where to look for the next piece of juicy information you’re looking for find out about your family.

As you’ve looked into your family history, have you ever found the name of a place and had no idea where it is? That happens to me all the time! Look it up on Google Earth! (Don’t forget to save it too.)

Getting in the habit of looking at Google Earth to see locations you find in your research and saving them for future reference will also help you remember to look around the places where your family member lived. Neighboring cities, counties and states are great places to look for more information about your ancestors. 

Google Earth also gives you the option to view what those places look like now. You can see if the house your ancestor lived in still exists, and what’s in its place if it’s not. You might be able to get a feel for what the town was like. In the desktop version of Google Earth, called Google Earth Pro, you can even overlay a historic map over the current map in order to see how the town has changed since your family member lived there. 

The information you store in Google Earth can also be used and enhanced to create fantastic digital storytelling presentations that are sure to be not only informative, but entertaining as well.

Let’s look at some of these features in more detail.

What features does Google Earth have that will help me help me with my family history?

The features that can most help you with your genealogy include:

  • Search
  • Organization
  • Measure distance
  • Historical images and overlays
  • Projects or Sightseeing Tours
 

Search

You can search any place in the world on Google Earth. Google Earth will even try to guess what location you’re searching for. This is really handy if you’re not sure about the exact name of a place or how it’s spelled.

Organization

Every person has two parents, four grandparents, eight grandparents, sixteen great-grandparents, and so on. Each of those people has multiple locations associated with their names and each family line can go many different directions all across the world. To keep track of all of these, you have to be organized. Google Earth has many organizational features like placemarkers, projects, folders, and color-coded customizing. For example all the placemarkers for the Smith family are in blue, and all the placemarkers for the Jones family are in red. Or, all the burial places of the Jensen family are in one project, and all the places you want to visit on your next research trip are in a different project.

Measure Distance

You know that story you’ve been telling your kids about walking five miles uphill, both ways, in the snow to get to school? Prove it! You can do that with Google Earth. Google Earth has a feature to measure the distance between two places. It can’t help you with the elevation part though. Sorry about that. The measurement feature can also help you know how far apart two places are, which will help you map out the story you’re piecing together about your family.

Historical Images and Overlays

In Google Earth Pro, the desktop version of Google Earth, the images you can see for certain places can go back at least 40 years. If you want to go back farther than that, you can upload historical maps that you can find on the internet and overlay them on the current Google Earth image. That’s so helpful in seeing how things have changed over time (and keep track of your maps!)

Projects and Sightseeing Tours

Family stories are really what makes your genealogical data come to life. They’re the epitome of family connection. Google Earth gives you the option to create projects or sightseeing tours that will help you tell those family stories. You could tell your own story, the story of a family member, or the story of an entire family line. Not only can you map out locations, but you can also add photos, images, videos, and text to tell your digital family story.

Google Earth projects is one of my favorite reasons to use Google Earth for family history and genealogy. If you’d like to get in-depth on how to make one of these projects here’s a link to a webinar about Google Earth projects for digital storytelling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvLvH_GbD7U&t=1851s 

How can Google Earth help me map my family tree?

As mentioned before, Google Earth is a great tool for not only looking up locations, but also saving and organizing them. I highly recommend getting in the habit of saving every location you find on your family tree to Google Earth. Choose the organizational method that works best for you, either color coding, folders, projects, or a combination of all of the above. As soon as you find a new place related to any part of your family history, save it to Google Earth.

Saved places in Google Earth become a great reference for research, recalling the events that happened in certain places, the patterns in which your family moved around and knowing where you’d like to visit on your next research trip.

Can I share Google Earth information with my family?

Absolutely! Sharing the information you’ve gathered on Google Earth is one of the best reasons to use it. Google Earth uses KML and KMZ files. These files can be downloaded and shared by email. The best, and easiest way to share genealogical information through a Google Earth project. Not only is a project informative, it’s visually appealing and easy to navigate. Projects are easily shared to family by allowing them access it by adding their email address to the project. It’s so easy!

A Google Earth project is great for other family members who are interested in family history and those that you would like to get more interested in their family history.

Can you see how Google Earth this can be so helpful in making family connections through genealogy? I hope you have success in making family connections with Google Earth and all the many features it has to offer. And don’t forget to share with your family too!

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