How to Use GPS for Genealogy and Family History

Updated on April 9, 2020
John Dove profile image

John is a mid-Atlantic writer and avid student of history. His current passions are frontier and Civil War history, and genealogy.

Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore, discovered on MapQuest.
Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore, discovered on MapQuest. | Source

I've been researching my family history for over a decade. It's fun, it's educational, it's a way to connect with relatives, and it's knowledge to pass along to my kids. I discovered the power of using GPS in my family history work some time ago.

MapQuest: My Early Auto Navigation Tool

The American Global Positioning System (GPS) went operational in the 1970s for military and navigational purposes. Rapid advances in digital and GPS systems soon enabled personal computer mapping and navigational devices for cars, planes, and boats.

MapQuest Then and Now

I remember using a mapping program called MapQuest on my computer. With MapQuest, you could type in your start and destination addresses, hit enter, and view the best route to get from start to destination. You could also print out the directions to use in your car. That was before you acquired a GPS navigational device to keep in your car.

Today, MapQuest is a sophisticated GPS app that you use on your computer or smartphone with many options. Let's say you want to find Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore. I downloaded the MapQuest app on my iPhone and typed in "Edgar Allen Poe's grave." The app quickly found the gravesite and my location and gave me route options to get there. It also showed small photos of the grave that could be easily enlarged, as seen in the photo at the top of this article.

How to Use It in Your Family History Research

Here's how MapQuest can help your family history quest. Let's say you've identified a dozen different addresses where your ancestors lived in a given city. You can list them in a spreadsheet, import them into MapQuest, and see them all displayed on your screen. Assume you want to take a driving tour that takes you to each one of your family history sites using the shortest possible total driving time. MapQuest will do that and present you with a map showing all the sites along with a map legend showing your data.

Garmin: First GPS Device for My Auto

I purchased a Garmin GPS that I mounted on my windshield. I can easily find and navigate to any address of my choosing, such as a cemetery. The display shows my vehicle location as it travels along my route. Other useful info it displays: estimated time of arrival (ETA), elevation, and number of miles and minutes to my destination. It will also display the geographic coordinates of your location.

How to Use It in Your Family History Research

Let's say that I arrive at a large cemetery. I obtain a cemetery map from the office showing the location of the gravesite I want to find. Once I find the grave, I stand there with my Garmin in hand and write down the grid coordinates displayed on the screen. Now I have the precise geographic location of the grave for my records. If I need to give directions to the site to a relative, I simply give her the coordinates. She can type them into her GPS device and quickly find the grave with no hassle.

iPhone: Using iPhone Maps to Find a Location by Grid Coordinates

When I upgraded my old flip-top phone to an iPhone 6s, I now had the perfect GPS device for navigating to specific addresses and to specific grid coordinates. l can now search for locations such as gravesites when I know their grid coordinates!

Search for a grid coordinate in iPhone Maps by typing the latitude and longitude in decimal degrees, separated by a space. Example: 39.29025 -76.62358 (Edgar Allen Poe's Grave)

The Find A Grave website.
The Find A Grave website.

Find A Grave: Go-To Site for Locating Gravesites

The Find A Grave website, now part of Ancestry.com, provides researchers with a way to input the coordinates of a grave so that anybody who finds a grave memorial on Find A Grave may now view its precise location on a map.

Find A Grave allows researchers from around the world, after taking a photograph of head/footstones, to upload the photos, add info about the deceased and add GPS grid coordinates. Each memorial page has a map icon followed by either: show map, or add to map.

  • show map means the memorial page already includes grid coordinates. By hovering over the words show map, the coordinates of the grave are revealed (in decimal degrees of latitude and longitude).
  • add to map means the memorial page does not yet include grid coordinates. I can add coordinates by one of the three methods listed below:

Three Ways to Add Grid Coordinates to a Find A Grave Memorial Page

  1. Download the Find A Grave iPhone app to your iPhone. For a grave that already has a memorial page, stand at the head/footstone, go to the memorial page and click on the "add GPS" icon while standing at the head/footstone. The coordinates are automatically added to the grave Memorial page.
  2. Login to FindAGrave.com and manually add coordinates. On the memorial page that you want to add coordinates, click on "Suggest Edits." Up will come an edit page with spaces to add grid coordinate (latitude and longitude in decimal degrees). Your edits will be marked "pending" until approved by a moderator.
  3. When you upload an iPhone photo of a head/footstone to a memorial page, the grid coordinates in that photo's metadata are automatically added to the grave location.

Converting Coordinates: Transforming Degrees Minutes Seconds into Decimal Degrees

As Find A Grave uses decimal degrees, you may have to convert from Degrees Minutes Seconds. Go to latlong.org and use the easy converter. To convert from decimal degrees to degrees minutes seconds, use this converter.

The example below shows coordinate conversion for the Confederate portion of Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown, Maryland shown at the end of this article.

iPhones and other smartphones that have photo and GPS functionality automatically include grid coordinates in the metadata for every picture taken.

Find Grid Coordinates in Your iPhone Picture's Metadata

My first digital camera was a Canon xx. It took wonderful pictures and recorded lots of info about the picture in its metadata. But the camera did not have GPS and did not record grid coordinates for the shot. In searching through my old digital pictures I had to depend on the date it was taken and my own recollection to determine the precise location of each picture.

Then I switched to an iPhone which had a great quality built-in camera and GPS. Any picture taken with my iPhone automatically recorded the grid coordinates of the camera's location the instant the picture was taken. The coordinates are recorded in the metadata for that picture. Now the iPhone could be used to automatically add coordinates to a gravesite in Find A Grave as described earlier. To view the coordinates in the metadata I downloaded the iPhone app Investigator.

Investigator: View Grid Coordinates of Pictures Taken With an iPhone

Click on the Investigator app on your iPhone and then find and click on a photo. An image of that photo appears with a button labeled Metadata. Click on Metadata and then on View All. Now you'll be able to scroll through each data item until you get to GPS; click on GPS and you'll find latitude and longitude grid coordinates given in decimal degrees.

Google Earth: Use Grid Coordinates to Zoom in to the Exact Location of a Grave

Now that I have the exact grid coordinates for a relative's gravesite (either from Find A Grave, from my iPhone's metadata, or from my own records, I can use Google Earth to zoom in on that exact location. This allows you to get a sense of that precise location in the setting of surrounding neighborhoods and portions of the cemetery.

Confederate Burial Ground in Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown, Maryland. Located by Grid Coordinates
Confederate Burial Ground in Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown, Maryland. Located by Grid Coordinates | Source

I hope you have learned how to add GPS skills to your toolkit for finding, learning about and recording important geographic locations in your family history.

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