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The Daily Genealogist: Lessons Learned from a Public History Project

(Items of Note) Permanent link

Kimberly Whitworth
guest author

Kimberly Whitworth is completing her Master's Degree in History at Salem State University. -- Editor

Over the past year I created an online map and database of the Old Burial Ground on Academy Road in North Andover, Massachusetts. Established around 1650, the Old Burial Ground holds the remains of the founding families of Andover and their descendants. The graves marking the burials--as well as the burials themselves--are of historic significance to early New England.

I developed the idea for this project during a graduate class I took last fall which considered the historical aspects of the New England landscape--the physical environment shaped by human interventions. [For those interested in learning more about this topic, I recommend two books: A Landscape History of New England (2011) and Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 (1983).] Burial grounds certainly do not come immediately to mind as a landscape, but they are set in nature and created by human hands.

People often think of burial grounds as static places, where nothing changes. What I realized by the end of my project is that the map I created is merely a 2013 "snapshot" of this particular landscape. During the course of my work, I had access to prior efforts to collect and catalog the burials and markers at the site. When reviewing maps and data from the 1960s and the 1990s, it became clear the site has changed over time due to a variety of factors, including environmental damage and weather, destruction wrought by tree roots, and occasional vandalism. Some stones that were recorded in the 1960s or 1990s were missing in 2013. 

The technology I used to create the map and locate each headstone is called "GIS" or Geographic Information Systems, "a collection of computer hardware, software, and geographic data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information." Each headstone on the map represents a point collected using satellite technology. Now each headstone has a latitude and longitude line associated with each point gathered. The accuracy of each point with the system used in this project is within a meter.  

The burial ground is owned by the Town of North Andover and is under the care of the North Andover Historical Commission. I was fortunate to have Town support for the project, and assistance from many departments at Town Hall. I also had the support of the North Andover Historical Society and a few dedicated volunteers who braved some of the hottest days of the summer to take "points" with me.

Visit the Old Burial Ground website, map, and database (PDF) here.

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