(Virtually) Walk Where Your Ancestors Walked

My fourth great grandparents, Isaac Chilton and Ann Watkins, were from Wales and emigrated to the United States in 1860. Someday I hope to visit and walk the green landscape of Wales and learn about the rich cultural history of this land. In the meantime – thanks to Google Maps – I can take a virtual tour of this area without ever leaving my home.

Here is a step-by-step guide to do this.

Step-by-step instructions

Step 1: Search for your place using Google Maps

In this example I search for Llanelly, Wales. This is the location where Isaac Chilton and Anne Watkins were married. I noticed when doing searches in the United Kingdom, that it didn’t always find the place I was searching for when I added the county (e.g., Breconshire). This is likely just user error because I am not entirely familiar with UK geography and naming conventions. It is also likely that the county boundaries changed since 1850. So keep this in mind when doing your searches. If you enter conflicting data (like a city and county that no longer “match”), Google will apparently do its best to reconcile everything in your search – often resulting in the wrong place!

For this reason, I have learned to generally keep the searches simple rather than enter all the details we are accustomed to using in genealogy. You don’t want to start your virtual tour in the wrong place!

Step 1 Begin Your Vitrual Tour by Doing a Google Map Search for the location

Click to follow along

Step 2: Explore the Area

Once the map appears, take time to explore the area. You may want to zoom in or out a little to see the surrounding area. In my example, I quickly recognized a couple other place names which helped me verify that I had the right place. In the image below I have pointed out Brynmawr and Nantyglo. Several of Isaac and Anne’s children were christened in Brynmawr, while Isaac himself was born in Nantyglo.

I also couldn’t help but notice all the “green” areas on the map. I zoomed out to learn that this is all part of Brecon Beacons National Park.  A quick side tour revealed that I really can’t wait to go visit this absolutely beautiful area of Wales. (Maybe I should start a “GoFundMe” Campaign?)

Step 2 Explore the area on the map

Click for full-size image

Step 3: Take a Look at the “Quick Facts”

Even though you are probably tempted to jump straight to the tour, I suggest that you pause to look at the “Quick Facts” that Google provides over in the left panel. In this case we learn:

Llanelly is the name of both a parish and community in Monmouthshire principal area, within the historic boundaries of Brecknockshire, south-east Wales. It roughly covers the area of the Clydach Gorge.

It then has a link to a Wikipedia page to learn more about Llanelly.

I picked up a few clues that help me overcome my cluelessness about UK geography. First it mentions “historic boundaries.” This makes me think that perhaps the boundaries have indeed changed. Second, I see that it says “Brecknockshire” instead of “Breconshire.” A couple Google searches later, and I learn that these are alternate spellings of the same place. I also learn that the administrative county of Brecknockshire was abolished in 1972. Apparently, I have some more reading and research to do. 🙂

Take the time to do a little research. It will help you better appreciate your virtual tour (or your in-person tour).

Step 3 Look at the Quick Facts on the Left

Click for full-size image

Step 4: Let’s Explore Imagery

Now things get really fun. Click on the chevron, or double arrow, on the bottom right corner of the map next to the little yellow man.  A little panel appears with pictures of the area. Thumbnails with a camera icon are standard “stills” or regular photographs. Those that have the circular arrow offer a 360 degree view of the area (typically part of the Google Street View functionality).

Next, go ahead and click on one with the 360 degree view. You are suddenly transported to this location with the ability to see everything around you. Begin exploring by using your arrow keys on the keyboard or clicking and dragging in the direction you want to see. Plus, you can even look up or down! Now use the scroll wheel on your mouse to zoom in or out. You will find that if you zoom out too far in Street View, you “fly” up and see a satellite view of the area. Just zoom back in to return to Street View. In the top left corner you will see either the submitter of the image, or it will say “Street View.” This will help you know if you are in Street View or a 360° photograph someone else contributed.

More about Street View

There is a second, more direct way, to enter Street View. From the map view, simply click and drag the little yellow man on the bottom right corner to a location on the map. This will take you directly to street view from the perspective of the man on the street where you dropped him. In case you’re interested, he has a name – the yellow man that is. He is known as “Pegman,” and he gives you direct access to the panoramic views created by Google’s technology. Google has been taking pictures since 2007, and a large portion of the world is available in “Street View” of Google Maps or through Google Earth. It is way cool!

Step 4 Explore Imagery

Click for full-size image

Step 5: Take Your Virtual Tour

Now that you are in Street View, you can virtually drive through the area simply by clicking on the road ahead of you. This virtual tour won’t completely replace getting your passport stamped, but it is a much cheaper alternative. Of course, in most cases the pictures were taken from a moving car. So anything “off-road” will not generally be visible up close. Even so, it gave me some amazing visuals like this great picture below on Church Road!

Step 5 Street View or 360 photos

St. Elli’s Church, Llanelly Parish

St. Elli in Llanelly, Wales

Parish Church where Isaac Chilton and Anne Watkins were married. Image Credit: Jeffrey L. Thomas

St Elli Stained Glass

Stained Glass featuring St. Elli. Image Credit: Jeffrey L. Thomas

Then, as I continue up Church Road I come to a church which literally sits at the intersection of 4 roads. The church dates from the 12th century, and happens to be where Isaac and Anne were married in 1852. In the mid-1800s the surrounding area became a hotbed of activity due to the abundance of coal and iron. Isaac Chilton was a collier and worked in the coal mines.

By doing a Google search (did I mention that Google is your friend?) for “Old Llanelly Parish” Church I found a gold mine of information on a great website created by Jeffrey L. Thomas. He documented this area on a family history research trip he took and allowed me to benefit from his journey. The image of the church and of the stain glass window featuring St. Elli are credited to him. Thanks Jeffrey for all the information you helped provide!

Thanks for coming along on this Virtual Tour! Please comment below and tell us about your own Virtual Tour!


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  1. Charity Jeffs


    I just spent some time “exploring” Bishops Tachbrook, Warwickshire, England, where the Olney family (back on the Beeson/Long/Barber line) lived. I looked at a church, which still stands and is in use, where I ASSUME Michael Olney and Joanne Priest were married, but I can’t be sure. The interesting tidbit I learned is that they lived, were married, and had their family in this village, just 10 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, the same year Michael and Olney had a son. Cool, isn’t it?

    • Reply

      Charity, thanks so much for sharing! I am glad you liked it. Cool that you connected your family with another historically significant place.

      As far as knowing for sure which church, I think I was lucky to have the marriage record which clearly says Llanelly Parish, and then to find the website that has so much information. So cool!

  2. Reply

    It is so much fun to travel to our ancestral lands using google maps and street view. One side of my family lived on one street. With street view, I was able to mark each house with pins and identify which relative lived in it.

    You pointed out something I had not noticed before, the quick facts. Another nice little bit of information!

    Thanks for sharing how google maps can be used in genealogy!

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