Currently my favorite item on the Library of Congress website is this atlas of Riley County, KS from the early 1900s. It shows how the county¬† was divided up about 54 years after its formation in 1855. I’m a bit of a history buff and rather fond of this county, where I’ve lived for the better part of the last 7 years.

Reading through the document and especially looking at the maps, I get a sense of the history of the land and people around me. It’s also cool to see the systematic way land was divided and allotted. (I’m a fan of systems in general, I like how they make sense out of things.) It teaches me some of the history of the region and makes me feel more connected to it.

  • My college’s mascot is the Wildcat. Wild Cat is actually one of the townships of Riley County. That was a fascinating find.
  • There’s an itty bitty settlement near me named Zeandale. It turns out that’s the name of another township.
  • In fact, several ghost towns and unincorporated communities like Bala and May Day are named after their respective township.

Looking at the layout of the cities in the county as of 1909 is fun. It’s so neat to see how things were neatly organized. It always makes me wonder how they decided to make the cities be the sizes they are. Why did they pick that particular shape? Did they know it was going to grow to that size?

Some cities like Randolph and Cleburne have additions that are named after the person or company that added them. It makes me wonder why they made those additions, how they afforded it, etc.

But my favorite part is looking through the maps showing the townships and who owned what areas. Presumably it’s mostly farmland. The Kansas land was divided into squares a mile long on each side, then divided further between the people who would own it. It’s so cool to see the actual names of the land owners. A lot of the last names constantly repeat. You go through the pages of the atlas looking at who owned what area. And you find certain families owned hundreds or thousands of acres of land throughout the county. Indeed there are a few individuals who have tons and tons of land.

It makes me wonder how they farmed that land. Did they hire workers? They must have. They probably had employees who lived in the nearby villages or cities, who showed up to work each morning, farming the vast fields.

The city I live in was founded within a decade before the Civil War. It’s just old enough that it has local traditions, and names that have strong meaning in regional history. The names of streets and college buildings reflect this. We have an Anderson Hall, as well as Anderson Avenue. Last names like Denison have become streets. Marlatt and Goodnow are immortalized as dorms. You don’t really understand the naming behind things until you research it. And my city has plenty of tradition and local heroes to name things after.

What I really get a kick out of, is finding last names in these maps that now belong to people I personally know. There are a bunch of these. I grew up in western New York, from a family that spent several generations in the immediate Buffalo area. Extended family could be found as far east as central New York, and as far south as Pennsylvania. But we’re largely stationary.

The thing is though, we don’t really have land we could say is “ours.” Sure there are homeowners among us but it’s not like we have acres that have belonged to us for hundreds of years. My lineage is quite non-descript. We’re small and spread out.

Then I have friends who are descended from the first settlers of Riley County. Who can look at these maps and say, “That’s where my grandfather’s grandfather lived.” Who can drive out to a field a half hour out of town, and know a century ago someone they are related to worked and owned that very land. That is their ancestral land. I don’t have an ancestral land. Sure I can trace my genealogy to Buffalo, then Boston, then all the way back to a little village in northern England. But none of that land is mine, or my family’s. So my family history is in the abstract. But those people I go to church with, or work with, they can see and touch their histories. I am a newcomer to the region who appreciates the traditions and histories of the area. They are literally descended from it, more connected than I could ever be. And I find that remarkably awe-inspiring.

What’s also awe-inspiring is the ability to open Google Earth and see what that land looks like now. The grid pattern still exists and some areas look totally unchanged. Google Earth lets you import images, overlay them on the map, and make it opaque enough that you can see the land underneath it. It gives me a sense of awe to compare a map from 1909 to a map of 2019. I imagine the images of those early settlers laboring on the land, while cars and people frantically hurry about getting to some job or store. The same land, different faces, 110 years apart. You see newcomers like myself, but you also see faces not that different between the eras.