Map quest sends Nova Scotians to attics, basements in search of old charts

A group of historians in Nova Scotia are asking people to scour their attics and basements on a map quest for some very old charts. 

They were created in the late 1800s by an American named Ambrose Finson Church, a mysterious man rumoured to have deserted the U.S. army in the throes of that country's civil war. Some said AF Church always slept with a revolver under his pillow. 

He learned how to make maps in Maine before moving to Nova Scotia. The colony was two years away from joining Canada in Confederation and wanted a detailed map of the land and its people. In 1865, the House of Assembly hired Church to map all 18 counties. 

It was an arduous task in a time before electricity, telephones or motor vehicles. Church noted the railroads and waterways were still much more important than the roads, but he documented each twist and turn of the colony's highways and byways. 

Robert Short/CBC

He finally finished the job in 1889, 24 years after he'd begun. By that time, an entire generation of Nova Scotians only knew life as part of Canada. And Church, like many immigrants before and since, likely knew the province better than anyone. 

Google Maps of the 19th century

Pat Whidden, president of the East Hants Historical Society, thinks Church likely visited schools and asked students to point to their home on the map and tell him who lived there.

He also probably knocked on a lot of doors to learn who was inside and may have taken payment to include businesses in an early version of the Yellow Pages. 

Robert Short/CBC

Whidden has an AF Church map of East Hants that was printed in 1871, while Church was still working on the project. It shows the townships and major businesses, plus dots naming each household. His maps were used in schools and other public institutions to educate people about the province's geography. 

"I think this may have been one of the earliest attempts to do the kind of minute detail mapping that we see here," she says. "Showing where the roads are, many of which don't exist anymore, and where the houses were, and the density of the population, as well as where the businesses were. The detail is exquisite."

They were the Google Maps of the 19th century. Whidden and her colleagues want to gather a complete collection of the maps so they can clean them up and digitize them. Then, generations of genealogists will be able to see more clearly into the past. 

"This map offers a tremendous wealth of information for anybody that's interested in history and certainly in finding their families," she says. 

Whidden thinks her East Hants map was likely used in a school, but at some point her great-great-grandfather took possession of it. He kept it in a corner, where it may well have stayed unmoved for a century. Whidden's mother gave it to her in 2000. 

Paul Armstrong, of the Maritime Institute for Civil Society, is joining the call for people to dig in attics and back rooms for lost copies of the big maps. 

"When we lose the kind of historical context socially, it's much the same as when we lose it as individuals with dementia. You lose your understanding of who you are," he says.

Robert Short/CBC

The maps will greatly help modern researchers learn where their ancestors lived. They could then find the same location on Google Maps to see what's there today, or even make their own way to the ancestral homestead to see something of what their ancestors saw. 

Solving a 'good puzzle'

"These maps have all the best components of a good puzzle. There's enough information that allows you to get traction on finding something and seeing if you can match it up with your ancestor or other members of the community," Armstrong says.

"Our interest is in that historical recovery."

He calls it a legacy project for the province and hopes people will donate the relics to the cause. The plan is to get everything online so that people around the world can walk the roads AF Church walked 150 years ago.