I’ve been researching the Mitchesons, my 19th century Philadelphia ancestors, on and off for a couple of years. One of the things that most intrigues me is to find out where they lived. Was it rural, or in the heart of the old town? At the top of a hill, or in an unhealthy swampy area? And how did the area change over time?
The best way to find out is to look at old maps. The modern ones help you to get your bearings, but studying historical maps of the areas where our ancestors lived and worked is crucial. They show transportation corridors and distances and indicate population density and land use.
The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network (http://www.philageohistory.org/geohistory/) has an excellent collection of old maps of Philadelphia.
My three-times great-grandfather Robert Mitcheson bought a large piece of property facing Coates Street (later renamed Fairmount), between 11th and 12th, in the Spring Garden district, north of the city. Looking at it on this 1831 survey plan, it is clear that this was a rural area and that new roads were being laid out: http://www.philageohistory.org/rdic-images/view-image.cfm/083-1_HP
Zoom in on Spring Garden (the long, narrow pink section) on the1843 survey map at http://www.philageohistory.org/rdic-images/view-image.cfm/ellet and you’ll find the street grid is in place and the State Penitentiary is located nearby, as is the city’s famous Fairmount waterworks. The Mitchesons were becoming urban residents, and Robert took advantage of it. He built boarding houses on his property that he hoped would provide an ongoing source of income for his children.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (http://hsp.org.) is another good source for maps. Its digital project PhilaPlace (http://www.philaplace.org) invites users to write about the histories of their favorite spots in the city. (As I write this, the site seems to be having technical problems.)
To read about Robert Mitcheson’s wife, Fanny MacGregor, see my blog post, writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2014/03/fanny-in-philly.html