By Matt de Simone
Botetourt County residents curious about their genealogy information about the area have a new resource on the subject.
Jim Jackson of Caldwell, Idaho, recently started up a website called Frontier Virginia. The website provides a platform for the presentation and visualization of data that documents the European settlement of the Virginia frontier from 1770-1780.
According to Jackson, the “tithable” data of Botetourt contains specific information for families and historical research.
By definition, a tithable appears in the 17th- and 18th-century records referring to a person who paid, or for whom someone paid, one of the taxes that the General Assembly imposed to support the civil government in the colony.
“I wanted to make all of the data easily accessible and viewable at a single location to anyone who wants to use it,” Jackson stated in a recent interview.
“One of the problems with the data, as it originally existed, was that significant variations in name spellings rendered the tithable lists extremely difficult to exploit,” Jackson explained. “Another issue was that the tithable data was dispersed, mostly into discrete, incomplete packages within sometimes obscure source materials that greatly reduced opportunities for data discovery.
“Finally, visualization of the geographic context was virtually nonexistent,” Jackson continued. “The inefficient internal organization and information dispersal severely limited access to these population data sets, and, consequently, resulted in the underutilization of this valuable resource.”
Jackson explained that Frontier Virginia’s website effectively eliminates or dramatically reduces deficiencies by virtually eliminating the spelling variant issue. The site resolves the dispersal issue by arranging all data into a single, easily discoverable location. It removes the lack of geographic context by providing detailed maps that depict the district boundaries and directly compare them to the modern landscape.
Jackson worked with an IT professional when putting together the website. He refers to himself as a “map guy,” while his partner in the project built the website.
“It was an ideal team effort, wherein each member contributed their particular expertise,” Jackson said.
Living in Idaho, what led Jackson to start the website? Simple. Jackson wanted to learn more about his ancestry.
Jackson first encountered Botetourt’s tithable data while researching his Scots-Irish Berry ancestors on their multi-generational journey through the ridge and valley corridor along the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1700s.
He discovered that two same-name first cousins lived in the “fork” of the James River area in the 1760s. By the mid-1770s, both cousins lived in southwestern Virginia that became Washington County (Abingdon). Jackson found the cousins in two different 1772 tithable lists.
“It was absolutely stunning to me that I had found data that not only confirmed their known geographic relocation but also constrained that move to a very specific time frame,” Jackson said.
Upon reviewing the literature, Jackson found that the general consensus among researchers was that the court records describing the districts where these tithable lists were located were not sufficiently detailed to define their boundaries accurately.
After spending his entire career in the mapping world, Jackson took a closer look at the court-defined tithable district descriptions, revealing “a wealth of hydrologic, topographic and cultural clues that people could utilize to geolocate and define their geographic boundaries accurately.”
Jackson further mentioned that the most crucial geographic component was recognizing that the definition of each district was defined as being all or parts of what were drainage basins, each directly associated with a significant stream. The practical result was that all of the tithable district boundaries defined in the Botetourt County court records were identified and mapped.
“The work on the tithable lists was the other intrinsic element of this project,” Jackson continued. “Using (microfilming records) of the tithable lists and comparing published sources of the lists to these scans, we generated a spreadsheet containing all of the names on all of the tithable lists.”
It became clear to Jackson that spelling variants for the names prevented a list to list or year-to-year comparison for individuals, which greatly hindered efficient exploitation of the data. His solution was to create a separate heading in the spreadsheet that normalized name spelling so that multiple same-named individuals could be confirmed and users could identify the movements of individuals and families.
“When we combined the normalized tithable lists with the maps of their associated tithable districts, the places where individuals and families lived could be more closely pinpointed in time and space,” Jackson said. “And in some cases, as I discovered, even traced as they moved from location to location.”
Jackson’s original intent was to use his “primitive” HTML skills to publish the maps and tithable lists from his efforts on a genealogy website. Then, a serendipitous online encounter with a retired IT guy completely altered that trajectory.
His partner’s basic interest in the subject matter, web skills, and eagerness to continuously experiment with new data applications resulted in the development and design of the Frontier Virginia website that now comprises the public portal to the Botetourt County Tithables.
To learn more about Botetourt County’s tithable data, visit FrontierVirginia.com.