One of the first special aids a beginning genealogist will want probably
is a blank pedigree chart. The second might be a family group form. The
third will most likely be a "good map." Chances are that you are not very
familiar even with the area where your grandparents were born. You may
know it is a small town near Peoria, IL but you probably don't know exactly
where Peoria is in relation to Chicago (probably the only city in Illinois
a non-Midwesterner can locate with any accuracy), etc.
Your First Map
If you are lucky, you will have either an encyclopedia, atlas or book
of road maps that will show your town. If not, a trip to your local AAA
Club (if you are a member) or your local bookstore will turn up a good
contemporary road map This will prove satisfactory for a time, but you
will soon come to realize that there are many different kinds of maps
and all have their use in genealogy. One major difference is between a
contemporary map (how things are today) and an historical map (how they
were at a particular time in the past). Within these two divisions there
are many different categories, and some maps show more than one type of
- Roads (most common contemporary map)
- Political (encyclopedia maps showing boundaries)
- Topographical (showing mountains, elevations, etc.).
- There are also maps showing distribution of many things languages,
population, crops, temperatures, etc. but these are less important
For around $20, there are any number of mapping programs for the U.S.
which claim to have all the towns and villages in the U.S. and every street
by name. They also will help you plan a trip and provide driving directions.
These are very useful, especially when you are doing research in large
cities. They can pinpoint specific addresses so you can tell exactly where
the 500 block is, for example. Online you can find this same service at
MapQuest or Expedia
Maps. (It doesn't hurt to check both. I found Expedia to be quite
inaccurate for my own neighborhood, misplacing my street number by two
miles and using an old street name that was changed at least five years
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
On the Web site for the U.
S. Geological Survey, you can request the location of over 2 million
places, past and present, including churches, cemeteries, creeks, population
centers, towns, etc. It also produces a map you can zoom in on for a detailed
view. However, it only shows the name of the feature you request and surrounding
towns. It does not name streets, rivers or other features. You do not
have to specify a feature type or state, so you can fill in a family name
and see what features throughout the country have the same name as your
family which might provide a clue as to where some of your family
has lived at one time.
From the USGS site, you can go to the Census
Bureau map site. Here you can request your own map of any area. You
have to put in latitude and longitude, width and height and it is not
that easy to use. The USGS site has a lot of valuable information on maps.
One page has an 11-page article on using
maps in genealogy. The agency produces detailed maps of the entire
U.S. and the site tells how you can order these maps. (See their list
of dealers.) You can also order copies of out-of-print maps from the
However exciting and useful you find these maps, you will soon discover
they are not enough for genealogy. In the U.S., the country is first broken
down into states, then counties and then townships or towns. Large cities
may be further broken down into wards. In genealogy, the county is probably
the most important subdivision. For a large period of time the vital records
(births, deaths and marriages) were recorded at the county, rather than
the state level. Land, probate and court records are kept by the counties.
On a road map you see only blank space between cities but it becomes very
important to know to whom that blank space belongs since most farms are
in such areas. You need to know the county boundaries to know where to
look for records.
In most of the U.S., counties are divided into townships. Within a township
there may be villages and hamlets that the residents may use as their
usual address. If you are researching David Jones, you may find one record
for David of Rosedale and another for David of Washington Township. This
can mean there are two Davids one living in Rosedale and another
in Washington Township. It may also mean David moved from one location
to another. Or, it can be that Rosedale is a part of Washington Township
and both records apply to the same person and the same piece of land.
County histories are often arranged by township so you need to determine
whether your village is also a township or if it belongs to a township
with a different name.
Some road maps do show county and township boundaries, but many do not.
DeLorme puts out a series of atlases devoting a whole atlas to each state
(two for California). These show the county and township boundaries.
To be truly helpful for genealogy, any map must show the boundaries as
they existed when the ancestor you are researching lived there. Boundaries
have been changing constantly since the U.S. was settled. Vermont was
once a part of New York, Kentucky was part of Virginia and Tennessee was
an extension of North Carolina. The records for these areas will be found
with the mother states.
Counties have also changed a great deal. Your ancestors may have lived
on the same farm for 200 years, but the records could be in five counties
because of shifting borders. Counties generally started out large and
then were divided, sometimes several times as the populations grew. The
records are not divided when the counties are split so you have to know
which county to look in for the particular time period you need. If you
are looking at a census index in a bound volume, there will probably be
a map in the front showing the county boundaries for that particular census.
An excellent book showing all the boundaries for all counties in all censuses
is Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Census, 1790-1920 by W. Thorndale
and William Dollarhide (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1987).
Animap by Gold Bug Software shows
all of the state and county boundary changes. A demo is available at the
Historical maps, which show the area for the time period you are researching,
are vital. "Historical" refers to the time period, not necessarily the
age of the maps. They can be of many different types:
- A map might show the landowners in a town or who occupied which farms.
- A seafront village may have had a very different shape 200 years ago
depending on whether the sea is depositing land or taking away
or areas may have been drained or dredged.
- In areas where large amounts of land were distributed at once, such
as New York or Spanish land grants in California, a map to these early
grants gives an entirely different perspective.
- A map of early cemeteries can be invaluable in helping you locate
- In cities, the location of early churches, in relation to where your
ancestors lived, helps you decide which records to check.
- They can even show name distributions. For an interesting view of
the distribution of a surname in the U.S. in 1850, 1880, 1920 or 1990,
go to the Hamrick
Software Web site.
Historical maps are not as easy to find as contemporary maps. Chances
are you will find them in book form rather than as individual maps. If
you are very lucky you might find a historical atlas for your state or
county. You will probably have to look in many places for these maps but
a good place to check is a county history. Also look on web sites for
maps. People who have copies of these old maps have been very good about
making them available online. If you enter "maps" and "genealogy" into
a search engine and you will get lots of hits. My favorite search engine
is Dogpile because it searches many
engines at once. Some sites will have the actual maps whereas others will
be places where you can buy maps.
A helpful site for locating historical maps online is the Perry-Castañeda
Library Map Collection, University of Texas. Global
Genealogy Supply has a large number of historical maps of Canada for
If you know the name of a book that you want to obtain, but cannot find
it as it is out of print, check the Advanced
Book Exchange. You can put in a request and when the book is located
they will advise which dealer has it in stock. The prices are very reasonable.
For creating your own maps based on descriptions of plots found in deeds,
It can translate the exotic descriptions of "18 chains, 4 links to the
old oak tree" and produce a map of your ancestor's plot of land.
The geographical breakdown for locating genealogy records in Europe is
much the same as for the U.S. First there is the country which is broken
down into several regions. Many countries maintain vital records on a
national level but for older genealogical records you need to be aware
of the regional breakdown such as counties, regions and provinces.
Instead of townships, most European countries are divided into parishes
and it is on the parish level that you will find the important early birth,
death and marriage records.
European countries are documented in many fine, very detailed maps. However,
there are two problems: the best maps are hard to find in the U.S. and
they usually come without an index. In a good bookstore, you can usually
find foreign countries, but frequently it will be the entire country on
one map without enough detail. Road atlases for Europe and many individual
countries are becoming more available, but mostly one finds only Britain
or all of Europe.
Once you know the village of origin, you need to locate it on the best
map available. The Expedia
Place Finder did a fine job of locating small villages in both England
and Germany but didn't show enough detail of the surrounding area. For
Great Britain, Multimap
can locate a town by name or modern postal code, and search London by
street name. You can zoom in to get a detailed map. However, with computer
maps, due to screen and printed page size, it is difficult to produce
a map that has sufficient detail but is also large enough to show some
of the surrounding area.
European maps use a different scale than what we are used to in the U.S.
such as 1" = 5 miles. The Multimaps, for example, have a choice
of scale from 1:10,000 (most detailed) up to 1:4,000,000. This ratio means
that 1 unit (inch, foot cm or any unit you can relate to) on the map is
equal to 10,000 of the same units on land. Thus 10,000" equals .157, or
about 1/6, mile (10,000" divided by 63,360" in a mile). Or, expressed
in another way, 6 1/4" on the map is equal to one mile on the ground (63,360
divided by 10,000). If you can think in metric, the math is much easier
1 cm = 10,000 cm or 100 meters or 1/10 of a kilometer.
See the British Ordnance
Survey for an excellent explanation of map scales. The 1:10,000 scale
of the Multimaps will give you a map of streets with names in a village
or town. Outside of London you cannot search for streets by name but if
you know where they are, (the postal code narrows the search considerably)
you can find them.
One of the best producers of maps for other European countries is Michelin.
They have a series that maps all of France on a scale of 1:2000,000 which
translates to 1 cm = 2 km. This scale is sufficiently detailed to find
all the villages in an area. In Britain, the Ordnance Survey (web page
above) is like our U.S. Geological Survey and provides maps of the entire
country. For detailed maps of Britain (1:50,000), Germany (1:100,000),
Denmark (1:50,000), Ireland (1:50,000), Norway (1:50,000), Poland (1:100,000)
and Sweden (1:50,000), try Travel
Genie. Also, MapsWorldwide
is an English company with a wide selection of world maps including the
Michelin series of 151 maps for France.
However, we come back to the problem that a road map is not what we really
need for genealogy. It is essential that you find a map showing the parishes
in the area. As with U.S. townships, a parish may have a village that
goes by its own name, but the records are under the parish name. Families
usually crossed parish lines and you will want to expand your search to
nearby parishes but you will need to know which towns on your road map
are actually parishes and which are villages within a parish.
You may find a book that maps all the parishes of a country. Irish
Records by James S. Ryan (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988) describes
and maps all of the parishes in Ireland. Atlas and Index of Parish
Registers of England, Wales and Scotland ed. by C. R. Humphery-Smith
(Canterbury: Institute of Heraldic and
Genealogical Studies) has maps and information on all the parishes
of Britain. Or, you may need to go to a book that covers only the region
or county. By searching for a region on the Internet, you may find a local
society has posted a map showing parishes.
In Europe, historical maps are essential. The borders of Germany with
its many kingdoms, duchies, protectorates and principalities are impossible
to keep straight. Just like you need to know the U.S. county that was
in control at a particular time, in Germany you need to know which political
ruler was in charge. An historical atlas of Germany would be a good investment
if you are researching that area. Gold
Bug Software produces a program called Centennia that maps 10 centuries
(1000-1993) of European border changes with over 7,000 maps. You can check
the boundaries of any area for any year. See also the Perry-CastaŅeda
Library Map Collection mentioned above. KIUT is a free mapping program
for areas ruled by Hungary (See my related
Always be on the lookout for historical maps of the areas you are searching.
They can be hard to find but are invaluable.