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Maps in Family Research

by Donna Przecha
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Maps are an irreplaceable part of family history research, especially if you live far from the family homesteads. Donna Przecha offers advice on using both contemporary and historical maps, as well as some specialty types.

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 information:

  • 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 to genealogy.

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 ago.)

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 Survey's library.

Political Maps

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.

County Maps

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 site.

Historical Maps

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 family graves.
  • 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 sale.

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, try DeedMapper. 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.

European Maps

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.

Paper Maps

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 article.)

Always be on the lookout for historical maps of the areas you are searching. They can be hard to find but are invaluable.

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