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Finding & Using Maps in Your Genealogy Research

Finding & Using Maps in Your Genealogy Research

I recently had an interesting conversation with a long time genealogy researcher in the foothills of North Carolina. Her family has been in the area for generations, and she knows that area - its people and its history. By this, I mean she really knows the area.

At one point in our conversation she said, "Look at the map. Maps tell the story of a person." She was right.

Maps tell us where an ancestor lived.

Maps can show migration patterns.

Maps give us clues to an ancestor's occupation.

Historical maps can show locations of towns no longer in existence.

Maps help researchers view the world through an ancestor's eyes.

Type Of Maps

Most genealogy researchers are familiar with city street maps and land ownership maps, but a variety of maps are beneficial to the genealogy researcher. Maps were created for specific reasons, and as a researcher you must understand the purpose of the map you are researching. By understanding why a map was created and its purpose, you will not miss valuable clues for your research.

Consider exploring these types of maps:

  • City, county and state/province maps - Document roads, communities and/or neighborhoods indicated. 
  • Land ownership maps - Created to show who owned land in a specific area.
  • Fire Insurance maps - Created for insurance companies to assess the risk of fire liability of buildings in more urban areas.  
  • Topographical maps - Show natural and man-made structures in an area such as hills, rivers, lakes, mountains (and mountain passes). These features impacted how our ancestors traveled.
  • Railroad maps - Document railroad routes and showed preferred routes as they changed over time. 
  • Wagon trail maps - Wagon trail maps indicate western migration routes across the U.S.  One example is the Oregon Trail. Towns along the trail are listed and potential places your ancestors may have stayed or even settled. 
  • Military maps - Document an area before and/or during a war. Often include terrain, houses (sometimes homeowners may be listed!), roads, and bridges.  

Just where do you find maps to use in your genealogy research? A number of resources exist. These are 6 great places to start your map research and begin putting your ancestors, well...on the map.

6  Resources For Finding Historic Maps

1. The Dave Rumsey Map Collection - A large collection of historic maps from around the world. Especially helpful to genealogy researchers is the Georeferencer feature which allows you to overlay a historic map over a modern map to make comparisons.

2. Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records (U. S.) - General Land Office records encompass images of over 5 million land titles  including images of survey plats and field notes. 

3. Google Maps - Most everyone is familiar with Google Maps, but may not be using this resource for genealogy purposes. Use Google Maps to find modern day locations of your ancestors. The street view allows you to explore the area as it looks today.

4. University Libraries - Libraries at major colleges and universities are great places to explore for historic map collections. Many collections have maps outside of their area or location. One example is the University of Alabama Libraries Map Collection. While many maps are focused on Alabama, the collection contains maps from around the world as well as special topic maps. 

5. ArchiveGrid - ArchiveGrid is a finding aid for historical documents, family histories, personal papers and more stored in archival institutions. 

ArchiveGridArchiveGrid

6. Fire Insurance Maps - Created to be used by insurance companies, the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps are detailed maps of residential, commercial and industrial areas of cities and towns in the United States. Other countries also created fire insurance maps as well. For example, find British fire insurance maps online at the British Library. Begin your search for fire insurance maps for other countries by conducting a search using search terms "fire insurance maps" + "[insert your country of research]". 

Sanborn-mapSanborn Map of Springfield, Missouri

Tips When Starting Your Map Research

  • Make note of the year the map was made and familiarize yourself with the description of the map. Understanding what the map shows and does not show first will save researcher time.
  • Check if an overlay feature is available. Being able to superimpose a historical map on top of a current day map provides perspective on an ancestor's location.

Now it's your turn!

Explore maps of the locations of your ancestors and see the world through your ancestor's eyes!

Learn even more about Maps from the Legacy library!

_______________________________________

Lisa Lisson is the writer, educator and genealogy researcher behind Are You My Cousin? and believes researching your genealogy does not have to be overwhelming. All you need is a solid plan, a genealogy toolbox and the knowledge to use those tools. Lisa can be found online at LisaLisson.com , Facebook and Pinterest

Comments

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Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are great but has no information for original colonies like Pennsylvania. For Pennsylvania the best online resource is the the Pennsylvania State Archives.

So glad you have highlighted this excellent resource. I have learned a lot about ancestors, and relatives by studying map collections.

In my 20+ years of family research, there are only three essential questions::
1. Who - the name
2. Where - not just a country or state, but where on the globe?!
3. When

Maps give answers to where (with a lot of precision) and when. The Bureau of Land Management database is extraordinary - the overlay on modern streets has confirmed my long-standing suspicion that streets were laid out on the Township-Range grid lines, especially west of the Alleghenies.

Thank for a very useful article!

Nancy

I have used old plat maps of a town, plus probate records for the exact address, plus Google Maps to find out where an ancestor's home once stood. It is satisfying to be able to say "She lived right HERE." These are great resources listed. Thank you.

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