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


New "Member Friday" Webinar - Genealogical Applications of Historical GIS by Rick Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA

New "Member Friday" Webinar - Genealogical Applications of Historical GIS by Rick Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA

Every Friday we're pleased to offer Legacy Family Tree Webinar subscribers a new bonus webinar just for them!   This Friday enjoy "Genealogical Applications of Historical GIS" by Rick Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA. If you're not a member, remember the webinar previews are always free.

Genealogical Applications of Historical GIS

Learn to use these new tools to expand your research tools. GIS (geographic information system) is a database of geographic information. Google Earth is an example of a large and very sophisticated GIS application. Essentially, GIS applications are databases of geographic data linked to a myriad of other data. Computer programs allow a variety of options to display and analyze the data. Generally, many applications take the form of a base map display with the ability to overlay data linked to location. A historic GISessentially links spatial data with historic data. Examples include applications that display census data, boundary information, historic maps, locations of ancestors, and much more. In fact, some specialized genealogical applications already exist, such as Map My Family Tree and Family Atlas. There are even smart phone GIS apps such as the Family Nexus.

New "Member Friday" Webinar - Genealogical Applications of Historical GIS by Rick Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA
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About the Presenter

Rick Sayre Rick Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA, is a long-time researcher and instructor in genealogical topics. Rick is also a retired colonel having served 31 years in the U.S. Army. Rick and his wife Pam coordinate the Advanced Land course and Researching in Washington, D.C., without Leaving Home offered by the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) and the Advanced Land course at Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP). Rick co-coordinates with Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL, the Law School for Genealogists at GRIP and the FHL Law Library course at SLIG. He also coordinates the Using Maps in Genealogy course at SLIG. Rick also instructs in the Advanced Methodology course offered by SLIG.  He also lectures at national conferences and presents nationwide seminars. His areas of expertise encompass records of the National Archives, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, including military records, land records, using maps in genealogy, urban research, and government documents. Rick is experienced in the localities of western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Rick is also a trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. He is currently serving as the boards president.

See all the webinars by Rick Sayre, CG, CGL, FUGA in the Legacy library.
 
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