Maps can provide answers that aren’t evident in other sources. They can provide clues to the topography and geography around the communities you are researching. Maps can graphically show your ancestors’ homes in relation to each other and in relation to major geographic features. A wide variety of maps exist. Finding a map from the town and era your ancestors lived in will provide valuable insights into their lives. A map should be the first place you turn when you begin researching a new locality. Maps can be a tool to help you analyze your research when you reach a brick wall and can help you understand more about the time and place where your ancestors lived.


What You Can Discover Using Maps

  • Maps can reveal changing place names when two maps from different time periods are compared.
  • Maps can reveal boundary changes, particularly county and township lines.
  • Maps can be used to track your ancestors’ migration routes. They reveal natural boundaries and suggest travel routes.
  • Maps can locate points of interest near your ancestor’s home, such as churches, cemeteries, schools, and nearby towns.
  • Maps help us to visualize the places our ancestors lived, traveled, worked, and played. They can show us the “lay of the land” by identifying streams, rivers, forests, deserts, etc.


Select the Right Map for the Job

Political Maps are commonly found in commercial atlases. They indicate the location of cities, towns, and counties. The boundaries of these jurisdictions may or may not be indicated. Physical features, such as rivers and lakes, are often shown. Many political maps will show currently existing roads and highways. These maps are easy to use and are typically accompanied by an index. Maps answer the question “Where is …?”

Topographical Maps show physical features such as hills, mountains, rivers, and streams. Some maps show the features with colors and shading and contour lines indicating how high or steep the terrain is. Cities and towns are identified, but roads are often omitted. Topographic, or physical, maps are most useful when identifying migration trails because they show us the lay of the land. The USGS Topo Quadrangles—Maps for America website provides free downloadable topographical maps in PDF format.

County Maps and Atlases are some of the most useful maps to genealogists. They are helpful in tracking county boundary changes. Use county maps and county histories to research the genealogy of a county to understand how your ancestors fit into the community. Two great resources for county maps are Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Census by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide and The Handybook for Genealogists by Everton Publishers.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps were originally created to help insurance companies establish premiums. These maps provide a wealth of information for genealogists. They are very detailed and can indicate building materials, dwelling use, street widths, address and lot lines, and building height. More than 12,000 American cities and towns were mapped by the Sanborn Company between the years 1867 and 1961.

Land and Plat Maps, often found at the county courthouse or a local historical society, are detailed maps indicating owners of parcels of land. Other information that might be included on these maps are the number of acres owned by each landholder, land use, crops grown, and the location of important structures. These maps are particularly useful in placing your ancestor in a specific location at a specific time as well as identifying his neighbors.

Census Maps define census enumeration districts. These maps can be useful when searching census records in urban areas. Enumeration districts did not remain static from decade to decade, so be sure to find one for the time period you are researching. Even with today’s online searchable census records, you may still need to determine the proper enumeration district for an elusive ancestor.

Panoramic Maps, many of which were created between the years 1847 and 1920, show a bird’s eye view of streets and individual buildings. These maps, while not drawn to scale, provide a valuable reference to the community as a whole. Buildings and other features are drawn on the maps and a legend will often indicate the occupancy of larger, more prominent buildings.

Satellite Maps, like those found at Google Maps give a bird’s eye view of most addresses in the United States and around the world. Pan the area to see what’s nearby, such as churches, cemeteries, and neighboring communities.

Migration Maps show us where our ancestors might have gone and how they got there. Early migration trails were well-traveled routes through harsh country. Did your ancestors travel the National Road to Illinois, the Oregon Trail to Wyoming, or the Mohawk Trail through Massachusetts? A migration map might have the answer. Two good resources to get you started on your search Map Guide to American Migration Routes by William Dollarhide and Atlas of American Migration by Stephen A. Flanders.

Military Maps show the movements of troops during conflicts. They also provide details of nearby towns and villages including roads and various structures. Viewing a military map near your ancestor’s home might help to explain some decisions he made.

Railroad Maps can show the growth of travel across the United States as well as the development of our country. Many railroad maps include surveys of the surrounding areas. Early railroad maps can also help to explain the migration of peoples from east to west, and sometime back east again.

Gazetteers, although not maps, are an important resource in determining the geography of genealogy. A gazetteer is arranged like a dictionary and lists towns and physical and geographic features for an area (typically a town, county, or state). A gazetteer can also help to determine names of places that have changed and evolved over time.


Evaluating Maps

Not all maps are made the same, nor are all maps reliable. Just as you evaluate other documents on your genealogical journey, you must also evaluate map resources. There are several criteria to consider when selecting maps.

Who was the Mapmaker and why was the map made? Is there bias in the presentation?

Pay close attention to the Title of the map. Some are very detailed and descriptive.

Compare the Date the map represents and the date it was created. Maps created close to the time period they represent are often more reliable.

Look for the Legend, the explanation of symbols and colors used on the map. Map symbols show us land forms, water features, structures, vegetation, travel routes, cemeteries, etc., and are often color-coded.

Each map should have a Scale. Remember, an inch may not be a mile. And not all maps are drawn to scale. Both of these facts will affect how you interpret the map before you.

Many maps have a Coordinate System (a grid, often coded alphanumerically, with horizontal and vertical lines dissecting the map). This grid is most helpful when using a map index to locate specific features on the map.

Be sure you are clear as to the Orientation of the map. North is not always up, particularly with early maps. If a compass is not provided on the map, you may be able to determine the orientation of the map by comparing the features to other maps of the area.


Some Websites to get you Started

Cyndi’s List – Maps & Geography: A great place to begin looking for maps is Cyndi’s list. Visit her Maps & Geography page for dozens helpful links to maps and map resources.

David Rumsey Map Collection: The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has over 12,600 maps online. The collection focuses on rare eighteenth and nineteenth century North and South America maps.

Early American Roads and Trails: Beverly Whitaker, MA, provides details on eighteen major early roads. In addition to a historical narrative on each trail, links to a map of each trail are included.

Global Gazetteer: Online gazetteer covering the world. Latitude, longitude, and elevation are given for cities as well as hamlets. A great tool to assist the genealogist in locating those small localities.

Historic USGS Maps of New England & NY: The United States Geological Survey began its topographic atlas of the United States in 1882. This online collection of over 1,500 USGS topographic maps includes complete geographical coverage of New England and New York from the 1890s to 1950s.

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries: This site features a variety of maps that depict the formation of counties by state or the United States as a whole.

HomeTownLocator Gazetteer: Search any place name. There are over 170,000 populated places (city, town, village, neighborhood) in the database. Included are aerial and topographical maps and current population figures.

How Far Is It?: Calculate the distance between any two places on Earth. The latitude, longitude, and elevation of each place is given along with the distance in miles. A fun site for locating small towns and villages, and determining the distances between the towns our ancestors lived in and the nearest large city.

Images of Early Maps on the Web – The Americas: A collection of links to maps on the Internet. The list is quite comprehensive, and is continually updated. You could get lost in this website for days.

Library of Congress American Memory Map Collection: This website contains the largest and most comprehensive cartographic collection in the world with collections numbering over 4.5 million maps including 60,000 atlases, 6,000 reference works, numerous globes and plastic relief models, and a large number of cartographic materials in other formats, including electronic.

Links to Ancient Footpaths: Brief overviews and links to information about early Indian trails in America. Original trails West were the established Indian routes. This website helps you identify routes your ancestors might have chosen for their trek Westward.

Perry Casteneda Map Collection: Huge collection of maps and links to map websites elsewhere on the Internet. There are more than 5,000 map images on the website covering the entire world. Click on the “Historical” link for a good selection of early maps.

US Genealogy Map Project: State, County, and Territory Maps: United States border and land claim maps covering the years 1783–1959 are included on this website. Timelines and narratives accompany the maps.