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Maps are important for locating the places where your ancestors lived. They help you see the neighboring towns and geographic features of the area your ancestor came from.
Maps show places, geographical features, transportation routes, and proximity to other towns. Historical maps are especially useful for understanding boundary changes.
Maps are published separately or in atlases: bound collections of maps. They may also be in gazetteers, guidebooks, local histories, and history texts. Maps give many kinds of information:
Historical atlases describe the growth and development of countries. They show boundaries, migration routes, land owners, settlement patterns, military campaigns, and other historical information.
Road atlases give great detail about Canada.
County maps, county atlases, and topographical maps give good county and land information.
City maps with street names and political ward boundaries are extremely helpful when researching large cities such as Toronto and Montreal.
Maps must be used carefully for several reasons:
Several places may have the same name. For example, in Canada today, seven towns are called St. John or St. Johns and another nineteen have St. Jean as part of the name.
Spellings and names of some towns may have changed since your ancestors lived there. For example: Toronto, Ontario, was named York before 1834, and Ottawa was called Bytown until 1855.
Some places have different names in different languages. When names are anglicized, they may be misspelled, shortened, or diacritics omitted. For example: Trois Rivières, Québec, may be Three Rivers on some maps.
Political boundaries are not clearly indicated on all maps.
Finding Maps and Atlases
Maps and atlases are available at historical societies and at public and university libraries. Major collections for Canada are at some archives and libraries in the United States and at Canadian institutions listed in:
Ross, Tim. Directory of Canadian Map Collections/Répertoire des collections canadiennes de cartes. 6th ed. Ottawa: Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives, Cartographic and Audio-Visual Archives Division, National Archives of Canada, 1992. (Family History Library book 971 E74r; computer number 815797.) This directory contains the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and hours of operation of institutions with map collections. It also describes the numbers and types of maps in the institutions’ collections and whether public libraries may order the maps through interlibrary loan.
National and provincial map series are described in:
Nicholson, N. L., and L. M. Sebert. The Maps of Canada: A Guide to Official Canadian Maps, Charts, Atlases and Gazetteers. Folkestone, Kent, Engl.: Wm. Dawson and Sons Ltd., and Hamden, Conn.: The Shoe String Press, 1981. (Family History Library book 971 E7nL; computer number 272666.)
The Family History Library has a small collection of Canadian maps and atlases. County maps of the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s of the Central and Maritime Provinces, often published by G.B. Tremaine or Ambrose Church, are helpful. They show the names of property owners or tenants, and the location of homes and public buildings. For more maps see the Family History Library Catalog under:
CANADA - MAPS
[PROVINCE] - MAPS
[PROVINCE], [COUNTY] - MAPS
[PROVINCE], [COUNTY] - HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY
Between 1874 and 1882 a series of about 30 county atlases was published, often called Illustrated Historical Atlas of [COUNTY]. Typically each atlas included a history of the county’s settlement, township maps showing names of property owners, municipality maps, and portraits of prominent businessmen and scenes of some of their residences. The atlases were sold by subscription, so were only published for areas with fairly large populations, including:
Many counties of southern Ontario.
Two or three counties in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
One atlas for all of Prince Edward Island.
One atlas for the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
Most early county atlases are listed in:
May, Betty, et al. County Atlases of Canada: A Descriptive Catalogue. Ottawa: National Map Collection, Public Archives of Canada, 1970. (Family History Library book 971 E73c; microfilm 862288 item 5; computer number 63240.) Some of these atlases have been reprinted and are available at the Family History Library. See the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under the province or county.
A helpful atlas for Canada is:
Illustrated Atlas of the Dominion of Canada. Toronto: H. Belden, 1880. (Family History Library film 982194 item 5; computer number 212839.) This atlas includes county maps showing township and election district boundaries as of 1880 for the Central and Maritime Provinces. It also gives historical information on Canada and maps and history of Bruce County, Ontario.
This recent atlas shows modern county boundaries or their equivalent in the east, and census divisions in the western provinces:
The Original Cleartype Business Control Atlas of the United States and Canada. New York: American Map Corporation, annual. (Family History Library book 970 E3b; computer number 584439.) Towns with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants and most physical features are not given.
Historical Maps and Atlases :
An excellent national historical atlas is:
Matthews, Geoffrey J., cartographer. Historical Atlas of Canada. 3 vols. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1987–93. (Family History Library book 971 E7h v. 1–3; computer number 453345.) Volume 1, From the Beginning to 1800, includes diagrams and maps of such things as the original seigneuries of Quebec, with names of the seigneurs and discussion of settlement patterns of early ethnic groups. Volume 2, The Land Transformed, 1800–1891, includes maps that show Canadian settlement patterns, migrations to the United States, and locations of Indian reserves in Canada. Volume 3, Addressing the Twentieth Century, 1891–1961, includes a map and discussion of the settlement of the Prairie Provinces.
The following historical atlas is still useful:
Kerr, D. G. G. A Historical Atlas of Canada. 2d ed. Don Mills, Ont.: Thomas Nelson & Sons (Canada) Ltd., 1966. (Family History Library book Ref Q 971 E7ha; computer number 159699.)
Online Historical maps of Canada can be found at Canada Geographic-Mapping and Cartography.
Some of the most detailed maps of modern Canada are the maps of the National Topographic System sold by:
- Department of Energy
Mines and Resources Cartographic Information and Distribution Centre
615 Booth Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0E9
The Departments of Tourism in the provinces usually have free road maps, and the provincial Departments of Natural Resources often sell detailed maps. Addresses of these agencies are in:
- Canadian Almanac and Directory. Toronto: Canadian Almanac and Directory Publishing Co., annual. (Family History Library book 971 E4ca; computer number 160632.)
- The Atlas of Canada is available online.
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