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Maps are an important source to locate the places where your ancestors lived. They help you see the neighboring towns and geographic features of the area your ancestor came from.
Maps locate places, churches, geographical features, transportation routes, and proximity to other towns. Historical maps are especially useful for understanding boundary changes.
Maps are published individually, or in atlases. An atlas is a bound collection of maps. Maps may also be included in gazetteers, guidebooks, local histories, and history texts.
Different types of maps will help you in different ways. Historical atlases describe the growth and development of nations. They show boundaries, migration routes, settlement patterns, military campaigns, and other historical information. French road atlases provide useful details. Other types of maps include departmental maps, topographical maps, and road maps. Maps show townships in great detail up to one-half inch to the mile. City street maps can be helpful when researching in the parish registers of large cities such as Lyon.
See Map of French Borders from Research Guidance.
Maps must be used carefully for several reasons:
Often several places have the same name. For example, at least ten towns are called Saint-Clément in present-day France.
Not every town is on every map.
The spelling and even names of some towns may have changed since your ancestors lived there. For example, Crantenoy became Mesnils sur Madon (Les) in 1971.
Some localities have different names in different languages. For example, the French town of Sélestat is called Schlettstadt in German. Bretagne is spelled Brittany in English.
Political boundaries are not clearly indicated on all maps.
Complete listings of localities in the old provinces or dioceses are difficult to find.
Finding the Specific Town on the Map
To do successful research in France, you must identify the town where your ancestor lived. Because many towns have the same name, you may need some additional information before you can locate the correct town on a map. You will be more successful if you have some information about the town. Before using a map, search gazetteers, histories, family records, and other sources to learn all you can about the following:
- The canton, district [arrondissement], department [département], province, or parish, and diocese [diocèse] your ancestor's town was in.
- The name of the town where your ancestor was born or married.
- Towns where related ancestors lived.
- The size of the town.
- The occupation of your ancestor or his relatives (this may indicate the size or industries of the town), or nearby localities, such as large cities.
- Nearby features, such as rivers and mountains.
- Dates when the town was renamed.
- Other names the town was known by.
Use gazetteers to identify the department or canton your ancestor's town was in. This will distinguish it from other towns of the same name and help you locate it on a map. See the "Gazetteers" section.
Finding Maps and Atlases
Collections of maps and atlases are available at numerous historical societies and at public and university libraries.
The Family History Library has an excellent collection of French maps and atlases. These are listed in the Place search of the Family History Library Catalog under FRANCE - MAPS.
Some helpful maps at the Family History Library are:
- Cassini de Thury, César François. Carte de France (Map of France). Paris, France: [s.n.], 1759-1789. Microfiched at Washington, DC, USA: LC Photoduplication Service, 1985. (Family History Library fiche 6002154 part 1 to 186.) Scale 1: 86,400.
- Institut Géographique National (France). Cartes topographique [de France] (Topographic maps of France). Paris, France: Institut Géographique National, 1984. (Family History Library Map 944 E7ig; not on microfilm.) Scale 1: 100,000.
Helpful atlases for France are:
- Grand atlas routier, France, Belgique (Road atlas of France and Belgium). Paris, France: Editions Solar, 1986. (Family History Library book 944 E7g; not on microfilm.) Includes Luxembourg. Scale 1: 250,000.
You can purchase maps of France from:
- Genealogy Unlimited
P.O. Box 537
Orem, UT 84059-0537
Beautiful Cassini maps of France are available online. "The French Genealogy Blog" includes a link to one site ("Des Villages de Cassini aux Communes d'aujourd'hui") with very helpful instructions for use of the site.
Cassini maps can also be found through FranceGenWeb. Click the "Rechercher" button for a map and list of départements. Select a département, then a commune. Click on the "Code Insee," then on "Cassini avec GenCom." Other links include more maps and information.