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Maps can help you find where your ancestors lived. Maps can show churches, geographical features, transportation routes, and neighboring towns.
Historical maps are especially useful for understanding boundary changes. A good source can be found at:
Maps may be published individually or in collections called atlases. Maps may also be included in gazetteers, guidebooks, local histories, and history texts.
There are many types of maps. Each can help you in a different way. Historical maps describe the growth and development of countries. They show boundaries, migration routes, settlement patterns, military campaigns, and other historical information. Road maps provide details on highways, rivers, and town size. Street maps are extremely helpful when researching in large cities such as Berlin.
A website for maps is:
Maps must be used carefully for several reasons:
- Often several places have the same name. For example, 92 towns in present-day Germany are called Steinbach.
- The spellings and names of some towns may have changed since your ancestors lived there. Some localities have different names in different languages. For example, the city formerly known as Breslau (Germany) was called Wroc»aw (Poland) after 1945.
- Place-names are often misspelled in English-language sources. Difficult names may have been shortened and important diacritical marks omitted.
For example in English, München is called Munich; Köln is known as Cologne. Some place-names were greatly altered. For example, the village of Lösenbach was recorded in American records as Loose Creek. (The -bach ending means creek in English.)
- Political boundaries are not clearly indicated on all maps.
Finding a Specific Town on the Map
To do successful German research, 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 find the correct town on a map.
Gazetteers can help you identify the government district your ancestor's town was in. With this information, you may be able to distinguish between places with the same name. See the “Gazetteers” and “Historical Geography” sections for more information. Along with gazetteers, check histories, family records, and other sources to learn all you can about your ancestor's area. The following information can be very helpful:
- The government administrative districts in which your ancestor's town was located
- Your ancestor's state or province
- The name of the parish where your ancestor was baptized or married
- Places where related ancestors lived
- The size of your ancestor's town
- The occupation of your ancestor or his or her relatives (This information may indicate the town size or industries of the town.)
- Nearby localities, such as large cities
- Nearby features, such as rivers and mountains
- Industries of the area
- Other names the town was known by
The more information you can gather about the town where your ancestor lived, the better chance you have of finding it on a map.
For identifying and locating a town or village from the old Prussia that is currently part of Poland, the following website is very helpful.  . Featured on this website is an extensive database of 75391 locations. All locations are east of the Oder and Neisse rivers and are based on the borders of the eastern provinces in Spring 1918. Included in this database are the following provinces: Eastprussia, including Memel, Westprussia, Brandenburg, Posen, Pomerania, and Silesia. When searching the database for a location name, the data returned will include the German and Polish names of the location as well as the longitude and latitude of the location.
Finding Maps and Atlases
Collections of maps and atlases are available at many historical societies and at public and university libraries.
The Family History Library has a good collection of German maps and atlases. These are listed in the Place Search of the catalog under:
GERMANY – MAPS
Two general maps of Germany are found earlier in this outline. Listed below is the most detailed map of Germany at the Family History Library:
Königliche Preußische Landesaufnahme. Kartographische Abteilung. Karte des Deutschen Reiches (Map of the German Empire). Scale1:100,000. Berlin, Germany: Königliche PreußischeLandesaufnahme, 1914-1917. (FHL film 68,814.) This map will help you find places in the former German Empire as they existed from 1871 to 1914. The detailed maps on this microfilm are in numerical order.
The identification numbers on the detailed maps correspond to the small numbers in the upper right corner of each grid square on the first several overview maps.
The following are helpful atlases for Germany:
Auto Atlas Deuschland. Scale 1:200,000. Berlin, Germany: RV Verlag: Berlin, 1997-. (FHL book 943 E7a.)
Der Grosse V.A.G. Atlas (The great V.A.G. atlas). Scale 1:200,000. Berlin, Germany: Reise-und Verkehrsverlag, Annual. (FHL book 940 E7gv1991-2.) This is an excellent atlas of Germany. It has an index of cities and towns that makes finding locations easy. It also has some maps of neighboring countries that are on a smaller scale than the maps of Germany. Street maps for several larger cities are also included. Editions published before 1991 are not as detailed for the areas that were then in East Germany.
Der Grosse Shell Atlas (The great Shell atlas). Scale 1:500,000. Ulm/Donau, Germany: Franz Spiegel Buch, Annual. (FHL book 943 E7gs.) This atlas contains maps for both western and eastern Germany. The maps are on a smaller scale than those in the atlas listed above. This atlas is indexed and contains street maps of some larger cities. Several neighboring countries are also featured in this atlas.
Stier, Hans-Erich. Westermann Grosser Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (Westermann atlas of world history). Eighth Edition. Braunschweig, Germany: Georg Westermann, 1972. (FHL book Ref 940 E3we.) This is an excellent historical atlas.
You can purchase German maps and postal codebooks and get current prices from: