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Maps can be used to locate the places where your ancestors lived. They identify political boundaries, names of places, geographical features, cemeteries, churches, and migration routes. Historical maps are especially useful for finding communities and political boundaries that no longer exist.

Contents

Genealogical information in various types of maps

To select the right kind of map to solve a genealogical problem, it is helpful to know what kinds of information each type of map displays.[1]

  • Atlases are bound collections of maps. Historical atlases are especially useful because they tend to plot historic towns and landmarks more accurately than old maps do in relation to jurisdictional boundaries and geographic features.
  • Boundary change maps show shifts in borders of townships, counties, states and territories over time.
  • Census maps. Spelling errors by census takers often make ancestors hard to find. If you know your ancestor's address (or general area of residence in rural areas), census maps showing enumeration district boundaries can indicate where in the census rolls to search for the ancestor. 
  • Chamber of commerce maps, which can usually be obtained for free from city and town chambers of commerce, show streets, government offices, courthouses, libraries, businesses, museum archives, and important landmarks. 
  • City and town maps show detailed street information, addresses, rail and mass transit routes, and landmarks.
  • City and town locator maps plot a town and often give its coordinates so that it can be plotted in an historical atlas or map to determine the county, parish, or state in which it resided during a given year. 
  • City plans often demystify the renaming of streets, parks, neighborhoods, and other features.
  • County, Parish, or Province maps show roads, cemeteries, landmarks, local boundaries, and physical features.
  • Fire insurance maps (Sanborn maps) of 12,000 cities and towns yield street names and specific properties and addresses starting in 1867. Using these with city directories can help locate urban ancestors in a given year.
  • Land ownership (cadastral) maps and plat books show boundaries of land plots, and usually the owners' names.
  • Military maps show extreme detail regarding geographical features, terrain, landmarks, natural resources, place names, and landmarks. 
  • Railroad maps indicate preferred routes of travel during an era where the routes changed from one year to the next. These also aid in tracking the possible whereabouts of railroad employees since many railroads merged or changed names. 
  • Topographic or geologic maps show terrain, natural resources (forests, mining resources), and features that affected travel (rivers, rapids, canals, mountains, mountain passes, canyons).

Where to get various types of maps

Atlases (and broad collections)

An atlas is a bound collection of maps. Historical atlases cover boundary changes, migration routes, settlement patterns, military campaigns, American Indian reservations, and the development of towns. Historical atlases are especially useful because they tend to plot historic towns and landmarks more accurately than old maps do in relation to jurisdictional boundaries and geographic features. Many county atlases show the names of landowners and are usually based on county plat maps (see Land and Property). 

  • The David Rumsey Map Collection (free) contains an extensive online collection of historical atlases, maps, and other antique cartographic material. Downloads available.
  • The Library of Congress American Memory Collection (free) includes cities and towns, conservation and environment, cultural landscapes, discovery and exploration, general maps, military battles and campaigns, and transportation and communication. 
  • The University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection (free) has online state maps and atlases.
  • The Norman B Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library (free) is in the process of digitizing a significant portion of its 200,000 historic maps and 5,000 atlases. The collection's scope is the World, Europe, and America, with particular attention to New England, Massachusetts, and Boston from the 15th century to the present day.
  • Ancestor Tracks (free) has posted 19th-century Pennsylvania landowner maps and atlases covering about 80% of the land-mass of Pennsylvania.  They can be used with the 1850-1880 censuses and published county histories.
  • HistoricMapWorks.com ($) offers over 800,000 online historic maps from the 18th and early 19th centuries at $0.99 per download. Searchable by place name, family name, or street address.
  • The Alan M. Voorhees Collection ($) at the Library of Virginia has maps, charts and atlases. The images online are thumbnails rather than usable copies, but larger prints can be ordered for a fee.
  • Some important atlases in book form are Atlas of American History[2], The American Heritage Pictorial Atlas of United States History[3], and The Shaping of America[4]
  • Brick-and-mortar sources for atlases include historical and genealogical societies, public libraries, and university libraries.

State Maps

County Boundary Maps

To find records of an ancestor, it is necessary to learn the political jurisdictions that kept records in his area during the years he lived there. Town, county, parish, and state boundaries changed over time, so maps that show historical boundary changes help to quickly identify an ancestor's record jurisdiction.

GoldBug.com allows users to plot a town (even an extinct town) and show it on Google Maps.

State and County Boundary Maps:

  • State and County Boundary Maps (genealogyinc.com) are available online. This is a very easy to use map collection that allows you to choose a state and click through the years as the state and its counties evolve. It also allows you to see a map of the state for specific census years (see the links below the map).
  • Historical county border maps (Newberry Library) are available online for each U.S. state which are usable on GIS software and Google Maps.
  • Historical County Boundary Maps (RandyMajors.com), allows users to type a current location and choose a year in order to display what the county boundaries were at that time and place. You can easily change decades to see additional boundary changes. Clicking in the county area brings up a brief history of the last boundary change.
  • 2003 US State and County Boundaries Map (US Census Bureau). This is a map that shows the entire United States broken down into counties. You can zoom in and read the county names, even counties in neighboring states.

Recommended Books

  • Maps of county boundaries as they exist today and as they existed in each census year through 1920 are shown in Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide. [5] This source also includes helpful information about the availability of census records.
  • Maps of modern county boundaries are also in both The Handy Book for Genealogists and Ancestry's Red Book. These are available at most libraries and Family History Centers.
  • Detailed maps and legal histories of county formations and changes are found in Historical Atlas and Chronology of County Boundaries, 1788-1980. [6] The states included are Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
  • The published states of Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania are found in the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries [7]The Family History Library has this work, but each volume is cataloged separately.
  • The Original Cleartype Business Control Atlas, is a basic atlas that shows state and county boundaries, county seats, all places of 1,000 population or more, and some places with fewer than 1,000. [8]

See also the Historical Geography page for further help on tracing the histories of counties and their boundaries.

Township Maps

  • Maps and an index of townships and other present-day civil boundaries are in Township Atlas of the United States [9]

City Maps

Ward Maps

The Library of Congress has detailed ward maps of major cities. These show the census districts and political divisions of large cities. Valuable finding aids for City Ward maps is on microfilm found at the Family History Library.

  • Library of Congress Digitized Map Collection is a large online collection of digitized maps -- cities and towns, military battles and more.
  • Ward Maps of United States Cities[10] A description of each map and a chart that shows which maps to use with each U.S. census is in: Ward Maps of United States Cities: A Selective Checklist of Pre-1900 Maps in the Library of Congress[11]

Fire Insurance Maps

  • Sanborn maps ($) 1867-1970 have been digitized. This collection has more than 660,000 maps of 12,000+ cities and towns, and includes a map key
  • Some Sanborn maps are also available in the Websites listed in the Atlases section in this page, as well as on some sites listed at Images of Early Maps on the Web (free) by Maphistory.info.

City/Town Locators (GPS Coordinates)

  • While the USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is not a map, it yields latitude and longitude, current county, and elevation for towns and many geographic features. These coordinates can be used to plot towns on a historic map. 

Land Ownership (Plat) Maps 

Government or commercial agencies have created numerous maps showing the names of property boundaries and land owners in an area. These are often called “cadastral” maps. They sometimes include other helpful details such as churches, cemeteries, and roads.

  • To access thousands of cadastral maps online, see the Websites listed in the Atlases section on this page.
  • An inventory of many of the land ownership maps can be found at the Land Ownership Maps: A Checklist of Nineteenth Century United States County Maps in the Library of Congress [12]and in Land Ownership Maps[13]
  • For more information about land ownership, see Land and Property.
  • Federal Land Patent Records and Associated Survey Plat Maps gives access to federal land conveyance records.

For further reading on land ownership, see Plat Map on Wikipedia.

Military Maps

  • The USMA Library's Special Collections and Archives has Civil War Maps, Colonial and Federal Era Maps, Maps of North America from the Colonial, Revolutionary and Federalist eras.
  • Battle maps Some maps used are from "Battle Maps of the Civil War" by: Harold J. Holmquest.
  • Civil War maps by the Library of Congress, American Memory Collection, allows one to follow the footsteps of his ancestor in the battles. Nearly 3,000 Civil War maps, charts, atlases and sketchbooks have posted.

Slavery Maps

  • Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States. Compiled from the Census of 1860, Drawn by E. Hergesheimer, Engr. by Th. Leonhardt. Published by Henry S. Grahm, 1860. Purchase at ReevesMaps.com; website includes a scaled-down version of the map.

Topography

Topographical maps show physical and man-made features, such as creeks, hills, roads, cemeteries, and churches.

offers highly detailed topographical maps online showing physical and manmade features in each section of the country, or quadrangle. These maps are also available at most university libraries[14]

  • Topographic Quadrangles of the United States maps were originally published from 1884 to 1983. The maps are arranged by the name of the quadrangle within each state. States are not in alphabetical order. [15] Use a state map to find the quadrangle number. Then find the number in the state's map list to learn the name of the quadrangle.
  • You can purchase copies of topographical maps from the U.S. Department of the Interior
    U.S. Department of the Interior

    Geological Survey
    507 National Center
    Reston, VA 20192

Telephone: 800-USA-MAPS (toll free) Telephone: 703-648-6045 (local)

Research helps

  • Images of Early Maps on the Web (free) by Maphistory.info links to collections containing tens of thousands of historic maps online. Organized by state.
  • The Guide to U.S. Map Resources is an excellent inventory of the map holdings of 3,000 libraries and historical societies.[16]
  • The Map Catalog has information about maps and how to obtain them.[17]
  • The Family History Library has a small collection of loose maps of historical value, and a fine collection of printed historical atlases. These are listed in the Place Search of theFamily History Library Catalog under:
UNITED STATES - MAPS
[STATE] - MAPS
[STATE], [COUNTY] - MAPS
[STATE], [COUNTY], [TOWN] - MAPS.

References

  1. Most of the information from this section is taken from More than One Kind of Map, by George G Morgan, Orem, Utah: Ancestry.com, 08 September 2000 http://learn.ancestry.com/LearnMore/Article.aspx?id=2299
  2. Atlas of American History, Second Edition, revised. New York, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984. (FHL Ref 973 E7at; 1943 edition on film 1415259 item 9.),
  3. The American Heritage Pictorial Atlas of United States History. New York, New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1966. (FHL book 973 E7ah.)
  4. Meinig, D. W. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Two Volumes. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1986. (FHL book 973 E3me; fiche 6125626-27.)
  5. Thorndale, William, and William Dollarhide. Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1987. (FHL book 973 X2th.)
  6. Long, John H., editor. Historical Atlas and Chronology of County Boundaries, 1788-1980. Five Volumes. Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall, 1984. (FHL book 973 E7hL; fiche 60514226-30.)
  7. Long, John H., editor. [State] Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. New York, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996-.
  8. The Original Cleartype Business Control Atlas, Annual. Maspeth, New York: American Map Corporation. (FHL book 970 E3b 1988.)
  9. Andriot, Jay. Township Atlas of the United States. McLean, Virginia: Documents Index, 1991. (FHL book 973 E7an 1991.)
  10. Ward Maps of United States Cities: Microfilm Reproduction of 232 Maps Described in Ward Maps of United States Cities. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, [1975?]. (FHL film 1377700; fiche 6016554-782.)
  11. Shelley, Michael H. Ward Maps of United States Cities: A Selective Checklist of Pre-1900 Maps in the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Not published 1975. (FHL book 973 A1 no. 99; film 928120 item 16.)
  12. Library of Congress. Geography and Map Division. Land Ownership Maps: A Checklist of Nineteenth Century United States County Maps in the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1967. (FHL book 973 A3Loc; fiche 6048262.)
  13. Library of Congress. Geography and Map Division. Land Ownership Maps. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1983. (On 2,010 FHL fiche starting with 6079238.)
  14. United States. Geological Survey. Topographic Maps of the United States. Scale varies. Suitland, Maryland: National Archives and Records Service, 1976-. (FHL films 1433631-921.)
  15. Moffat, Riley Moore. Map Index to Topographic Quadrangles of the United States, 1882-1940. Occasional paper: Western Association of Map Libraries, number 10. Santa Cruz, California: Western Association of Map Libraries, 1986. (FHL Ref book 973 E72m.)
  16. Cobb, David A., compiler. Guide to U.S. Map Resources. Chicago, Illinois: American Library Association, 1986. (FHL book 973 E74co.)
  17. Madower, Joel, editor. The Map Catalog. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1986. (FHL book 973 E73ma.)

 

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