United States, How to Find and Use a Map
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- 1 Introduction
- 2 Steps
- 3 Tips
- 4 Where To Find It
Maps of the United States have been used since the 1500s. They were first used by sailors, merchants, trappers, military expeditions, and explorers. Later, they were used by families and groups who were considering moving to new lands and homes, or who were on the trail, river, or road.
Maps are keys to understanding the places where your ancestors lived. If you can find a map of a locality made about the time your ancestors lived there, the boundary and jurisdiction changes will help you understand the land records and movements of your ancestors more clearly than a more recent map. Your ancestors' childhood, education, occupations, and migration were affected by the topography of the land. If your ancestors lived in a farming area, a mining area, or a city, they would likely have followed occupations that were common to that location.
Maps are published individually or in atlases, which are bound collections of maps. Maps may also be included in gazetteers, directories, guidebooks, local histories, and other history texts.
Different types of maps can help you in different ways:
Historical maps and atlases are especially useful for understanding boundary changes. They describe the growth and development of a region, state, or country and may show:
- County, territorial, and state boundaries.
- Migration routes.
- Settlement patterns (locations of villages and cities along migration routes, or off the main trails and roads).
- Military campaigns and their locations.
- Other historical details.
Road atlases show distances between places and may indicate landmarks such as mountains, historical sites, churches, cemeteries, schools, and colleges.
City and street maps are extremely helpful when researching large cities. City maps can show the locations of:
- Schools and colleges.
- Ward and enumeration district boundaries.
- Government offices.
Topographical maps show the terrain of the land. They show the location of roads, rivers, mountains, mountain passes or gaps, valleys, and often schools, churches, and cemeteries.
Maps are an important source of family and local information. Maps may be found individually as well as in atlases; gazetteers; town, county, regional, and state histories; and encyclopedias. Many are available on microfilm, microfiche, compact disc, or on the Internet. For more information about maps, see Background.
Maps can often provide you with:
- Location of towns, cities, counties, and roads.
- Names of nearby towns and counties. Your ancestor's records, such as a marriage record, might be in a neighboring town or county.
- County boundaries. County boundaries often changed. Many United States records are kept on the county level, so you need to know the county.
- State and territorial boundary changes. Make sure you know the state or territory that had jurisdiction when your ancestor lived in a place.
- Names of land owners. Land ownership maps, plat maps (surveys), and tract maps show the location of land owners. Neighbors were often relatives or became relatives through marriage.
- Information about geographical features such as rivers, streams, valleys, mountains, hills, and their elevations. This can help you determine probable migration routes.
- Locations of cemeteries, schools, churches, and forts. These may be places where your ancestors were buried, attended school, church, or took refuge.
- Ward or enumeration district boundaries. These maps can often help you determine which census ward or district to search.
What You Are Looking For
You are looking for a map of the area where your ancestors lived in order to:
- Locate a place and learn about the surrounding area.
- Learn about the migration routes which your ancestor may have followed.
- Find the names of neighbors, since they may be relatives.
These 4 steps will guide you in finding and using a map.
Step 1. Determine the kind of map you need.
Maps of different types serve different purposes. Determine your map needs.
| What you are looking for
|| Type of map to use|
|Towns, counties, roads, and distances between towns.||Road maps and historical maps showing locations of towns and counties.|
|County boundaries.||Various types of maps showing current and past county boundaries|
|Township boundaries||A township atlas or a map showing townships|
|Names of neighbors.||Land ownership maps, plat maps, and surveys|
|Geographic features, such as mountains, hills, rivers, trails, roads, and swamps||Topographical maps, done by the U.S. Geological Survey as well as by others.|
The Maps section of the United States Research Outline gives descriptions for the following types of maps and suggests records to search:
- Plat Maps.
- Ward Maps of Major Cities.
- Topographic Maps.
- Historical Atlases.
- Locating Township and County Boundaries.
- Land Ownership Maps.
A guide is available with more Tips on finding county boundaries.
Step 2. Obtain the map.
You may find maps in the following places:
- Internet sites.
- The Family History Library and Family History Centers.
- Government offices.
For Internet sites and organizations which may have maps, see Where to Find It.
Step 3. Copy the map, or sketch the location of towns, counties, and roads.
If possible, make a printout or photocopy of the map.
Be sure to cite the source of your map, including map title, call number, and where you obtained the map.
Step 4. Analyze what you learned.
Study the part of the map that pertains to the region where your ancestor lived. Look for:
- Locations of towns, counties, states, and roads.
- Neighboring towns, counties, and people.
- How close your ancestor lived to a county or state boundary.
- Topographical features such as rivers, mountains, mountain passes, and gaps.
Make notes on your observations.
Tip 1. How can I find more information about a place?
For more information about a specific locality, you may want to use the following sources:
• Bullinger's Postal and Shippers Guide for the United States & Canada
• Gazetteers have lists of villages, towns, cities, and counties.
• Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920.
• Local histories of towns, counties, and states discuss local events, people, and places.
• Encyclopedias contain historical background information about towns, cities, counties, states, and historical events.
Where To Find It
The following Internet sites either have maps or can lead you to sites with maps:
- CyndisList leads to other sites.
- AT&T Anywho has current maps for many cities, towns, and even roads and streets. The detailed street maps show pictures, representing every 300 feet along a road.
- Geographic Names Information System (of the U. S. Geological Survey) allows you to type in the name of a town, county, or state, and sometimes a school, cemetery river, or mountain. It has detailed maps.
- U.S. Geological Survey - Map Finder allows you to type in the name of a town, county, or state, and sometimes a school, cemetery, river, or mountain. It has detailed maps. You can also order a U.S. geological survey map through this site.
Family History Centers and the Family History Library
Many centers have some of the sources described in this guide. Centers can also borrow most microfilm available at the Family History Library. There is a small fee to have a microfilm sent to a Family History Center.
Family History Centers are located throughout the United States and other areas of the world. See the Family History Center Address List for the address and phone number of the center nearest you.
The Family History Library has many maps and gazetteers. To find descriptions of those records for a particular city, county, or state, click on Family History Library Catalog on the bar above:
- Enter the name of the state, county, or town in the Place box. When searching towns or counties, add the name of the state in the Part of (optional) box.
- Choose GAZETTEERS, HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY, or MAPS from the list of topics for that place.
- Select from the list of titles to see descriptions of the records with the film, book, or map call numbers.
- Use that information to obtain the records at a family history center or at the Family History Library.
See Family History Library Services and Resources for information about contacting or visiting a center or the library.
College and Public Libraries
Some college libraries have copies of the sources described in this guide, particularly for their own states. Many large public libraries also have copies. Smaller libraries may be able to obtain the sources through interlibrary loan.
Any library near your home may have maps. It may be a public, university, or genealogical society library. The larger the library, the larger and more varied will be their map collection. For a list of maps, atlases, or gazetteers available at the Family History Library, see Where to Find It, Family History Library.
U. S. Department of the Interior - Geological Survey
U. S. Department of the Interior - Geological Survey
507 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
You can order a U. S. geological survey map by clicking on the site below:
From the address above, you can order a guide that shows which geological survey maps cover a particular town or county. You can also order the topographical maps for a town or county. In many cities, the Federal Building has an office that sells U.S. Geological Survey maps. The office listed above has a fax-on-demand service where they can send documents to your fax.