Clues in Historic Maps

Posted January 20, 2011 by Geni | One Comment

Historic maps can offer you a wide variety of clues and new leads to investigate. A great genealogical tool, maps help us to locate our ancestors and follow their path as they moved. Maps let you visualize where your ancestors lived, went to school, traveled, worked and buried.

In your research, keep in mind that the names of locations and boundaries change quite often over time. There are several resources you may use to help you find place names. If you are researching names in the U.S., the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is the U.S.’s official data base of geographic names. You may try contacting them for more information about a specific place name.

Because of the frequency of boundary changes (country, county or city), it’s helpful to compare maps of the same location from different time periods. You may find a record of your ancestor living in three different countries, only to look at historical maps and see that your ancestor never actually moved; the boundaries have simply changed!

There are a variety of different types of maps, and each may prove helpful in their own way and may offer you a new direction in your research. Here’s a sample of what you may find:

County Maps

County maps are one of the most frequently consulted maps by genealogists. These maps are very useful in pinpointing any possible locations you may discover in researching your ancestor. They provide greater detail about small jurisdictions (townships, towns, parishes) and may also include the location of post offices, schools, churches and cemeteries, which may give you possible locations to search for documented records.

Road/Street and River/Canal Maps / Migration Route Maps

These maps may prove useful in understanding what routes your ancestors may have traveled and lead you to other locations your ancestors may have visited or lived. Migration route maps may also prove useful in helping you understand your ancestor’s movements.

Census District Maps

Census district maps are very helpful when researching your ancestors in census records. Because these district boundaries often change, you may want to compare multiple maps with each other. These maps may prove very helpful in knowing the difference between whether your ancestors moved or the boundaries merely changed!

Land Ownership Maps / Plat Books

Land maps let you visualize your ancestors’ property records. These maps offer greater detail about property locations and the names of the property owners and their neighbors.

Of course there are a wide variety of other maps available for you to research. You may find maps at your local library, historical societies or online. And share what you have discovered on Geni!