5 Maps Sites Every Genealogist Should Know

by Gena P. Ortega | Dec 2, 2011

Gena P. Ortega

Are you using maps when you research your ancestors? Maps are an essential part of your genealogical research for a variety of reasons. Maps can show you where and when boundaries changed. Some maps provide you a bird's eye view of the city your ancestor lived in. They can help you recreate your ancestor's community leading you to additional resources. Maps can show the migration route your ancestor took. As you begin a research project make sure that you start by finding some historical and modern day maps of the cities, regions, and states your ancestor lived in to help guide your research. Whether the maps you use are paper, virtual or a little bit of both, they will assist you as you determine the records that may have existed and the places your ancestor lived.

Library of Congress American Memory Map Collections

While the Library of Congress has millions of maps, this digitized website features just a small part of their collection. Maps can be searched on this website using seven categories: cities and towns, conservation and environment, discovery and exploration, cultural landscapes, military battles and campaigns, transportation and communication and general maps. Other ways to search the collection include by keyword, subject and location. You can learn more about how to search this collection by consulting the Searching "Map Collections" page.

One of my favorite map collections on this website is the Panoramic Map Collection 1847-1929. Most genealogists don't think of panoramic maps, also referred to as bird's-eye view maps, as being important but nothing could be further from the truth. Panoramic maps show houses and buildings, individual streets and land features. Some include a key that lists businesses and organizations including churches and hospitals. These maps provide you with a snapshot in time of your ancestor's city and the community around them.

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

According to their website, the David Rumsey collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century maps and now has over 150,000 items with 27,000 of these items digitized and available to view for free on the website. There are many different ways to search for maps on this website. You can browse the collection as well as search it by map type, location, date, and publisher. Types of maps to find here include railroad maps, census district, historical atlas, military, religious, topography and many more. This website is a must see for all genealogists and should be used to find historical maps for the era and locality of your ancestor.

You may want to follow David Rumsey on Twitter, @DavidRumseyMaps, where he announces additions to the website and highlights individual maps. Many of these Tweets will redirect your to their blog, which like most company blogs helps you stay informed on the latest and highlights the individual pieces found in the collection. What's really great about the Rumsey collection is that there are various innovative ways to view the maps. For example, for those who are members of the virtual world Second Life, David Rumsey has maps available to view at Rumsey Map Island. Those using Google Earth can also view maps in the The Rumsey Historical Map layer, available in the Gallery layer. 120 historical maps from 1680 to 1930 are available. "Each map has been georeferenced, thus creating unique digital map images that allow the old maps to appear in their correct places on the modern globe."

University of Texas Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection

Universities have collections that can be invaluable for genealogists. This map collection through the University of Texas is just one example. The Perry-Castaneda Library has a collection of over 250,000 maps, 11,000 of which are digitized and available from the above website. Maps are categorized according to place and include items from all around the world including the Americas, Australia and the Pacific, Asia and Europe. Links to maps from Texas, Texas counties and the city of Austin have their own collection pages. Clicking on the link "Historical Maps" will take you to a collection of maps from around the world.

The menu found on the left hand side of this website includes links to other map websites. Click on the link for "Historical Map Sites" and you can then choose a country/continent with a list of other maps and a link to the map on the Internet. This directory includes trail maps, fire maps and Civil War maps. I highly recommend this directory of map links.

Questions about the collection including how to print maps and copyright restrictions can be found on the Map FAQ page.

Historic Map Works

Historic Map Works is a subscription website that has "the largest physical collection of property atlases." Their collection also encompasses scans of maps from the Osher Map Library and the Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine. Aside from property atlases, this online collection includes bird's-eye view maps, nautical charts, antiquarian maps, special collections, and documents. Currently their website has over 1.5 million images.

From the home page, aside from searching on their map collection, they also have a rare book collection and the Perkins Collection which is a partnership between Historic Map Works and Dana F. Perkins Inc, a land surveying company with an archive of New England land use and survey maps from 1882. Those with Boston, Massachusetts and New England ancestors will be especially interested in this collection.

While you can search the website for free, a rather prominent watermark is shown over each map preventing you from printing the image. To remove that watermark, see the website about purchasing prints of maps or subscribing.

Google Maps

While Google Maps doesn't feature historical maps that can help you learn more about a place during your ancestor's time , it is still a valuable addition to any genealogist's map toolbox. Using a Google Account sign-in you can unlock a feature called My Maps that allows you to mark locations on maps and then share those maps publicly or just with chosen family members and friends. Why is this feature so important? Think of it as a way to help your track a family through time, marking every place they lived or a migration trail they followed, Civil War battlefields that your ancestor fought at. Even create a map for an upcoming trip to your ancestor's homeland. I've used this feature to mark places where one wayward ancestor left a paper trail so I could visually see their migration across the United States. Don't forget that Google Maps is also good for looking up addresses and viewing images taken of that address in the present day. You can check out beta features in Google Maps Labs.

Looking for more information on what types of maps exist and how they can be used in genealogy? Consider reading more about maps on the Internet at Using Maps in Genealogy and United States Maps. Books that assist genealogists in learning more about maps are Melinda Kashuba's Walking with Your Ancestors: A Genealogist's Guide to Using Maps and Geography and Dallen J. Timothy and Jeanne K. Guelke's Geography and Genealogy: Locating Personal Pasts.

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