One can hardly conduct thorough, meaningful research on any family line without incorporating the use of maps in some significant way. Maps are generally so plentiful, such interesting and exciting sources of information, and come in so many varieties that their study and use could become an avocation in and of itself. This article will discuss some of the popular maps for genealogical research as well as some of the more obscure, though all are useful in one's quest to discover early family origins.
The type of map most genealogists are initially familiar with is a standard political map that is found in most commercial atlases. Political maps typically indicate locations of city, towns, and counties, and may have some physical features such as rivers, streams, and lakes. The hallmark of a good political map is an easy to use, comprehensive index. Political maps can be key to a researcher's quest to find the counties which contain the records of an important ancestral town.
Perhaps the most commonly used map of this type in genealogical libraries and repositories is the Rand McNally Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide. With more than one hundred and twenty-five editions having been published to date, this atlas provides the researcher with the county affiliation, population, and zip code for each city and town as well as map coordinates for actually locating the entity in the front section of maps. The Rand McNally atlases also have a number of other maps, guides, and data tables of varying importance for the historical research.
While topographical maps tend to be less used by many genealogists, their importance should not be minimized. Topographical maps, also known as relief maps, typically show significant physical features as well as contexting the areas being detailed with the locations of major towns and often county boundary lines. These maps generally not only detail a hilly or mountainous region but may also, typically through the use of colors and shading, provide the researcher with some idea of how high the mountains are and how steep the peaks. Also there tends to be an accurate and thorough detailing of bodies of water, occasionally even including the direction of flow on rivers and streams.
A good topographical map for an area of ancestral research can cause one to view potential locations of records in a completely different light. Not infrequently a researcher will have a whole new picture of an ancestor's homestead when placing the property in the context of its physical surroundings. And the county seat of the neighboring county may just become a most logical place to check for some vital, church and other records as it was infinitely easier to cross an invisible county boundary line than even a small range of mountains during some time periods in one’s family’s history.
Historic plat and land ownership maps of all sorts can be a boon for family historians. As their name implies, these maps indicate who owned parcels of land in a particular geographic area for a specific time period. Usually land ownership maps were done on a county-by-county basis, but that is not always necessarily the case. While many of these ownership maps simply provide the property owner’s name and possibly the number of acres owned, a number of maps also provide other details such as the type of land (forest or farm), the nature of the crop production, the number (and sometimes type) of dwellings, and the location of other important structures such as roads (with their next destination indicated), churches, and court houses.
With the data provided by plat maps, often including in the township, section, and range number possibilities for particular areas of land, the researcher can seek additional information through deed and tax records. It is important to remember that historically families of like ethnic groups tended to migrate together, travel together, and settle together. So once one had found an ancestor on a plat map, "looking around" a little for individuals of the same surname and individuals who may belong to collateral lines or share the same village of origin in the old country is a wise activity in which to engage.
Maps which evidence county boundary changes can be vital information sources when genealogists are seeking out county records. There is an ongoing series of maps being published under the title of Atlas of Historical County Boundaries that is quite extraordinary. A project of the Newberry Library and being published by Charles Scribner's Sons of New York, the goal is to have one such compilation for each state. The state volumes published to date detail the development of each county, both in narrative form and by map. A separate map is provided for each major change in a county's boundary. In the Indiana volume, for example, fourteen different maps are provided to detail the development of Knox County. These details regarding county boundary changes can open entire new vistas of research for those who may have been confining their record search too narrowly.
A similar collection of maps quite useful for genealogists is the Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide. While not as detailed at the series described above, it does provide one with an alphabetical listing by state and then maps by federal census year for all the censuses through 1920. This can assist in orienting one’s research when census information is being sought for a time period when a particular county did not exist.
When searching through census records for larger cities in unindexed census years, another type of map—the ward map—can prove to be quite useful. Ward maps typically delineate the boundaries of all the wards for a particular city during a specific year. Thus, if one has to search in the city of Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1870 census, it would be useful to actually look in the 1870 Indianapolis city directory for the individual, record his street address, and then locate that street address on the 1871/2 ward map for Indianapolis. Finding a particular ward in an unindexed census by scanning the page headers, and then searching through that ward for a particular individual is much faster than having to look through an entire city for that same person. This research method can also be employed when we have reason to believe that an individual is in a particular census year in a larger city but does not show up in the index.
Many ward maps can be found as supplemental pages in the front or back of numerous city directories. Most public libraries have city directories for the cities in which they are located as well as surrounding towns and villages. State libraries typically have very robust collections of city directories, either in print or on microfilm, for the cities within their respective states. Some ward maps can simply be found as part of institutional cartographic collections. Still other such maps may be found reprinted in compilations such as E. Kay Kirkham’s A Handy Guide to Record-Searching in the Larger Cities of the United States. A research note: While it is true that ward boundaries change, when using ward maps in conjunction with census research typically finding a ward map within a couple of years of the census year does prove to be beneficial.
Some of the most interesting and perhaps unusual maps genealogists can use are fire insurance maps. One of the most commonly know sets of these maps are simply called the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. These maps were drawn with incredible detail, indicating such things as street size, major composition or construction of all buildings (e.g. wood, brick, cinder-block, etc.) keyed by color, the number of floors in each structure as well as the street address of each structure. By the mid-twentieth century, fire insurance maps had been compiled for more than ten thousand cities in the United States, most being the larger, metropolitan areas. Many cities still have such maps produced today.
Fire insurance maps can provide a variety of assistance to the genealogist. First, because of their detail, one can use them to determine which new house numbers correspond to particular old dwellings when a community or city re-numbers. One can also create a list of organizations in the area which may have been frequented by a potential ancestor. Such organizations may include churches, schools, laundries, groceries, department stores, lumber yards, and the like. By researching the organizational records of those entities, one may uncover new evidence and clues regarding a family’s past. And certainly urban growth and how that growth affected neighborhoods and regions of a particular city can be evidenced in these fire insurance maps.
Many fire insurance maps have been microfilmed by private publishing companies. Their large size can make them a bit challenging to use a microtext format but there are few other options for the researcher who cannot travel to the locations where originals available. The local public library and the local historical society are the two best places to check in most communities for copies of fire insurance maps. Also, the state libraries in most states tend to have fairly extensive collections of fire insurance maps on microfilm for their respective states. It may also be possible for researchers to have some of these maps interlibrary loaned to their local libraries from the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago.
The Internet is providing the genealogist with many opportunities to explore new map sources. The number and variety of these maps is truly amazing. The Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies has a wonderful map room on their site. A researcher can view and download actual copies of nineteenth century European maps. The GenWeb projects worldwide are also providing enhanced access to map indices if not the maps themselves. One can see the 50,000 most common U. S. surnames mapped for the 1850, 1880, and 1920 censuses as well as the 1990s phone books on yet another site. The National Atlas of Canada is available online, offering some interesting search options.
For researchers concentrating on the United States, the TIGER (short for Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) mapping systems of the U. S. Census Bureau can provide a wealth of information. This system is a huge "connect-the-dots" database, which can be used to create maps that have customized amounts of detail. (See Understanding the Census: A Guide for Marketers, Planners, Grant Writers and Other Data Users by Michael R. Lavin, p. 186-189.)
The "Virginia TIGER/Line Data Browser," available at the Virginia Digital Map Library site, allows one to select a county of interest and then further select the type of details the online map should display. Some of the features that can be selected for detailing include four different types of roads, railroad lines, military installations, religious institutions, schools, and cemeteries. It's almost like having one's own research map created. Once the customized map is launched from the digital map site, there are additional zooming features available to pinpoint many of the features more accurately. Printing a customized TIGER map and using it in conjunction with a political map for the same area can truly enhance research opportunities in a particular area. More and more of these kinds of maps are available on the Internet.
There are a number of excellent publications to assist the researcher in becoming familiar with maps as a significant part of genealogical research. Among the group of the best publications is a compilation by E. Wade Hone entitled Land & Property Research in the United States. An impressive tome of more than five hundred pages, this work equips one with much information about various types and uses on maps. The second edition of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Szucs & Luebking, 1997) also contains a useful chapter on "land and property records."
Mapping one’s ancestors can be a most useful and exciting way of ensuring that all available data for a particular individual is discovered and incorporated into the family story.
Rand McNally Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide
(Chicago, IL: Rand McNally & Company)
Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920
by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide
(Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987)
A Handy Guide to Record-Searching in the Larger Cities of the United States
by E. Kay Kirkham
(Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, Inc., 1974)
Understanding the Census: A Guide for Marketers, Planners, Grand Writers and Other Data Users
by Michael R. Lavin
(Kenmore, NY: Epoch Books, Inc., 1996)
Land & Property Research in the United States
by E. Wade Hone
(Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Inc., 1997)
The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy
edited by Loretto D. Szucs, and Sandra H. Luebking
(Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Inc., 1997)
Curt Witcher is the department manager for the Historical Genealogy Department of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana; adjunct professor in Indiana University's Continuing Education Program; and a genealogical instructor and lecturer. He is the past president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and is currently the national volunteer coordinator for the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors Project. He has also written articles for Ancestry Magazine, FGS's FORUM, and other genealogical publications. He is the co-editor of PERSI with Michael B. Clegg.