Learning from land ownership maps
Find out five things you can discover about your ancestors using the land ownership maps on Ancestry.com. Read More
Find the land your ancestors once owned and the areas they called home. Search almost seven million names in U.S. County Land Ownership Atlases (1860-1918) on Ancestry.com and you could also find city and county boundaries, local histories, plus the locations of schools, cemeteries and churches — maybe even the names of your ancestors' neighbors.
Take a detailed journey back in time through the history of land ownership in the United States.
Find out five things you can discover about your ancestors using the land ownership maps on Ancestry.com. Read More
Learn about the unique history of land ownership maps in the United States and Canada. Read More
See the empty lot that went on to become one of the most storied — and expensive — sports venues in America. Read More
Read about a family historian who went searching for a claim to fame, but instead discovered a new branch in her family tree. Read More
The County Land Ownership Atlases on Ancestry.com can help you locate the whereabouts of a landowning ancestor when the census is coming up short. In my case, I examined the 1890 atlas of Marshall County, Illinois, to pick up the trail of relatives I was missing for 1890 (the census that was destroyed in a fire). In two separate instances, I noted that property was owned in 1890 by heirs or the estate, telling me that the land’s previous owner died sometime prior to or during 1890, which will help me focus my search — in wills, probates, obituaries and death records — for more information.
The birds-eye view you get of landowners from the County Land Ownership Atlases is perfect for finding other family members who live nearby. On the 1873 Richfield Township, Lucas County, Ohio, my great-great-great-grandfather, his son, son-in-law and brother-in-law all own land on the same section of the township. You’ll notice something similar in 1875 in Derry Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, where the name Hershey appears repeatedly. Care to guess which famous candy maker is located there today?
Compare subsequent atlases for the same town and you’ll not only see how property boundaries changed through the years but also who left town. Did they migrate west or just sell the land? Either way, there’s bound to be a land record somewhere in the county that holds the information.
Landowner atlases not only show the location of the privately owned land, but also the location of the nearest churches, cemeteries and schools. Keep reading and you could also find some of the more prominent buildings and homes in towns and biographies of a few residents.
What did Cousin Dave do with all of that land? An agricultural or industrial census schedule may tell you more, like how much the land was worth back in the day, details about crops and livestock, and how much a business made. If the land is in a city, use census records and voter lists or city directories to determine the street address of the property. Plug that address into an online map and zoom in for a street view to see what it all looks like today.
According to geographer Michael Conzen, the county land atlases in this collection are pretty much an American phenomenon — or a North American one at least.
Published county landownership maps made their debut in the United States in the first decades of the 19th century. The maps included details such as boundaries, roads, churches and the names of residents. They were often printed as large wall maps, sometimes in sections, and Philadelphia’s printers made the city a major map-publishing hub.
These county maps started to flourish in the middle of the century, with their heyday coming in the decades between 1850 and 1880. And in the early 1860s, they took another innovative turn with the publication of the first county landownership atlas. In an atlas, maps could be subdivided by township, and the format allowed for better coverage, easier use, and more room for sundries ranging from illustrations to advertising that might appeal to subscribers.
This was important because in the United States, county landownership maps were a private, commercial venture rather than a government enterprise. A publisher would choose a county, then send out sales representatives to secure subscriptions. Meanwhile, work on the map itself often started in the county courthouse, with existing plat maps, as well as tax and other records.
This explains why some areas of the country are well covered by atlases and others are not. In the South, where plantations meant large landholdings, and in the West, where populations were thin, fewer people per acre made a county atlas less commercially viable, so publishers didn’t venture the capital — much to our loss today.
Michael Conzen points to these profits as one reason there are only two countries where maps like those in this collection were commercially produced on a large scale: the United States and Canada.
Conzen argues that another important impetus behind these maps was an aspect of U.S. society that set it apart from its European roots: the United States, especially in the 19th century, had a thriving land market. Lots of land became available, there were plenty of buyers, and land ownership could change hands often. In fact, the phrase “do a land office business” has its origins in the federal General Land Offices that were kept buzzing as the United States government passed various laws to dispose of public lands and encourage new settlement. This was simply not the case in many more established parts of the world where lands might still be encumbered by old or hierarchical ties to aristocratic families or even the vestiges of feudal tenure.
In America there was enough interest and business in land sales — and the documentation of land ownership — for private entrepreneurs to risk the capital required to assemble detailed landownership atlases. There were both business and administrative needs at a county level that helped provide a market, and there was a bias toward leaving mapping ventures that might turn a profit to the private enterprise, rather than a government with resources already stretched thin.
And, as Conzen notes, these notions of private ownership contributed to the popularity and success of the atlases as well, as Americans bought up these records that documented their status in print: landowner.
Michael P. Conzen, “The County Land ownership Map in America: Its Commercial Development and Transformation, 1814-1939.” Imago Mundi 36 (1984), pp. 9-31
Think the term “great potential” applies only to ramshackle fixer-uppers? This may change your mind:
Page 20 of the 1887 Rascher’s Atlas of Lake View Township in Cook County, Illinois, included in the Ancestry.com U.S. County Land Ownership Atlases database, contains an unassuming — and empty — plot of land. Keep your eye on block number 14 in Laflin, Smith and Dyer’s Subdivision; in just a few short years, you won’t recognize it.
Even then Chicago was a bustling city, so the plot didn’t stay vacant for long. Just four years later in 1891, it became home to the Lutheran Theological Seminary. A unique-to-Chicago land resource, Olcott’s Land Values of Chicago and Suburbs shows it clearly.
Theological seminaries, however, don’t bring in the dollars. So in late 1913, the land was leased to Charles Weeghman, who built a ballpark on it for his baseball team, the Chicago Federals (later the Whales) of the Federal League.
Two more years brought another change after the Federal League folded in 1915. Weeghman enlisted partners to help purchase another baseball club, the Chicago Cubs, and moved them into the space.
One of Weeghman’s partners, gum magnate William Wrigley, obtained ownership of the team and their home over the next five years. By 1926, the plot of land was renamed Wrigley Field, a name it still carries today, although the team and land were sold to the Ricketts family just last year. Total dollar amount of that transaction, by the way, was nearly $900 million, with Forbes estimating the value of the stadium at $165 million. Naming rights for the field alone stand at $10 million, although the current owner has stated there’s no need to change the name.
Talk about great potential.
Better to have inherited and lost than never to have inherited at all.
So maybe that’s not completely accurate — I wasn’t looking for an inheritance. I was just hoping to find out that somehow my family had a respectable claim to fame. In this case, the claim and fame were lying under the Seattle Kingdome, or so I had been told. And the newly indexed U.S. County Land Ownership Maps on Ancestry.com were going to help me find out.
The surname I was hunting for was Maple, although I wasn’t entirely certain at the time who that Maple was. About a year ago, an Ancestry.com subscriber had contacted me via the Connection Service regarding Roxie Maple, who appears in my family tree and the subscriber’s (actually his wife’s). I learned a few details about our common family line, including that we had an ancestor who owned the land the Kingdome was built on. Really? A connection to a landmark I’d actually heard of? I’d have to learn more.
The problem is I’d just never really had the time to get further in the Maple family line than Roxie — my great-grandmother. Nothing personal against the Maples, but finding Croasmuns and Vilchecks, both of whom seemed dead-set on changing names and spellings and hiding from government workers who wanted to put names in censuses, city directories, passenger lists and more, gives me headache enough for a lifetime of family history research. I’ve not yet felt much need to confuse myself further with another family line.
But the U.S. County Land Ownership Atlases on Ancestry.com include an early 20th century Seattle map. It was awfully tempting, so even though I’d not actually done any research on this family line, I had to peek. Here’s what I found — a Maple in 1917.
And I compared it to this, a modern map of Seattle.
I’m no cartographer, but something wasn’t quite matching up. I got back in touch with the Ancestry.com member who initially told me about the Kingdome connection to learn more. He in turn connected me with another distant cousin — the family historian who knows the whole story.
Were we the original owners of the Kingdome land? No, she said, but the land in question was located nearby, which told me that I may have found the map I wanted.
Then she hit me with the best part: the Maple family helped settle King County, Washington. The Maples owned land, built schools and left their name all over the place on prominent structures and important facilities.
After our conversation, I did a little quick research on a few of the Maple names my new cousin tossed around (I intentionally asked she not tell me exactly how I connect to this family line since I wanted to learn that through my own research). I turned to those same U.S. County Land Ownership Maps and saw details about Van Asselts, Maples and other names she mentioned — she was right, they were everywhere. U.S. census records, state census records and city directories helped me get my bearings about who lived where and when. Plus family trees, published histories and other documents convinced me that this family was fun to search and, unlike other lines in my family tree, didn’t keep themselves well hidden.
I’m still moving forward on this line, connecting them with Roxie and the rest of the Maples in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And who cares if we didn’t own the Kingdome? At least those maps encouraged me to finally learn how I am — or not — connected.