Introduction to Geographic Tools

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This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.


What is a geographic tool? By definition, it is a tool related to geography, a science that deals with the earth and its life. Commonly used geographic tools are maps, atlases, gazetteers (geographical dictionaries), and postal guides.

A town is a specific place somewhere on planet earth. It might be in a valley, on a plain surrounded by lush farmland, in mountains in the midst of evergreens, or in a desert far from other habitation. Its surroundings will affect the lives of the people who live there and also its economy. There can be many towns with the same name, but only one of them can occupy a specific portion of land; thus, each town is uniquely identified by its location.

A map is a graphic representation (usually flat) by means of signs and symbols and at an established scale of the physical features (natural, artificial, or both) of a portion of the earth’s surface. A topographic map will show the terrain of the land; the proximity of other communities; physical barriers, such as large rivers and mountains; roads and trails; and the approximate size of the town.

An atlas, another useful geographic tool, is a bound collection of maps; descriptive text usually is included as well. There is an atlas for nearly every place, and the types of maps and the information provided in each atlas can vary considerably. Historical atlases, atlases showing political boundaries and boundary changes, state and county road atlases, and commercial atlases can be particularly useful to family researchers.

If the location of a place name is unknown and it cannot be found on a map or in an atlas, a gazetteer is the tool to consult. Gazetteers list place names in countries, states, or geographical regions alphabetical­ly for particular time periods. If a town is not listed in a gazetteer, it might be found in a postal guide; postal guides list post offices alphabetically by state.

The tool which the genealogist or family historian should use first depends on the nature of the problem.

  • If the location of a place name is known, obtain a map of the location.
  • If the location of a place name is known but there is a discrepancy with the jurisdiction (perhaps the record shows a different county name than the one indicated on the map), the answer might be found in an atlas showing county boundary changes.
  • If the place name cannot be found on a map, the name might have changed, or the place might no longer exist. The name and additional information might be found in a gazetteer or a postal guide.


Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records


Publication Information:

Introduction - By Kory L. Meyerink

Origin of InformationCategories of Research Sources and ToolsEvaluation of Printed SourcesDocumentation and CopyrightLearning What Printed Sources ExistPublishers and DistributorsRepositories of Printed SourcesEffective Use of Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1: General Reference - Martha L. Henderson

Unique Resources in Public LibrariesDewey Decimal Classification SystemReference SourcesEncyclopediasGeneral History SourcesSocial History SourcesAlmanacs, Chronologies, and Statistical SourcesUsing DirectoriesLocal DirectoriesPrinted Professional DirectoriesInstitutional DirectoriesDirectories of Groups and AssociationsSource GuidesGeneral Language DictionariesHistorical and Etymological DictionariesSlang DictionariesSubject DictionariesSurname DictionariesGovernment DocumentsUsing BibliographiesElectronic SourcesReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Instructional Materials - Sandra Hargreaves Luebking

Introduction to Instructional MattersHow-To Guides and Manuals for AdultsHow-to Guides and Manuals for Young PeopleGenealogy Technologies and Refinement of SkillsCourses and Programs of StudyPeriodical ArticlesIdentifying and Obtaining Instructional MaterialsEvaluating Instructional MaterialsSelecting Textbooks for Classroom UseThe Future of Instructional MaterialsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Introduction to Geographic ToolsIntroduction to Maps and GazettersMapping of a New NationRoutes to the WestCanals and WaterwaysRailroadsPolitical MapsNineteenth-Century MapsUSGS Topographic MapsOrdering Topographic Map Names and NumbersOrdering Topographic MapsDigital Topographic MapsOut-of-Print Topographic MapsFact Sheets and General Interest PublicationsOther Types of USGS MapsNineteenth-Century National GazetteersTwentieth-Century National GazetteersPostal Guides and Shipping GuidesMaps, Gazetteers, and the ComputerFinding Geographic ToolsUsing Geographic ToolsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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Chapter 5

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Chapter 6

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Chapter 7

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Chapter 8

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Chapter 9

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Chapter 10

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Chapter 11

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Chapter 12

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 14

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Chapter 15

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Chapter 16

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Chapter 17

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Chapter 18

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Chapter 19

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Chapter 20

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Appendix

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