Introduction to Red Book: Maps

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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
USA sil.png
the Introduction to Red Book.
Vital Records
Census Records
Background Sources
Land Records
Probate Records
Court Records
Tax Records
Cemetery Records
Church Records
Military Records
Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Archives, Libraries, and Societies
African American
Native American
Internet Resources
County Resources

The third group of materials used in targeting an area for research is maps, an often-overlooked research tool. People often lived on political boundaries, across state lines, or rivers, and traveled the path of least geographic resistance. Maps can therefore provide important clues for where to look next when an ancestor disappears from a locality. This section provides ideas for obtaining helpful maps for genealogical research purposes. Maps without present-day political boundaries can be helpful in understanding migration trails and the geographic features that may have influenced settlements. When political divisions became established, maps help determine what jurisdictions to consider in looking for genealogical evidence such as land, probate, and court records.

County atlases, detailing roads, physical features, and often structures’ or owners’ names, are found in abundance throughout the country. Political boundaries (wards, school districts, townships, etc.) are often standard in many atlases, aiding considerably in pinpointing the location of people in the context of their surroundings. Plat maps indicate how specific counties and towns were divided and identified, providing a visual reference to use with descriptions of land in deeds and divisions of estates. Many state highway departments print present-day maps with more helpful and detailed information than standard road maps.

AniMap Plus (3.0) is a software program available on CD-ROM that includes the historical boundaries of U.S. counties and SiteFinder, a database that will mark the spot of over 190,000 places in the continental U.S., such as towns, cities, railroad stations, trading posts, farms and ranches, plantations, Native American villages, mining camps, and more. It is distributed by The Gold Bug, P.O. Box 588, Alamo, CA 94507

For several states, the maps suggested are the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which were extensively used to map structures in towns in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Now officially in the custody of the Library of Congress, access to the 700,000 maps in the collection is available at libraries in many states, with either printed or digitized copies of these maps. In addition, online access for all states is available to authorized users at subscribing institutions through ProQuest Information and Learning Company or by ordering online at Environmental Data Resources, at

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps are another often overlooked source. They exist for all states, illustrating geographical features of an area including the location of structures and cemeteries. Local USGS maps are often available in stationery and office supply stores or at sporting outfitters for hiking, fishing, and hunting. An index to identify the map sections needed for an area is available from the U.S. Geological Survey Office, Reston, VA 22092 but all map sales are handled through the USGS Information Services (Map and Book Sales), Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225, or online through the Earth Science Information Center.

Many map sources are now pervasively available on the Internet. Three examples are TopoZone, Old Maps of New York & New England, and Cyndi’s List, the last having links to an extensive number of individual maps and collections on the Internet.

Once vital records and census histories have been collected on ancestral lines, and an understanding of the area from background sources and maps has been achieved, it is time to turn to the genealogical source materials available in the county, town, or parish records. While the order of topics discussed is consistent throughout the book, beginning with this next topic, a research strategy may need to be specially tailored depending on a specific problem or location. For example, in some situations, using probate records is more productive first because of their specificity in indicating family relationships, but by far, more people owned land than appear in probate records. Consequently using land records may prove more successful.