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Maps Are More Than Paper

Maps can come in all sorts of formats. They can be online, created on demand, in paper format, et al. And you can use them to trace name changes of places, to find where people are located for censuses, and see where families were grouped. You can also see where migrations of people settled and the trails that they may have left to provide you with search clues. This article tells you where to find these kinds of maps.


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Maps have the undeserved reputation of being boring, and they are most definitely not. They can take a concept and give a visual life to it in a way that reading words just doesn't. This is a big topic, one that deserves more than a cursory look. There is more to say than can possibly fit into a short article, so this is meant to be an overview. You should find out where to go and how to use these materials from reading this article.

You may have read about how useful maps are for finding county borders and their changes. But they really are not hard to use—or find, and this short article can give you some hints on how to find them and make the best use of them. Do the maps or border of an area follow natural boundaries (watercourses, or mountains) or do they follow surveyors lines as many places in the West do? (This also occurs in the East where land was awarded to soldiers after the early wars.). Why are land maps important? Because they deal with property and property means money, either from ownership, sales, or taxes. People who owned land might be easier to trace than oft-moving renters.

Maps are accessed like other library materials. Other than ones which exist only in digital format or are created on demand like Google Earth (I am being free with the concept here!), maps are often cataloged and kept in libraries with the proviso that because they are often big, fragile, and cannot easily be copied, they may be available only for viewing. I would like to deal with the concept of maps in several ways: Internet-available sources; library sources; where to find them; reasons that they were created; and why you should use them.

Internet-Accessible Web Sites

There are map sites which cater to the academic arena. For example, has a good list along the left side of the web page and refers people to other Internet locations. Additionally, has a list of links, as does the page at

Then, there are sites created with the generalist user in mind such as Maps, Gazetteers & Geographical Information;; and

Google Earth is an indication of where mapping may go. It is used by typing in a place name, and the globe on your monitor spins and zooms in to the location. While not every place on Earth is identified, it has the feature of just showing a aerial view, a drawn map view, or an overlay which puts names on the places. Why is this important? Because in general the photos that you see are fairly current (within the past ten years, if not newer. This isn't a review of it, so it will suffice to say that you can not only see what the ancestral village looks like from the air (rivers? hills? roads?), but also use a ruler to measure distances. The ruler is straight line like an air flight (of course), but in one case it was apparent why the immigrants had left what is now a city in Serbia through Trieste, Italy rather than go through Berlin or Hamburg. The distance was 300 miles to the Adriatic, whereas it was 500 to Berlin alone, and 750 to Hamburg. Back in the horse and buggy days, that would make a lot of difference. I am sure that if you play with it for a while you can find all sorts for keen things that it will do. You can read about and download a version for Macintosh and Windows at This is in addition to Google Maps, which is available from the Google home page and allows similar searching and enlargement. These services are free and easy to use, and Google Maps doesn't require downloading and installing a piece of software.

Seeing where cemeteries are from the air is useful, especially with the option to print a map to them, along with directions. Route planning for genealogical research is also something that you can do with online maps. For example, let's look at Alsace and Lorraine. Or is that Elsass and Lothringen? Those areas and several others of the area that later became Germany (or in those cases, modern day France) need to be clearly defined, because it makes a difference which archives that you are writing to. At the very least, in this case, you would write to the Archives Deptrtmentales in Strasbourg, in French (as I did ten years ago - I got a reply in French citing several works in French, in German, and even an article in English published in the USA!). But what if it is in Silesia, or Schlesien, as that area was known in Germany? Or since it is in now Poland, you would have to write to the appropriate Polish archives, in Polish. (there is a web site for Silesia-Schlesien at, showing the towns of Grobnig, now in Poland as Grobniki; and so you find records for it under Grobnig, Leobschutz [county], Schlesien, [province] of Preussen [nation]. Who would guess that a town known as Bladen in German is now Wlodzienin since 1945? Knowing which names to search could direct you to work already done such as that in the online database of people at

Library Sources.

Going to the library to see maps in hard copy can also be intimidating. But if you are lucky there will be a map librarian there to help you. If there is not, there are a few tips and tricks that you might want to keep in mind when you go to search. First, many maps that could be useful are NOT in the library - they may be in town halls, historians' offices, the county clerk's office, and other offices which have an interest in the subject. Check them as well as your library. Who would think that there are many series of maps detailing the properties along the Erie Canal at the State Archives of New York? Or that there is a guide to them and their use? (The mighty chain: a guide to canal records in the New York State Archives.), which was done 15 years ago by the archivists there.

Second, there may be a good guide to significant projects that were done in your area - the various land bounty claims, governmental projects, border change maps, maps hidden in books or wills - all can be fruitful. You have to think what would affect the money in an area, as that is one of the main reasons for making maps. They are used for taxation (governments), history (colleges and historians), selling things (plat maps), and sundry other things such as where to bury people, where to build a store or a railroad, etc. Canals requiring locks (see the books mentioned above) used maps to find the easiest way across the area. The Erie Canal used rivers at its eastern end and passed through the Knobs area as it moved west - this was supposedly the lowest level crossing of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia, and thence through swamps and lakes till it reached Lake Erie.

Libraries have moved towards digitizing their materials to make it more accessible. For example, the Rochester Images web site at returns over 750 items when it is searched for maps; these each have a cataloging record which will return a subject (such as Landowners Maps. New York (State) Monroe County) and present them to the user. The maps of the city of Rochester are keyword searchable by street, by building name, etc. There are over 20,000 items in that collection, and they are simple to search and to save.

New York State, for example, was settled from downstate to upstate, and from east to west. Seeing this on maps of various times, it is helpful to your research to know what was settled when. Frequently, my library gets questions about vital records from the packet boats on the Erie Canal. After we explain that if they were kept at all, no one knows where they are. We point out that this was the same as a highway and, therefore, not a permanent settlement. The population of Rochester jumped from a few thousand to 50,000 in just a few years, due to the canal. Other places in the U. S. have similar stories.

You can look at a map and see where a settlement or city expanded, where the early townships around them were annexed, and why you can't find a place that your ancestors came from - maybe it changed names, or the county that is in the later censuses has different borders than the original ones.

Where to find them?

Maps scan be found in books, bound as parts of large volumes called plat maps, online, and in drawers filed flat (the preferred way of storing them). Libraries usually have finding aids to their collections: we have 3,000 or more maps which have a separate card catalog, and which do NOT appear in the library's online catalog. (The reason is that there is only one cataloger to do the work for the whole library system of 35 libraries, and he would be swamped if passed this task along to him). Also, if you tell people about it, they will come. If we make our maps available to the world, we have to make sure that we can do conservation and preservation of them, and also provide copies at a reasonable amount and in a reasonable time frame. For all those reasons, we keep the card catalog for maps separate and guide people to their use.

Colleges often have a separate maps department in their libraries with a specific map librarian. If you go to a larger academic library or public library, ask if that is the case. In a smaller town library you may find that they have a small map collection of even none at all. How do you find these maps? The are often called plat maps, atlases or similar, and are in libraries, historical societies, or county clerks' offices

Reasons maps were created?

Basically, for money or history. Taxation requires knowing what is where, so it can be enumerated or taxed. If money is to be spent on road or canal construction, the planners and builders have to see where the road or canal should go. Railroads need to see where the freight and passengers they might move are located.

Maps can tell you where wars were fought and visually show what effects they had on movements of people. They can help you see patterns of migration from one place to another, or where groups of people settled (think of different ethnic groups in the Midwest USA). They can show you where armies were stationed, and where such records might be. They can also show where churches are located.

French's gazetteer is a major source for our area. J. H. French compiled this useful tome in 1860, which right away tells you than he was nearly 150 years closer in time to the settlements of the area than current people are. The details in such a gazetteer can be very illuminating - they give churches, newspaper, early settlers, the time that name changes or border changes occurred, and so on.

Why should you use them?

Maps are used to find where people are located for census; to find out where families were grouped; to see where migrations of people settled and the trails that they may have left to provide you with search clues. There are a couple of college classes that do a research paper on local people who are buried in local graveyards, and one class concentrates on a place named Pittsford. Maps showing downtown Pittsford show land owners and their businesses over a period of time. The students can see the names, the neighbors names, the frequently occurring big blocks of land that well known and well heeled people owned. They can also see the location of the buildings that explain a lot of the development. No matter your area of interest, maps are immenently useful for the facinating insights they can provide.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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