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Maps and Genealogy

Maps provide the genealogist with a snapshot of a location in time.


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After you know when and where your ancestors lived, it may be time to invest some research time into locating and using maps. Maps provide the genealogist with a snapshot of a location in time. The changes from older to newer maps can expand your understanding of your subject's environment. Changes in county lines, the growing or shrinking of a community, and the changes in names are just a few benefits from studying maps. They also provide a very real and graphic illustration which can strengthen and enhance any written family history.

There are several organizations and web sites that have repositories of all kinds of maps for the researcher to use. Many county or area genealogical societies have links on their web sites, or a representative can direct you to local area map. Local libraries near where your ancestors lived can also have a valuable collection of maps. City halls and county courthouses can have detailed plat map books which hold much detail of an ancestor's property.

I found a nice collection of maps online at the University of Texas library which has early Indian areas, settlement and exploration routes as well as Colonial, Civil War and historical period maps. The web site is

The National Archives and Records Administration or (NARA) has accumulated over two million maps since 1774. The NARA has a publication (Leaflet No. 26) online which may be helpful. It also have a list of Maps of the States and Territories known as Special List No. 29. You can provide NARA researchers with a subject, geographic area and a time period to have them search their collection. Here is the address for making such a request:

Cartographic and Architectural Branch, National Archives
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD. 20740-6001.
The phone number is (301) 713-7040.

The Library of Congress has a Geography and Map Division Reading Room. Researchers can find the largest collection of maps in the world, including 4.5 million maps and 60,000 atlases. To learn how to use this resource, one can contact the following:

Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division
James Madison Memorial Bldg., 1010 Independence Ave. Or e-mail

The (USGS) United States Geological Survey is another important resource for maps. The organization was established in 1879 and it immediately started to collect historical topographic maps. Many of these maps are out-of-print maps that have been preserved on microfilm. They are available for purchase as black-and-white, 24 X 30 inch photographs. You can send a query to the following address:

507 National Center
Reston, VA. 20192.
The phone is 703-648-6045 and the Fax number is 703-648-5548.

Ensure you include the range of years you are interested in as well as specific information on the location.

USGS also has a database known as the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) that contains over two million names of places, including places that no longer exist. It is an automated system which has the names of every feature except for roads and highways. It contains names of communities, churches, and cemeteries and keeps track of the name changes over the years of such features. You can go to the web site.

The USGS also maintains the (ESIC) Earth Science Information Center, which sells aerial photographs and can be contacted to order photos:

USGS EROS Data Center, Customer Services.
Sioux Falls, SD 57198.
The phone number is (605) 594 - 6151 and the e-mail address is

These are just a few of the largest suppliers of historical maps. I am sure with some additional searching of the Internet a researcher can locate more sources. There is nothing like actually finding your ancestors on the map.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

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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