Old Maps, A Source of Ancestral Treasure

by Bob Brooke

The geography of the U.S. has determined its local history in each phase of its development. Trappers followed Indian paths across the Appalachian Mountains in search of better furs. Settlers followed in search of better land. Those who left the comparative comforts of life in the increasingly crowded coastal areas were busy surviving and carving out a new life for themselves.

Every genealogist, whether amateur or professional, should become familiar with maps of areas being researched. All kinds of maps are useful--road maps, land ownership maps, and historic maps. Maps which indicate the topography of an area are particularly useful, since they reveal the natural barriers to travel such as mountains.

Mountains were major barriers to travel and migration, while waterways were common transportation routes. Therefore, in seeking records of earlier times, a careful study of maps will aid in determining possible sources for records. Today, man's technological capability to build roads across and through mountains has changed transportation and migration patterns significantly.

The problem of finding vital records for an individual isn't easily solved without knowledge of the geography of the area being searched. The first step is to obtain a good modern local map to aid in orientation. Older maps of the area can be compared with the modern one to help locate particular sites.

The best place to start is the local library of the place to be studied. Old maps will show locations of settlements, towns, and even farms in relation to one another. While some settlements and villages were great distances apart, others were clustered around a mill or a trading post. The closeness of a town to a county border may indicate where research should be started, for county lines were often changed and at time were even run through the center of a homestead. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Olde Chester County split to form Chester and Delaware Counties.

Towns themselves may have split. Also in Chester County, the 18th-century settlement of Paoli later split to form the village of Paoli and the Borough of Malvern. This may necessitate the search for records in more than one place.

A topographical map--one that shows the geographical features of an area--should be helpful in showing how mountains, rivers, valleys and marshes affected the lives of settlers. Old roads that seem rambling today often followed old Indian trails or were carved through former woodlands, skirting great trees, rock outcroppings or marshy areas, or sidestepping an established homestead.

The contour map--one with lines indicating the elevations of an area--shows mountains that acted as barriers, harbored animals, and later yielded coal and metals. Mountains formed barriers to more than settlement. They also kept young men from seeking wives. After a hard day of work, a man would hardly want to climb over a mountain to court. Instead, he may have taken a path through the woods or took his boat upstream, since after a day of work and an evening of visiting, going home downstream was easier. Where terrain interfered, nearness played a significant role in courtship and marriage.

Land ownership maps, based on land ownership at the time the maps were drafted, are particularly interesting and useful. Research libraries, as well as the Library of Congress, contain many of these. Try to find copies of maps pertinent to the locales and times in which ancestors lived. A sequence of maps of the county is helpful in studying the development of the area.

Other sources of maps include The National Archives and the Coast and Geodetic Survey. In addition, local historical societies are a great source. If all else fails, check with Map Source(800/262-7123; E-mail: maps@mapsource.com) or the U.S. Government Printing Office Map Catalog(http://www.access.gpo or from U.S. Government Bookstores in 23 cities) Plat or subdivision books in county courthouses across the country also provide clues.

<< Everyday Genealogy

What's New in Genealogy ... Today!
click to view original photo