The Lure of Maps

by Carolyn L. Barkley

I love maps – the older the better., I fear, however, that GPS technology may distance us from intimate contact with maps, even as e-mail has all but destroyed the art of writing letters. I freely admit that I often begin a road trip without consulting a map, trusting my GPS to deliver me to my destination and reorient me if I take a wrong turn.

Simply stated, a map is a “geographic representation or scale model of spatial concepts. It is a means for conveying geographic information. Maps are a universal medium for communication, easily understood and appreciated by most people, regardless of language or culture. Incorporated in a map is the understanding that it is a ‘snapshot’ of an idea, a single picture, a selection of concepts from a constantly changing database of geographic information….Old maps provide much information about what was known in times past, as well as the philosophy and cultural basis of the map….Maps are one means by which scientists distribute their ideas and pass them to future generations.”1

As a genealogist and historian, I use maps to provide me with links that allow me to “put my ancestors’ feet on the ground,” and, in some instances, allow me to stand in their footsteps. This statement is somehow much richer than the basic definition.

Individuals have been lured by maps for centuries, with the earliest examples dating from the Babylonian Empire. The Greeks, the Romans, medieval monks, the Vikings, Renaissance printers, surveyors, and individuals from many cultures have expanded man’s knowledge of cartography and provided rich documents for the historians and researchers of the future. Today we are able to access their maps, both fanciful and incredibly detailed, informing us of the worlds of our ancestors.

Here are five groupings of map resources that I have encountered through my research or that I own in my home library. These choices are clearly not meant to be exhaustive, but rather are provided to whet your appetite with some interesting opportunities. I know that you have personal favorites as well.

  1. Virginia in Maps: Four Centuries of Settlement, Growth and Development, edited by Richard W. Stephenson and Marianne M. McKee (Library of Virginia, 2000). This title is the definitive map book for Virginia history, beginning with very early maps such as Robert Tindall’s 1608 rendering of Jamestown, and running through modern satellite image maps. If you do Virginia research, this book should be part of any “wish list.” The Library of Virginia has an extensive map collection and encourages membership in the Fry-Jefferson Map Society.
  2. Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012) is a title which I keep within reach at my desk. I have used it so frequently, that it is beginning to fall apart. While I acknowledge that there are software programs such as Animap that provide the same information in a more portable, technological format, I confess to liking the hard copy (unless I’m traveling when weight is a problem). My most recent use of the Map Guide was to orient myself to county development in New Jersey in order to more correctly edit a client’s book (for example, Mercer County did not exist until 1838, and thus not reflected in the census until 1840).
  3. United States research requires us to learn about vast geographical areas during multiple historical periods. As the country expanded westward, pulling our ancestors into new locations, their new locations require us, as researchers, to learn about the geographical and socio-economic pressures which governed their lives and influenced their life choices. Whether it is a map of an east-coast post road shown in William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 (Heritage Quest, 1997), or a map about westward expansion in such titles as Carrie Eldridge’s An Atlas of Settlement between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi-Missouri Valleys (CDM Printing, 2006) and An Atlas of Northern Trails Westward from New England (CDM Printing, 2000), or more specialized collections such as county historical atlases, Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of the North American Railroad (Univ. of California Press, 2010), or Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, a wealth of background information is available in maps.
  4. The military experiences of our ancestors can be enriched through the use of resources such as The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War (Barnes and Noble, 2003), a large-sized reprinting of the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published by the U.S. Government Printing Office between 1891 and 1895. A magnificent collection of military maps is also available through the Library of Congress’ American Memory project site including maps from the Revolutionary War through World War II.
  5. Online maps (there is so much more than Google maps!) provide convenient access to vast collections of cartographic material. Once again the Library of Congress’ American Memory site is a wonderful place to explore what is available, but you will also want to check out sites such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Historical Maps Online, featuring maps from “four hundred years of historical development in Illinois and the Northwest Territory,” or the David Rumsey Map Collection, with over 36,000 maps and images online. Old Maps Online is a “search portal for historical maps from five different map libraries in Europe and the United States, offering access to an estimated 60,000 maps. You will want to reserve several hours of uninterrupted “surfing” in the University of Texas Libraries’ Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collections’ nine pages of links to maps from Africa, Asia, Australia/Pacific, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Middle East, Russia, South America, the United States, and astronomy.

As I began the list with a map resource for my home-state (that is differentiated from birth-state!) of Virginia, I will also share, as a bonus, map sources from one of my research concentrations – Scotland. Many of us own gazetteers of Scotland, whether it be Samuel Lewis’ A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (1851, Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002, but currently out of print) or John Wilson’s 1882 publication, The Gazetteer of Scotland (Heritage Books, 2002). Geography, however, become three dimensional, and stories more meaningful, when we can actually see a specific location. I recommend the wonderful collection of map images provided by the National Library of Scotland, including maps of counties, towns, estates, geographical locations, and military campaigns; the collection numbers over 48,000 maps of Scotland. In addition, if you do Scottish research and are a map lover, try to locate a library (and probably not your local public library) with a copy of William Roy’s The Great Map: the Military Survey of Scotland 1747-55 (reprinted by Birlinn Ltd. in 2007). This collection is outstanding for its illustration detail and depth of information. I own a copy, a rather (probably the right word is incredibly) lavish retirement gift to myself, but one that I have never regretted.

There are many more types of maps that I have not included here: ordinance survey maps, USGS maps…well, the list could go on and on. I hope you will use this article as the stepping stone to many enjoyable hours spent among maps of all kinds.


1 James S. Aber, Brief History of Maps and Cartography ( : accessed 27 December 2012).


Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.