Where is That Place? Using the USGS Web Site

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

United States Geological Survey (USGS) web site is an important resource for genealogists – one often overlooked – as it has the ability to help us place an ancestor’s feet on a particular piece of ground.

Writers of the Articles of Confederation understood the important of surveying public lands and included it in such legislation as the Land Ordinance of 1785. A few projects, such as the 1807 Survey of the Coast, were completed to provide improved navigational charts and aids for coastal waters, and a series of geological surveys were completed in the early to mid 1800s in support of the agricultural economy.

By the mid to late 19th century, however, the federal government’s interest in natural science had matured in response to the rise of the coal and steel industries, increased settlement of western lands, and such seminal events as the discovery of gold in California and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. A more in-depth study of public lands, now significantly larger than in the 1780s, was seen as an essential undertaking. In March 1879, the 45th Congress passed legislation that established the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) and assigned it to the Department of the Interior. The USGS was charged with the “classification of the public lands and the examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.” Today, the USGS is the “nation’s largest water, earth, and biological science and civilian mapping agency” and “collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides scientific understanding about natural resource conditions, issues, and problems.”

How, you may be wondering, does this support your genealogical research?

One of the most useful resources of the USGS is the U. S. Board on Geographic Names (GNIS). This board provides national standardization for “geographic nomenclature.” As such, it has developed a database of all domestic geographic names. It catalogs physical and cultural geographic features across the country, both current and historical, with the exception of roads and highways. Each feature description includes its state, county, USGS topographical map and coordinates (longitude and latitude) and may include variant spellings and other descriptive information. The GNIS URL is one of my most used browser bookmarks.

If you are tracing the movement of your ancestor across the country, you may know, but not be able to document, that they lived in Nebraska during their westward migration. One method you might use to narrow the scope of your research problem is to search GNIS for all features in Nebraska bearing the surname of your ancestor. For example, I filled in the search screen for “Barkley” and “Nebraska,” leaving the county name blank and the type of feature blank. I found two locations: Barkley School (historical) in Gage County and Barkley Memorial Center in Lancaster County. The same search for “Barclay” in Nebraska provided no responses. Intrigued, I did a search for “Barkley” for any type of feature, anywhere in the country, and received 72 responses. I quickly saw the importance of the search as it contained several Barkley cemeteries (Lauderdale and Marengo, Alabama; Fulton, Illinois; Ralls and Marion, Missouri; Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; Anderson, South Carolina; and Wayne, Tennessee). As each feature name is a hyperlink, I clicked on the link for the Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, cemetery. On the following screen, I chose the “GNIS in Google Map” option and almost immediately received a map pinpointing the exact location of the cemetery. I could also view a satellite image of the location and a topographical map image of the site in addition to other mapping choices. Wow! If this site had been connected to a Barkley family that I was researching, I would have discovered very important information with which to visit the cemetery. Barkley features listed also included bayous, creeks, historical post offices, shopping centers, dams, mines, mountains, lakes, etc. In each case, clicking on the linked feature name provided map access (as long as longitude and latitude coordinates were provided). Instead of the “GNIS in Google Map” option, you may choose among other selections, including Microsoft “Virtual Earth” which offers very interesting mapping features to explore. In both cases, I found that the images appeared almost instantly on my four-year-old laptop.

A GNIS search is also helpful when you have a place name which you cannot decipher. Do you know the county, but can’t quite figure out the exact spelling of the place name or the post office name? Search for all places in a county by only entering the state and county name on the search screen. Review the list of feature names and you will most likely be able to identify the correct spelling of the name. Alternatively, search for a place name and state name to clarify in which county it is located. While I do this type of search often to help decipher census enumerators’ handwriting or resolve confusing census indexing issues, I have also found it very helpful when I am “working” as a volunteer indexer for Family Search Indexing. As such, I have recently been indexing Arkansas marriage records in the early 20th century. Arkansas is not a state with which I am very familiar. The county name is always clear as it is preprinted on the marriage form, but the town or city name is often left to the vagaries of the clerk’s handwriting. I have found that if I have GNIS open in another browser window with a listing of all the place names in that county, I can almost always resolve the unreadable place name and enter it correctly in the indexing template.

GNIS also enables you to search foreign place names through the GEOnet Names Server (GNS) that is maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). NGS develops “imagery and map-based intelligence solutions for U. S. national defense, homeland security, and safety of navigation.” I find this site far less user-friendly, but encourage you to try it and see if it might be helpful to you in your research.

The USGS web site also allows you to purchase historic aerial photographs dating from the 1940s to the present, as well as digital scans of topo maps, and printed maps among other products, all of which can support the visual presentation of your ancestor’s story. It is truly a web site that you can not afford to miss.

You may also want to look at the following titles:

  • American Place Names of Long Ago (Genealogical Publishing Co., reprinted 2008) is currently
    on sale at genealogical.com. This work is a re-publication (originally published in 1898) of the index to George Cram’s Unrivaled Atlas of the World and is an index to more than 100,000  place names of every county, city, town, village, and post-office in the United States [showing] the population of the same according to the Census of 1890.”
  • Federal Land Series. A Calendar of Archival Materials on the Land Patents Issued by the United
    States Government, with Subject, Tract, and Name Indexes
    , by Clifford Neal Smith, 4 vols. (Clearfield, reprinted 2007).


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