maps for genealogy, New Netherlands, Colonial New York

Maps For Genealogy– Essential for Research

Editor’s note: The following post is by Joe Roop Brickey. Ms. Brickey is a familiar face in the Genealogical Publishing Company’s booth at national conferences. She is a former board member of the Federation of Genealogical Societies [FGS] and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland. She resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

This article is one of several featuring the writing of Ms. Brickey on our blog. Please be sure to read her other work, Drawing Your Home – Another Dimension to your Genealogy and Too Many Books!

In your research, are you using maps for genealogy? If not, you are missing out on one of the most important and useful tools available to us.

Maps for Genealogy – Truly Essential!

Maps contain vital information to help us find, and understand, the reasons why and how our ancestors moved from one place to another. If you look at a topographical map, you will discover the lay of the land in your ancestor’s geographic location. Mountain passes, valleys, rivers and broad plains – all played a role in determining the route they took to find a new home. Visit the US Geological Survey website for historical topographical maps; purchasable printed maps, aerial photographs, and satellite images; and the ability to download digital scans. Their FAQ concerning historical maps warns that the only way to determine the availability of an historical topo map in your specific area of interest is either to call them at 1-888-ASK-USGS or email them at ask@usgs.gov. Check out the historical topographical maps available at MapTech. A sample search there for Huntington, Massachusetts, identified seven quadrangle maps pertaining to this town. The Blanford quadrangle offered a choice of 1946 and 1955 maps in the 7.5 minute series. The Chester and Granville maps date to 1895. While landowner names are not included, the location of houses and other buildings and sites of interest are indicated. The maps are available in jpg. format with file sizes averaging about 2MB. If you center the map, you can print a small section on your desktop printer. You may also order a map printed in one of a variety of finishes, personalized with added information for a fee.

Maps of migration routes are useful in tracing your ancestors from one location back to a previous one. If your ancestors were living in Kentucky or Kansas, how did they get there? There were many established migration routes, and this type of map can give you an idea how they may have traveled from the coast into the interior of the country. One useful source is William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 (Precision Indexing, 1997). Another very useful set of maps, published in the centerfold of the May/June 2008 issue of Ancestry Magazine, illustrates how Missouri served as a gateway to the west for many of our migrating ancestors. The article predicts, based on 1860, 1870 and 1880 federal census data, where your ancestor might be living depending on his or her state of origin.

If you ancestor was “on the move” after federal census enumerations began in 1790, Thorndale and Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920  is a great book to use. For each census year, county boundaries from that year are superimposed on a map of current county lines for each state so that it is easy to see which county lines may have changed and when. Tracing your ancestor’s likely route through the counties along a specific migratory road will help you identify possible earlier stopping places of interest to your research.

Did your ancestor live in a more urban area? Check out the Library of Congress’s fire insurance map collection that document the plans of cities and towns made by the Sanborn Map Company. Your local library, or a larger library in your region, may also have an online subscription to the Sanborn fire insurance maps either for the entire country, or perhaps for your state. These maps will locate a specific address that you have associated with your ancestor, either residential or commercial, and will provide you with a “snap-shot” of the neighboring houses or businesses on your ancestor’s street. A detailed description of Sanborn maps can be found in Diane L. Oswald’s Fire Insurance Maps: Their History and Applications (Lacewing Press, 1997) and further information can be found in the Library of Congress’s Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress: Plans of North American Cities and Towns Produced by the Sanborn Map Company, a checklist compiled by the Reference and Bibliography Section, Geography and Map Division (Library of Congress, 1981).

If you are looking for historical maps of the United States, be sure to check out the Library of Congress’s extensive map collection. In addition, you can utilize the work of Jonathan Sheppard, which you can find on Amazon or in other online locations. For example, check out an 1860 map of Boston and a 1901 map of Milwaukee. If you are researching in a public land state, be sure to consult Arphax Publishing Company. This blog has covered several ways to utilize the Bureau of Land Management records and Federal Lands. You will also want to exhaust all of the map collections in the courthouse of the town or city in which your ancestor lived. Local tax offices often have great maps as will the fire department. Both the fire and police departments are often good sources of information about the location of old cemeteries or abandoned houses, particularly in rural areas, where they may use them as landmarks. Check the inside covers of county histories or family histories. Used bookstores and antique shops may have old maps. Do your local library and your state archives have map collections? You will want to check any map that might identify land owners. If you are fortunate enough to live in the New England area, landowner maps for towns may be available from early time periods. Other maps, such as Civil War battle maps, often note homeowners in the area being surveyed. See The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War (1983, Barnes & Noble Books, 2003).

Are you researching geographical locations in Europe? Again, Jonathan Sheppard provides a vast collection of maps at reasonable prices. Examples include a series of maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an 1875 map of Germany. If you are researching in England and/or Scotland, check the Ordnance Survey website.

Maps are especially useful if you are facing a brick wall. According to my grandmother, her family had never lived anywhere outside of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Maps became essential in tracing this family back from Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap, into Virginia. I used migration maps, county outline maps, and topographical maps, along with county histories, the census, and good old fashioned sweat-equity to take the family from Garrard County, Kentucky; back to Harlan County Kentucky; Lee County, Virginia; Augusta County, Virginia; and finally to Stafford County, Virginia.

I took the county outline maps from The Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 and plotted the counties in which I found the surnames for which I was searching, as I found them in the censuses. I did a state search for the surname (lucky me, it was not too common!) and noted the number of families by that name in each county where I found them. Working backwards from 1850, it did not take long to plot their reverse route of migration, from west to east, through Kentucky, and back into Virginia. If your surname is more common, choose a relative, or neighbor with a less common surname, and research that individual to see if you can narrow the number of counties in which you might find your ancestor. People often moved in groups with members of their community or church, so there is a good chance that you may find these names together in more than one place.

Where do you find maps? What are your favorite sources? How have they helped you solve a problem? Let us know. We would love to learn from you!

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