Using Old Maps

using old maps in genealogy

Old maps are a great genealogy find

Maps may not be the first place you think to look when doing genealogy research but they can be really helpful resources once you get the hang of using them (and once you actually find the ones you need). You won’t get much actual ancestral information from a map but sometimes pinpointing a location can really help direct your next course of action. Besides, it can be nice to see a geographic representation of your family roots in map form.

Firstly, they are not as commonly available as written documents and there are many different types of maps out there. Not only do you need the overall region and time frame, you may not want just any map. Topographical maps will show terrain but no urban details, and some maps may only show county borders or other municipal features.


What information is on a map?

Needless to say, you’re going to get mostly locational types of details from a map and not much else. But knowing locations can be vital when doing other document research (like looking for birth records or death certificates) so using a map can lead you to your next step.

Migration routes are easier to figure out with a map in front of you, and then you can maybe make better educated guesses about where they may have stopped in those years between living in City A and City B. You can better check on school records if the map shows you where the nearest school was to your ancestor’s residence and there are many other ways maps can help.

Maps will also work better for your searches if you already know about the land deeds that are associated with your relatives. That can help you find more precise locations on older maps that don’t have individual homes or homesteads marked out.

Getting maps

Some online archives have scanned images of maps but they aren’t always easy to use that way. A map that was originally large enough to spread out over a big table will be hard to view on a computer screen. It’s certainly doable but getting an actual paper copy would be better if you have the chance.

These websites have a few good collections for maps, mostly American ones.

Norman B Leventhal Map Center – Lots of good images, though the maps do focus quite heavily on the USA. There is a built-in scrolling tool to help you move around the large images.

Alabama Maps Historical Archive – This is not just Alabama. They have nation-wide maps as well as some overseas ones. You may need a media plugin to see the maps properly.