WWW-Virtual Library: History
Map History / History of Cartography: THE Gateway to the Subject

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Map History

Family history: maps and place-names

(Mounted on the web in 2002)

If you are researching your family history you may well find that early maps
and gazetteers (list of place-names) are relevant


Maps are of two main types:-

A. 'Historical' maps, i.e. modern (or, at least, later) reconstructions, showing regions according to their past political, ethnic, linguistic, etc., divisions. These tend to be fairly small scale, i.e. they will not show smaller towns and villages. They are, however, valuable for showing you the correct name of the region at the relevant period and which country (if, say, in central Europe) it belonged to then. For historical maps see:-

B. Original maps, i.e. those describing the geography at the time they were made. These will vary widely in scale - from a whole continent down to a single farm. If you are searching for a smaller town or a village you will need to find a map that concentrates on the area concerned. If the scale is given, it may need to be 1:200,000 or larger [i.e. a smaller figure].

Before you can look for an early map to help with your genealogy project you may have to find the name of the region at the time concerned [see above about using an 'historical' map]. Then see:-

See (if still freely available):
<http://www.sltrib.com/homeandfamily/ci_3322600 > 'Finding your name on the family map' (by Brooke Adams in the Salt Lake Tribune, 20 December 2005 - about Holly Hansen's Georgia map collection, gathered for family history purposes); and also 'Plastic Bins Can Help Save Precious Documents' (a series of articles by Sharon Tate Moody, on Tampa Bay Online, dealing with the genealogical value of, e.g. Sanborn and topographical maps, June-July 2008).

It is worth looking at Maps for family and local history from the [UK] National Archives.

Also relevant is Melinda Kashuba, Walking with Your Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide to Using Maps and Geography [in the USA] (Family Tree Books, 2005). ISBN 1-55870-730-1. See a brief review in the Map Room weblog.

Also, for sources for US and other maps, 'Maps a critical part of family history' (Michael De Groote in the Mormon Times, 30 July 2009).

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If your genealogical research starts with an old place-name and you wonder where it is, try a gazetteer. This is a list of place-names, usually indicating the current region/country to which it belongs, and sometimes including historical information as well. If the name is unlikely to have changed, try a modern Gazetteer. If that fails, seek out an older gazetteer. An increasing number of historical gazetteers are being mounted on the web. A search for 'gazetteer + [region]' might well prove lucky.

You can also find useful historical information on the composite Infoplease site. For significant places and geographical regions, Infoplease may offer you alternative texts, from an almanac and from the Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th edition (1993). The latter's texts are closely related to those in the Columbia Gazetteer of the World, ed. Saul B Cohen, 3 vols (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). A fully searchable, subscription version of the Gazetteer, allows direct searching of its 165,000 places. However, for historical information about smaller places you will need to consult the printed version of the Columbia Gazetteer. See also:-

Other useful links for family history research about place:

Created 29 January 2002 (and updated subsequently) - please propose new links to improve this section

Editor: Tony Campbell  

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