Trying to pinpoint places in your family's past? Online mapping tools can help you chart the course of your research.
Published histories say that Leonard Slipp was born in Frankfurt-on-the-Cross, Germany, in 1746 and came to New York City 20 years later. Tracing Slipp's ancestry depended on first locating Frankfurt-on-the-Cross, a challenge that would defy me for years. As it turns out, Slipp was not born in either of Germany's well-known Frankfurts (Frankfurt-am-Main and Frankfurt an der Oder), but in another Frankfurt that today has a population of 119. This tiny town is located in Franconia, a region of northern Bavaria.
Correctly identifying the places your ancestors lived isn't an obstacle just in European genealogy—it can be tricky even in more-familiar US locales. As new areas were settled, many towns were renamed, and county borders changed frequently. Some towns have disappeared altogether. I live just a mile from a place once known as Stockwood. A hundred years ago, it had a general store, a boardinghouse, a post office, a railroad depot and a one-room school. Today, only the school building remains (it now serves as the township hall), and Stockwood hasn't appeared on maps for years.
Fortunately, you don't have to navigate your family tree's geography without guidance. Maps and gazetteers (geographical dictionaries) can help you find obscure places, learn about boundary changes and better understand your ancestors' surroundings. And like so many other family history resources, maps and gazetteers have gone high-tech: You now can turn to the Net for tools to plot your family's past. Of course, you need to know the best places to log on, so we've rounded up the 56 best online mapping tools for genealogy. A few quick clicks on these Web sites may generate answers to your geographic conundrums—or at least get your research moving in the right direction.