Seven map Resources
Don't let migrating families and changing county lines hinder your hunt for ancestors. Start plotting your past with our guide to seven essential map resources.
Don't let migrating families and changing county lines hinder your hunt for ancestors. Start plotting your past with our guide to seven essential map resources.

Look at a map and you'll understand migration routes and patterns. Clearly, the easiest routes were along coasts or down rivers. (For a map of popular US migration routes, see the June 2001 Family Tree Magazine.) Pull out a present-day atlas and try to imagine it without roads. You'll quickly see how your ancestors traveled, and why they ended up in certain locales. If you ever "lose" a generation, you can use maps to help speculate on your ancestors' possible new home.

Since most birth, death and land records were kept at the county level, knowing the county your ancestor lived in is essential for tracking down those records. But finding the right locale isn't always easy: Although your ancestor may have lived in the same location for generations, that place's name and the county where it was located may have changed numerous times. Your search for the family who didn't move may lead you to more county courthouses than tracing the ones who migrated every generation.

Fortunately, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co., $39.95) will help with the changing boundary problem. The book shows all US county boundaries. On each map, old county lines are superimposed over modern ones to highlight boundary changes at 10-year intervals. You can also find many excellent guides to changing county lines on the state pages of the USGenWeb site at

Of course, old maps—which show former boundaries and place names—are also essential for tracking ancestral territory. To get a feel for your ancestors' surroundings, a period map will probably help more than a visit. Thanks to modern engineering and Mother Nature, the topography of a place may have changed so much that your ancestor wouldn't recognize his favorite fishing hole. Period maps depict the landscape as it was, including the rivers your family crossed and the forests they helped clear.

Where do you look for cartographic clues to your ancestors? You can find them right around the corner, or even from your own home. Hone in on these seven spots to locate historical maps and the genealogical treasures they contain:

  1. Library of Congress Map Collections: 1500-1999
  2. Local libraries
  3. Historical societies
  4. Fire insurance maps
  5. Family History Centers
  6. National Archives and Records Administration List of Selected Maps of States and Territories
  7. United States Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System

Nancy Hendrickson is a genealogist, freelance writer and the author of two astronomy books.

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