What’s What? Maps, Atlases and Gazetteers

What’s What? Maps, Atlases and Gazetteers

You might be tempted to think that all geographical resources are created equal, but maps, atlases and gazetteers perform different—and equally important—roles in your genealogy research.

You might be tempted to think that all geographical resources are created equal, but the truth is less straightforward. Depending what you’re trying to learn about your ancestor’s hometown—and where that place is located—you’ll find these different kinds of resources helpful:


When you first think of geography, you probably think of maps. In addition to telling you the location of your ancestral town, maps provide geographical context. Was the village in a forest, in the mountains or on a seacoast? Was it remote or a suburb of a major city? What nearby towns might have your ancestor’s records? What are the closest administrative centers likely to hold civil registrations?

You’ll find a variety of modern and historical maps online. Here are a few of my favorite sites for Eastern Europe:

Of course, don’t overlook printed and microfilmed maps. Check map collections at major public libraries, college and university libraries, and FamilySearch’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City.


Most maps from Eastern Europe lack indexes to towns, but you’ll typically find this helpful feature in atlases. Historical atlases describe the development of countries. They show jurisdictional boundaries, migration routes, landowners, settlement patterns, military campaigns and other historical information. While Great-grandpa’s hamlet might not appear on a modern map, a historical atlas gives an accurate picture of the region at the time it was published. For those with Eastern European ancestry, I recommend The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Eastern Europe by Dennis P. Hupchick and Harold E. Cox (Palgrave Macmillan). Also bookmark these online atlases:


These volumes are geographical dictionaries that summarize information about and cross-reference villages, districts and other geopolitical divisions. When you look up a place, you’ll learn the administrative district it’s in, the correct spelling (or alternate spellings) of the name, and names of local parishes. Some gazetteers even shed light on life in the ancestral village, including population, area, prominent religions, history and even civil records offices. Look up neighboring villages for clues to where “missing” ancestors may be hiding.
Check gazetteers for multiple years, as parish boundaries often changed. Note that a gazetteer may not list all name variants, and you might find the same name in multiple areas. Narrowing your search criteria by a modern-day place can help.
FamilySearch has an excellent collection of Eastern European gazetteers. You can access them by checking the online catalog for microfilmed items you can borrow through your local FamilySearch Center. You also can find gazetteers in reference sections of most libraries. Specific gazetteers for each country are recommended in this article.
From the May/June 2016 Family Tree Magazine 

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