June 13, 2012

Finding Historical Maps for Genealogy

Maps and history go hand in hand. While they may not be the first resource that springs to mind, maps and atlases are great visual aids to learning about your family history as well. While a current map or atlas will do, there’s nothing that compares to a historical map created around your ancestor’s lifetime. I’ve found that studying an old map can open my eyes and give me ideas about things I might not have thought about otherwise.

Historical maps can help you visualize where your ancestors lived, recognize the waterways and natural features of the area, and identify towns and cities where they might have left records. And maps are particularly crucial for understanding how an ancestor migrated from one place to another. On a map, it’s easy to see why rivers, creeks, and lakes were such important routes of travel, and how mountains stood as such formidable barriers to settlement. Some maps illustrate changes in county and state borders. Others show the routes of early roads, canals, and railroads.

So where do you find these gems? Libraries and archives, certainly, are great places to start. While almost all libraries have maps and atlases, some boast particularly impressive collections. But what if you live far from the area you’re interested in? Well, we live in a wonderful age. Many libraries and even private collectors have been busy digitizing their map collections and making them available online, free of charge. Long story short: the internet has made finding historical maps and atlases easier than ever before.

Some of my favorite map collections include:

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection:
David Rumsey is a cartographer who has amassed one of the largest private historical map collections in the U.S., if not the world. Over the last decade or so, he’s created high resolution scans of about 32,000 of his maps and made them freely available on his website. The more time I spend exploring his site, the more treasures I find, like this map of the (then) Western States, published in 1832. The viewing tools are amazing. Best of all, you can export and print his maps for your own non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license. 

Map of the Western States, 1832, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Historical Map Archive:
Created by the University of Alabama in conjunction with other organizations, this collection includes maps indexed by state, region, country, continent, and hemisphere. Particularly helpful are maps organized by topics, such as the American Revolution, the Mississippi River, Native Americans, and railroads.

American Memory Map Collections:
Developed by the Library of Congress from its Geography and Maps Division, this is a treasure trove of American maps. The maps are conveniently organized by topics and indexed by geographic location and subject. The collection includes searchable Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (under the “Cities and Towns” tab).

Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection:
This large online collection of world and U.S. maps has been created by the University of Texas at Austin. Historical city and state maps and topographic maps are some of the highlights for genealogists. All states and regions of the world are represented, although the collection is particularly strong for Texas.

Emerson Kent History Map Archive:
This international collection of antiquarian maps is indexed chronologically and by continent. The website also includes a number of historical documents and helpful history research tools.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center:
The Boston Public Library has made this impressive collection of U.S. and world historical maps available. Maps may be downloaded at no cost, or you can purchase high quality reproductions.

Historic Map Works:
This collection includes antiquarian maps, U.S. property atlases, and Canada and world maps. Maps are organized geographically and by points of interest (such as cemeteries, hospitals, streams, etc.). While you can view an image freely online, you must register and pay to download or print a watermarked image. If you find your ancestor’s name on a township map, as I did, however, you may not mind the $1 print charge. Subscriptions are available.

While not technically map collections, no discussion of genealogical map tools would be complete without the following:

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries:
The Newberry Library in Chicago has developed an awesome tool for finding U.S. county boundaries through the years on this interactive website. After a quick read-through of the directions on their “Using the Atlas” page, you’ll be off and running. You can print the maps for your own use, and can download files to use with Google Earth and Google Maps.

Randy Majors Maps:
Randy Majors has also constructed a tool to show historical U.S. county boundary maps and world boundary maps in an easy-to-use interface.

Old Maps Online:
This U.K.-based site essentially serves as a search engine to find historical maps on your geographic area of interest. Collections searched include the British Library, Moravian Library (Czech Republic), National Library of Scotland, and the New York Public Library.

Wikimedia Commons Maps of the United States:
A large number of public domain map images, useful for blogs and publications, broken down by categories. Maps of other countries are also available on Wikimedia Commons.

There are many more historical map collections available online, many of which specialize in a particular area. I love discovering new ones. Which are your favorites? Do you know of a map collection or map tool I should explore?

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  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome, Jana! Hope you find some treasures.

  2. Wonderful list. You've found some new ones for me to explore! Many thanks.

    1. Glad to help, Susan. I've been building this list for awhile now, and thought it was about time to share it.

  3. Thanks for doing all the work for me. This list is a keeper!

  4. I'm becoming more and more interested in historical mpas so this is a great list. I'll have to check them out.

  5. Wonderful list Shelley. There are several on here I wasn't familiar with. The Historical Map Works looks to be particularly interesting.


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