Old maps are vitally important for genealogy because the characteristics of a location can change in many ways over time. Historic maps help us understand the world as it was at the time our ancestors lived.
Here is a short list of just a few of the things that may have changed:
- Street addresses
- town names
- county boundaries
- waterways that may have been filled in or opened up
- railway lines
In fact, the country itself where they lived may be a completely different country. For example, my German ancestors lived in Prussia in the 19th century. Today, that area is part of Poland. Therefore, all of the village names have been changed to Polish names.
The David Rumsey Map Collection is an excellent place to go to find maps of your ancestors homeland for free.
Watch the Map Search Video
I’m going to explain the 7 steps to finding the maps you need for your genealogy research at this wonderful website! I highly recommend that you watch the short video below to see it in action as you read. The player will stay with you as you scroll down the page.
Step 1: Go to the David Rumsey Map Collection Website
The first thing you need to do is go to the David Rumsey website here. You’ll be greeted on the home page with glorious historic maps. (Stay focused because it’s easy to get distracted by all the fascinating maps!)
Step 2: Scroll Down to the Bottom of the David Rumsey Home Page
While you can search for a place name in the search box at the top of the page, there’s a better way to search. Scroll down the page until you get to Featured App: MapRank Search (it’s almost at the bottom.)
Step 3: Launch Map Rank Search
The Featured App – MapRank Search is the best place to search the website, but it’s easy to miss because it’s not at the top. So go ahead and click the Launch MapRank button in the upper corner of this section.
When you click the button it will open a new tab in your web browser which will take you to the Geographical Searching with MapRank Search page.
Quick Tip: The Fastest Way to MapRank Search
You can get there faster by going directly to https://rumsey.mapranksearch.com. I didn’t take you straight there from the beginning because I think it’s important to be aware of the home page and everything else it offers. However, today our focus is conducting the optimal search for old maps for you family history.
Step 4 Selecting the Map Time Frame
Here’s what the search page looks like.
There are two very important features on this app page that will help you get the best results possible: the time slider and the location search box.
The time slider is located beneath the map:
It’s important to first select the time frame that you are searching because that will dictate the results you get when you search on the location name. (We’ll get to that in just a moment.)
There is a slider on each end of the timeline. Slide them to specify the desired time frame. In my example below, I’m looking for maps between 1800 and 1900.
As you move the sliders, you’ll notice that the maps in the right hand column will change. This is because only maps that fall within the range you select will be offered in the Instant Search Results column. But before we look at those, we need to type in a location in the next step.
Step 5: Selecting the Location
With your time frame selected, now you’re ready to type the location in the search box.
As you type, the app will make suggestions. But wait! Before you click the Find a Place button to run the search, look carefully at the list of suggested locations that may appear. Many locations names can be found in different areas. That is certainly the case with the name of the tiny village where my great grandfather was born: Kotten.
In fact, the list doesn’t even include the Kotten I am looking for.
In cases like this, it is best to search a little more broadly. When Kotten was part of Prussia, it was located in Kreis Johannisburg so I could try searching for that. Even better might be to search for the largest city in the area since Kotten was such a tiny village. Arys was the largest city in the area.
Once you type in the name (and select from the suggestions if needed) click the Find a Place button just to the right of the search box.
Step 6: Analyze the Map Results
In my example of searching for the city of Arys (which is the name it was known by in the 19th century when it was part of East Prussia) the modern-day map displayed is actually Poland.
However, the David Rumsey website does a good job of cross-referencing the older German names (Arys) with the new Polish names (Orzysz). This is another reason why searching for a larger city works well. Larger cities are more likely to be in the David Rumsey system for cross-referencing, and of course they are easier to spot on the map. Generally speaking, the location you searched will be in the center of the display map.
Quick Tip: Verifying Location Names
Another quick way to cross-reference location names (or verify your findings in David Rumsey) is by searching for the name in Google Earth. In the example below, I typed in the Prussian city of Arys. Google Earth will offer options if more than one matching result exists.
I was a bit surprised to see “Arys” as one of the three listed results since it is not called that today. When I clicked Arys it took me to the city of Arys in the Turkistan Region of Kazakhstan, far away from Poland! Clicking Orzysz in the results list took me to the area of Poland that was once East Prussia. This confirms the results I received at the David Rumsey website.
Learn more about using Google Earth for Genealogy by watching my free class here.
Now it’s time to review the map results listed in the Instant Search Results column on the right. Isn’t it fantastic that David Rumsey’s website not only presented me with the correct Polish location, but also maps published between 1800 and 1900 that include Arys? I think so!
Click the map you think best suits your needs. The map will open in in a new tab in your web browser. (These browsers tabs provide a nice bread crumb trail for your searching activities.)
All of the source information about the historic map that you chose will appear in the column on the left. (See the image in Step 7.) If you decide to use this map you’ll definitely want to accurately cite the source. Learn more about the importance of source citations here.
Step 7: Export the Map
I was delighted to find the village of Kotten on this map of Arys published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme in 1893!
When you find a map that you would like to use for your family history research, export it to your computer. To do this, click Export in the upper right corner of the map and select the desired size. You can select a size ranging from Small Thumbnail to Extra Extra Large. Keep in mind that the larger the size, the more clarity you will have as you zoom in closer and closer. This is very important if you plan on using the map in an overlay in Google Earth. You can learn how to create your own map overlays in my video tutorial series on using Google Earth for genealogy available here, and in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Be patient while downloading to your computer because it can take several moments to export a large map. The saved file will probably be zipped. To unzip it, on a PC right-click and select Extract All from the pop-up menu. This creates an open version of the folder containing the map.
Get Started Finding Your Ancestral Locations in Old Maps
With this step-by-step process you are now ready to explore any given ancestor’s world through the rich details of historic maps. I can’t wait to hear what you discover! Please be sure to leave a comment below. And if you found this tutorial helpful, will you please share it with your friends on social media so we can help even more people find the homes of their ancestors? Thank you!Read more
Use Google Earth for genealogy to find long-lost family locations on modern maps. Here’s how!
It can be very surprising to discover that you lived somewhere that you never knew you lived. That was the case for Professional genealogist Alvie Davidson, who recently wrote to me. He’d done some fantastic sleuthing on his own recent family history, and discovered that his family had lived in Huntsville, Alabama when he was a toddler. “This is the first I have even known they lived in Madison County, AL.” But he was not sure about how to use Google Earth to help him locate the family addresses he’d discovered.
“I have learned from the U S Government that my parents lived at (three) different addresses in Huntsville, Madison County, AL when I was a toddler in 1944….I never knew we lived in Huntsville but I learned my mother worked for munitions productions during World War II at Redstone Arsenal. She worked several months toward the end of 1944 and had to quit due to onset of pregnancy. We moved to Florida shortly after she left employment at Redstone Arsenal because we show up on the 1945 Florida State Census.”
Alvie sent me three family addresses. Then he asked for some step-by-step help instructions on how to put Google Earth to work to identify their location today.
4 Steps to Revealing More with Google Earth
1. Search each address in Google Earth. Enter the address in the search box in the upper left corner of Google Earth. If you get a hit, mark it with a placemark (clicking the button that looks like a push pin in Google Earth’s toolbar) and name it. In this case I found two of the three street addresses.
2. Locate a map of the area for the appropriate time period. With a little Google searching, I found the 1940 census enumeration map for Huntsville at the National Archives website. Here’s what that map looks like. (Image right) I then went in search of each of the three addresses on the map.
In this case, I conducted a block-by-block search of the 1940 enumeration district map for the missing address: 110 Winston Street. Unfortunately, not all the street names were clearly legible on this particular map, and I was unable to locate it.
You can learn more about locating enumeration district maps in my article How to Find Enumeration District Maps.
Genealogy Gems Premium Members: log in and watch my Premium video 5 Ways to Enhance Your Genealogy Research with Old Maps featuring instruction for locating and using enumeration district maps.
3. Overlay and georeference the enumeration district map in Google Earth to compare the past to the present. Georeference just means to match up known landmarks on the historic map with physical locations on the modern-day map, thereby allowing you to match the two maps up together. By so doing, I was able to locate on the enumeration district map the modern-day locations of the two addresses that I found using Google Earth.
There are businesses in both locations today. Below right is a screen shot showing the current location of one of those addresses. Clearly no longer the old family home.
4. Dig deeper for addresses that have changed. As I mentioned previously, I searched for the 110 Winston Street address in Google Earth with no result. If that happens to you, remove the house number and run a second search on the street name alone. Numbers can change, but it is important to verify whether the street still exists today.
In this case, Google Earth did not locate a Winston Street in Huntsville, AL. Knowing that errors and typos can happen to the best of us, I ran a quick Google search for Huntsville, AL city directories, and verified that indeed Winston Street did exist at that time in history. So, at some point between 1940 and today, the name appears to have been changed.
I headed back to Google and ran the following search query:
“winston street” “huntsville alabama”
The quotation marks tell Google that each exact phrase must appear in all search results. The phrases will appear in bold in the snippet descriptions of each result.
The result above caught my eye because it mentions the “Winston Street Branch Library.” Even when street names change, buildings named for those streets often don’t. However, in this case, the website discusses the history of the library, and the Winston Street Elementary School. According to the website, the library “became a part of the Huntsville Public Library (now Huntsville-Madison County Public Library) in 1943. In 1947, the branch was renamed the Dulcina DeBerry Library.” Perhaps the street was renamed at that time as well.
Genealogy Gems Premium Members: Sign in and watch the Ultimate Google Search Strategies video class to learn more.
Jumping back into Google Earth I entered “Winston Street Branch Library” in the search box, and was immediately taken to the location, which is just south of the other two known addresses! At this point I would recommend to Alvie, who is a Genealogy Gems Premium Member, to watch my video class Best Websites for Finding Historical Maps to track down additional maps from the time frame that may have Winston Street clearly marked on the map.
Once I identified this landmark, I then marked the location with a placemark. You can turn off the 1940 enumeration district map overlay by unchecking the box next to it in the Places Panel. Doing this revealed the location on the modern day map. Finally, I headed to the Layers panel and clicked the box next to the “Roads” overlay to reveal the modern day street names.
You can use this technique when you have more success than I did in finding an old address on an old map. Overlay the map, position a placemark on the location, and then turn the overlay off. With one click of the Roads layer you can now see the current street name for the old location you found on the map overlay.
Further digging online did deliver additional maps from the era and area:
We all have locations in our family history that have given way over time to new buildings and parking lots. By using the power of Google Earth, Google search, and historic maps, they don’t have to be lost forever.
Get Started with Google Earth for Genealogy
FREE video: Get Started with Google Earth for Genealogy
Google Bundle! The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox Second Edition PLUS learn how to create your own historical map overlays in my Google Earth for Genealogy 2-video CD set.Read more
Date Published: May 27, 2010
Diane Haddad, Managing Editor at Family Tree Magazine talks about oral history on the Vicky and Jen podcast
Family Tree Magazine’s Genealogy Insider blog diane has posted Tips to Research Military Ancestors on Memorial Day
Free Book Bazaar App
With Book Bazaar,you type in a title, author, keyword or ISBN to compare prices for books at online or local bookstores, and now with their new update you can search libraries.
The iGoogle WorldCat Gadget is back!
Kathy sent in an email she received from Ancestry that she found rather “big-brotherish” What do you think?
Gus wrote in to say how much he enjoyed genealogy gems podcast episode 89which was about applying the scientific principles of forensic linguistics to your genealogy research. He writes, “you definitely raised the bar in pod casting.”
I really enjoyed doing that episode and am so glad you liked it too. But even more, I want to thank Gus because he says he put my Genealogy Gems Podcast logo up on his blog with a hot link to my website.
If you have a blog like Gus and would be willing add the logo with a link to the show that would be fantastic and let me know about it so I can mention your blog here on the show. And also if you are a toolbar user and would like to share that with your readers, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org I will send you a neat little banner that you can include which makes it easy for folks to click and download the free toolbar.
Profile America: Grilling History – May 27
According to Wikipedia, “the charcoal briquette was first invented and patented by Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania in 1897 and was produced by the Zwoyer Fuel Company. The process was further popularized by Henry Ford, who used wood and sawdust byproducts from automobile fabrication as a feedstock. Ford Charcoal went on to become the Kingsford Company.”
GEM: Sanborn Maps
History of fire insurance mapsDuring the past century the Sanborn Map Company has published maps and atlases of more than twelve thousand United States towns and cities, issued in some seven hundred thousand separate sheets. The Library of Congress collection
Read Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress by Walter W. Ristow
“Although Sanborn maps today have minimal interest for the fire insurance industry, the Sanborn Company is supplying updated copies of many of its maps and atlases to various clients. Today municipal governments are Sanborn’s best customers, accounting for 60 percent of map sales and services. Engineering and architectural concerns are also significant purchasers of corrected Sanborn maps.” And genealogists love them too!
The largest collection of Sanborn maps and atlases is preserved in the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, where there are an estimated 700,000 Sanborn maps in bound and unbound editions.
Read more about the history of the Sanborn maps.
Some Online Sanborn Maps by State:
- California (San Francisco)
- Kentucky, ME and NY
- Louisiana (New Orleans)
- Maine, NY and KY
- New Jersey (Princeton)
- New York, Kentucky and Maine
- New York City
- North Carolina
- Ohio (Cincinnati)
- South Carolina
- Assorted maps from the Library of Congress
- Fire Insurance Maps Links at the University of Texas (not limited to Texas)
There are also many more maps available in hard copy and as part of microfilm collections; check with your local library or historical society.
Let’s take a look at an example
1. Address: 288 Connecticut St., in San Francisco around 1900 to 1910
2. Click the California – San Francisco link which takes you to the San Francisco Genealogy website
3. Click on the first Map Index link.
4. Click through the Map Indexes / Key Indexes
5. Locate the Map Index page for the location.
6. Further down the page on the SF Genealogy
7. Click on link 538
Result: Sanborn map for that location at the turn of the century.
Types of Digital Images:
Front Images: First page of volume – sort of the title page. It should include publishing information such as the date.
Map Index: which is a map that includes the sheet numbers to the individual map sheets, including the Key.
Streets Index: is an alphabetical index by street name to the individual map sheets.
Specials Index:an index of “special” places, such as businesses, buildings, etc. to the individual map sheets.
Even if the maps for the area where you are researching isn’t currently available online, browse one of these Sanborn map collections to start to get familiar with them. And take the time to read the instructions on the websites for maps in the state where you are researching. You may find links to other sites listing where complete collections can be accessed on microfilm or in other formats.
Watch Premium Video #6 in the Google Earth for Genealogy video series and you will be able to turn that map into a custom map overlay that can become part of your personal historic map collection in Google Earth.
Fire Insurance Maps at the National Archive, United Kingdom
Fire Insurance Maps at the National Archive Canada
American Treasures of the Library of Congress Fire Insurance Maps
Sanborn Maps in the Geography and Map Reading Room
Genealogy Gems Toolbar Update:
NEW: the Google Earth button. Great for quick location searches.
IMPROVED: YouTube Video button. Click the YouTube button a little widget window will pop up and right there you’ll have videos from the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Scroll through the available videos but using the scroll bar on the right side of the widget. Click the “Get Widget” button on the bottom of the gadget and you can add it to Facebook, Twitter your blog where ever you want. (P.S. Thanks for sharing it with your friends!)Read more
I love showing people how to use online tools to compare historical maps to modern ones. You can map out your ancestor’s address, check out their neighborhoods “then and now,” map their route to work, see if their old home still exists and more.
Well, the online Smithsonian magazine has created an exciting new interface for six American cities. Now you can compare modern satellite imagery with bird’s-eye views of:
- New York in 1836,
- Washington, D.C. in 1851,
- San Francisco in 1859,
- Chicago in 1868,
- Denver in 1879,
- and Los Angeles in 1880.
You’ll see great city layouts before the fire that claimed much of old Chicago, the San Francisco earthquake, the Lincoln memorial and more. The historical map of New York City is the oldest, but the other maps capture each city at a critical point in their growth. For each city you can look at a historical map with a “spyglass” mouse-over of a modern satellite image, or vice-versa, as shown in the New York City map on the right. Each map is accompanied by a fantastic Smithsonian article; the historical maps come from the amazing David Rumsey Map Collection.
As many of you know, it’s possible to do something similar (or even better) with Google’s amazing mapping tools. Learn how to do that with these three Genealogy Gems resources:
1. My FREE Google Earth Video, which teaches you how to unlock mysteries in your research, from unidentified photographs to pinpointing homesteads;
2. My Google Earth 2-Disk Bundle, with detailed demonstrations and examples so you can SEE for yourself how to use Google’s mapping tools;
3. My new Time Travel with Google Earth video, in which you’ll see old maps, genealogical records, images, and videos come together to create stunning time travel experiences in Google Earth. This is available to Genealogy Gems Premium Members (learn more membership here).