Create Your Family History Google Earth Tour

Tours are great way to see highlights in the shortest amount of time. Why not take your relatives on a virtual family history tour? You can do just that using the free Google Earth Pro software.

Read more as Lisa shares some tips and strategies to use Google Earth to create your own unique family history virtual tour.

Hop-on Hop-off Touring

One of the perks of being a genealogy speaker is that I get to travel all over the world and speak to folks who share my passion for genealogy. And it’s an added bonus when a genealogist who attended one of my sessions emails me afterwards. I love seeing their excitement spills across my screen as they share with me how they put into practice what they learned and a genealogical brick wall came a-tumblin’ down! (I LOVE my job!)

High also on the list of perks is the opportunity to see a bit of the local sites and history wherever I am speaking. Time is usually short, so I try my best to make the most of it and hit the highlights. That was certainly the case in Sydney, Australia earlier this year. There was so much to see and so little time to see it! When time is at a premium (and really, when is time ever not at a premium?) and there’s a lot to cover, I find that a tour by someone in the know is a best way to go. In Australia I turned to Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning Member (and now dear friend) Dot Elder and her husband Roly for advice on the best tour to see the city. Roly quickly dug up tickets to the Hop-on-Hop-off Sightseeing BIG BUS of Sydney. 33 stops, 2 tours, free wifi onboard, and earphones delivering recorded commentary on what was whizzing by us from the outdoor upper deck. It was the perfect way to orient the “Non-Australian” to the fabulous city of Sydney.

Family History Tour

We all have relatives who are not genealogists, and who don’t have time for or relish all the details of our genealogical findings. However, they would likely thoroughly enjoy a high-level tour of the highlights of the family tree with commentary from the expert: YOU! That kind of genealogical tour could come in many traditional forms (a book, a blog post, etc.) But if you really want to WOW your relatives, the closest thing to a Hop-on-Hop-off tour of your family’s history is what I call a “Family History Tour” in Google Earth Pro.

Google Earth Pro Explained

Google Earth Pro is a “geo-browser” (a tool for viewing geographic data) that uses satellite, aerial, and street level imagery. It also includes other geographic data that is accessed over the internet to show related information such as street names, train stations, and much more. Unlike, which is a website, Google Earth Pro is free software that is downloaded and installed on your computer. It also requires that the user is connected to the internet while using the program.

Don’t let the “Pro” name deter you. This tool is absolutely free, although just a few years ago you would have had to pay around $400 for it. If you have never installed Google Earth on your computer, you can do so here. If you already have, you can easily tell if you have the original free version of Google Earth or Google Earth Pro by looking at the icon on your desktop. If it’s blue, it’s the old version. If it’s grey, it’s Google Earth Pro.  

Many people use Google Earth Pro (which from this point forward we’ll just refer to as Google Earth) for mapping, to get a view of where they are headed or where they have been, or for their child’s social studies report. All of these are great reasons to use Google Earth, but wait until you see what else it can do!

One of the most dazzling features of Google Earth is Street View. By clicking the Street View icon (often referred to as the “yellow peg man”) and dropping him on a blue line on the map, you can get a panoramic view along many streets in the world. Street View was launched in 2007 in several cities in the United States, and now includes cities and rural areas worldwide. Check out where Google will be capturing Street View next here on their Street View webpage.


Google Street View also invites you to virtually tour many wonderful places on their highlights reels found here. Not only can you view the streets, but you can enter places you never dreamed possible. “Walk” into the abbeys and garden castles of Europe or dive deep into the ocean. Wherever you have always wanted to go is just a click away.

Example of a Family History Google Earth Tour

So what does a family history Google Earth Tour look like? Hop on the bus by clicking the video below and I’ll show you.

5 Steps to Create a Family History Google Earth Tour

The process for creating a family history Google Earth tour is easy and fun.

1. Outline the story: Like with genealogy research, you can save loads of time with some initial planning. Your first decision is which “story” you want to tell. Keep in mind that the average person’s attention span is short, so trying to include all the locations in your family tree is a recipe for disaster. Instead, pick one portion of your tree. In my example above, I told the story of a 10 year period that my great grandparents lived in San Francisco. This turns a tour into a story, which is much more interesting.

Once you have your story selected, make a list in chronological order of all of the significant locations and events that occurred. This will be your road map for creating your tour.

2. Create a tour folder: Since you will have several locations, it’s best to collect them all in one place. In Google Earth, that place is a folder.

To create a folder, go to the Places panel and right-click on My Places. Select Add > New folder. In the pop-up dialogue box, give your tour a title, and add any description you would like. Click OK to close the dialogue box.

3. Set placemarks at locations: Type the first location on your list in the Search box and fly to that location. Then click once on the folder you created to select it. Click the placemark button in the toolbar at the top of the Google Earth screen. Another dialogue box will pop-up. Fill in the title of the location (tip: keep it short so it doesn’t clutter up the map) and fill in the description (the reason this location is significant.) Click OK to close the placemark dialogue box. Now the pushpin placemark will appear on the map, and it is housed in the tour folder. When you click the placemark, the description you wrote will appear.

The placemark doesn’t have to be a pushpin icon. You can customize it by right-clicking on the placemark and selecting Properties. This will reopen the placemark dialogue box. In the upper right corner of the box you will see the default icon of a yellow pushpin (or you will you will see the last icon you used if you have customized icons previously.) Click the icon and then select for the collection of icons, and click OK. You can also change the color of the icon, upload your own, or have no icon at all.

4. Save your work: Google Earth currently doesn’t auto-save your work, so you will want to do so every few minutes as you work on your family history tour. Go to File > Save > Save My Places. Files saved in MyPlaces are only visible to you and reside on your computer’s hard drive. They are not stored in the cloud.

When your tour is complete, you will want to save the file to your desktop for easy access. In the Places panel, right-click on the tour folder and select Save > Save Place As and save it to the desired location on your computer. The file will be zipped by Google Earth so that all the components are neatly packaged in one file.

5. Share with others: Now that your tour is zipped and saved, you can email it to your family members. Simply attach it to your email as you would any document or photo. It can be helpful if you let your family member know that if they don’t have the free Google Earth Pro software already installed on their computer, they will want to do so before clicking the file. I like to provide a handy link to the download page to make it easy for them. Anyone with Google Earth on their computer can click the attachment and the computer will automatically recognize the file type and open it in Google Earth.

What Story Will Your Family History Google Earth Tour Tell?

Now I’d like to hear from you. What is the first story in your family tree that you would like to tell through a family history Google Earth tour? Sharing your ideas in the Comments below will help you solidify your idea and will certainly inspire others.


We’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg. Get in depth instructions from these resources:

Book: The Genealogist Google Toolbox 
Video Tutorial: Google Earth for Genealogy

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Tour Your Childhood Home with Google and Google Earth

Ever thought of visiting your childhood home? Here’s a story about people who are actually buying theirs back. For the rest of us, here’s how to use Google and Google Earth to revisit your childhood home and relive some memories–without spending a dime.

Tour Your Childhood Home with Google and Google Earth

Your childhood home–or perhaps another beloved family home–is your own personal address on Memory Lane. Who wouldn’t love to stroll up to its doors and recapture some memories?

The image above is of my husband’s great grandfather’s home in Winthrop, Minnesota. It’s a home that I have many photos of, have researched, and have come to feel personally connected to although I’ve never seen it in person. It’s one of many ancestral homes that I yearn to visit one day. So as you can imagine, I really enjoyed this report from The Wall Street Journal about a few lucky folks who are living the dream of not only visiting, but owning and restoring, their childhood home.

Even if you’re not interested in buying back an old family home, many of us are curious about the houses we used to love. Are those houses still there? What do they look like now? What else can we learn about them?

Let’s explore three ideas to help you stroll down memory lane. Then, I’ll share a discovery from a Genealogy Gems Premium podcast listener who recently dropped me a line.

1. Find the address for your childhood home

If you don’t recall the street address of your favorite family home, ask a relative or look it up. For U.S. addresses since 1940, you might start with the U.S. Public Records Index, searchable in part or full at (volumes 1 and 2 for 1950-1993), or (click here to learn more about that database). Look also in records such as:

For U.S. addresses from 1880-1940, look to U.S. census records, which include street names and house numbers. In the example below from the 1930 census, you can see “Cedar Street” written vertically by the red arrow, and the house number written for each household entry, as shown in blue.

From the 1930 US census,

If you can’t find an address on an old record, but you think you could navigate yourself there on a map, it’s time to go to Google Earth and fly yourself there!

2. Use Google Earth to view your childhood home now

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Second edition

Learn all these Google skills with step-by-step tutorials and video demonstrations in The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox book

Google Earth is your on-ramp to your own personal Memory Lane. Go to the site, enter an address, and watch yourself “fly” to that address. If you don’t know an exact address but you know where to look, enter a street name or even a city. Then zoom in to the neighborhood and street section of interest. Activate Street View, if it’s available. Not sure how to do that? Watch my free Google Earth for Genealogy Video Class to get started.

Once you’ve found the location, take a close look. Is the house still there? What does it look like now? How has the landscape changed? The neighborhood?

You can use Google Earth to revisit your own childhood home or another family landmark, such as an ancestor’s homestead or burial place. (Click here to read about one genealogist’s virtual trip to an ancestor’s business using Google Earth’s Street View, and click here to see how another genealogist used historical map overlays in Google Earth to identify an old home’s location.)

3. Google the address of your childhood home

Googling the address of your family home may produce unexpected and interesting results like these:

a) Sale listings. If your house has been on the market in recent years, you may be able to find a listing with great details, and even pictures of the inside today. Top Google search results from specific addresses often bring up real estate websites with varying degrees of information, such as square footage, current estimated value, year built, most recent sale date and price, and more. Weed through these entries to see whether Zillow or another similar site shows a current or past listing for sale or rent. These may contain more details and may even have interior and exterior pictures of the house as it is now.

Watch closely—Google may bring up houses nearby, not the one you’re looking for. But even a neighborhood listing for a house built on a similar floor plan may jog your memories of the home and may give you a sense of what the area is like now.

b) Historical information. A Google search result may bring up historical news coverage or obituaries from digitized newspaper websites like (a subscription may be required to view these in full). Or you may find something really fascinating, like a discovery made by Genealogy Gems Premium member Heather. After listening to me talk about this subject in Premium Podcast episode 141 (click here to subscribe), Heather wrote me this email:

“I love listening to the podcasts while driving to and from work, often sharing my own thoughts with you.  This happened yesterday while listening to the latest Premium Podcast episode on family homes. I decided that I had to write and share what I managed to find! Since I have deep family roots in Connecticut back to 1650s, I managed to find a few family homes, but I started searching with the more recent generations and addresses that I knew. The two homes where my great-grandparents (Inez Hart and John Milton Burrall) and my great-grand aunts (Mary and Lucy Burrall) lived were written up in an application for the National Register of Historic Places!

The National Park Service is working on digitizing these applications. I found the application with a narrative description of the home and pictures of the interior and exterior. I have found other applications that have also included some genealogy of the family who lived in the home. Here is the website for the National Park Service and the database search page.”

Thanks for sending these in, Heather! And for sending along copies of the applications she found. The multi-page applications (more than 10 pages each!) include historical background on the buildings and former owners, as well as photos and site maps. Above is a photo–and below is an excerpt–from these applications.

When you’re ready for a full-fledged Google education, take a look at my top-selling book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, and my companion video tutorial series, Google Earth for Genealogy.

how to use google earth for genealogy

Get the downloadable video series at the Genealogy Gems Store

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase (at no additional cost to you) after clicking on these links. Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is Full-Service Again

The Newberry Library’s online Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is finally fully updated and interactive! Read the good news here–and my preference for using the powerful geographic data that drives the Atlas.

The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at The Newberry Library’s website has been undergoing upgrades for quite some time. Genealogists who rely on this fantastic online resource to research  old county boundaries in the U.S. have been able to access the basic data that drives the map (dates and geographic boundary changes). But they haven’t been able to use the popular interactive map. Great news: the Atlas is finally fully interactive again.

Changing Boundaries Reflected in the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

Understanding changes in county boundaries over time is key to doing genealogy research in the United States. Boundaries have changed repeatedly–and some dramatically. County governments typically keep important genealogical sources: vital records, court records, land records and more. We need to know which county would have housed our ancestors’ records during specific time periods so we can find the records we want.

What’s New at the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

According to the Newberry Library’s press release, users can now:

  • view a base layer map that allows an overlay of boundaries on top of cities, towns and other geographic features;
  • zoom in and out of maps and expand the view to full screen;
  • select a date of interest from a drop-down box with all border change dates for that state; and
  • view information about border changes in a hover box that changes as users hover over different counties.

Here’s what the new interface looks like:

Google Earth Pro vs. the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

It’s great to see improved functionality on the Atlas site. But after reviewing the update, I still think the experience of using data from the site is superior in the free Google Earth Pro (GEP) program. To use the entire data set in Google Earth Pro, simply download the KMZ data file onto your computer,and when you click to open the file, your computer will detect the KMZ format and know to automatically open Google Earth Pro (as long as you already have GEP installed on your computer.)

download files at Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

Using the file in GEP allows you to use the data in conjunction with the rest of your genealogical information (such as placemarks indiciating places lived & schools attended, historic  map overlays, embedded old family photos and home movies, etc.). This provides a more integrated genealogical research experience. Learn more by clicking here to watch a free video I’ve made about using Google Earth for genealogy.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Google Earth Converge

Google has announced that it is bringing Google Earth to the HTC Vive virtual reality (VR) headset. Here’s what that could mean for family historians.

Virtual Reality Google Earth
Google Earth VR (virtual reality), which is available through Steam, allows users to visit various landmarks around the world, providing a 360-degree, immersive view. According to Google, “you can fly over a city, stand at the edge of a mountain, and even soar into space.”If you’ve read my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, then you already know the potential genealogical goodness that Google Earth can bring to your family history. (If you haven’t, visit my Google Earth for Genealogy page to see what I’m referring to and you’ll quickly embrace the idea.)
And, if you’ve had the opportunity to sit in on my presentation The Future of Technology and Genealogy at a conference or seminar, then you’ve followed along as I explored the potential application of VR to genealogy. It’s a match made in heaven. VR does not only allow us a deeper exploration of our ancestral homelands, but could potentially intertwine with historical imagery.

According to, right now “the app is only available to use through the Vive. Google has not said if it plans to make the program accessible through its new, lower-end VR headset, the Daydream. The company recently released its ultra-powerful, VR-capable phone, the Pixel, so there’s a good chance that Google will eventually bring the app to specific phones.”

Since Microsoft announced in October it was working on a program called HoloTour (which allows headset wearers to visit different cities around the world through VR), the competition should encourage expansion beyond just global landmarks. But, it’s a start!

Watch this video to see it in action.

Learn More About Virtual Reality and Genealogy Tech

10 Genealogy Tech Tools You Can’t Live Without is an hour long video lecture and it’s available in our Premium Member features! Click the title to pop on over, or if you are not a Premium Member yet, become a member today.

Did you have the View Master toy as a kid? Well, see how virtual reality is changing your favorite old play thing into something magnificent by reading, View Master Toys are Going Virtual Reality.

Calculate Lot Size for an Ancestor’s Property with Free Online Tool

Use this free online tool to calculate lot size for an ancestor’s piece of property. The drawing tools overlaid on Google Maps help you determine the area of a lot and distances along its perimeter. 

Researching a family piece of property can be tricky for several reasons. But there’s an easy and free tool you can use to help you calculate the size of an ancestor’s lot. It’s This is what it looks like to use:

findlotsize 1 calculate lot size

Here’s how to use it to calculate lot size:

1. Go to

2. Enter a street address and click Go. (If you don’t know an exact street address, get as close as you can, then zoom around on the screen until you can see the property of interest.)

3. Zoom in (or out) to the level that you can see all the lot boundaries.

4. Click on one corner of the lot. A red marker will appear. Then click on the other corners in sequence to draw the perimeter. You don’t need to “close the gap” by clicking a second time on the starting point; the site will automatically assume you mean for the last point you enter to connect to the first. The site will calculate the lot size in square meters/kilometers, square feet/yards and acres.

Here are a couple more tips for using the site:

  • findlotsize 2 calculate lot sizeIf you wish to know the distance around the perimeter, click Distance. (You can measure individual distances, such as the width of the lot at the back, by only clicking on the points between which you want to measure.)
  • In the upper left are options to view satellite or map images. The satellite view is a bird’s eye view of the land today. You’ll see fence lines, roads, hedges and other practical clues to property boundaries. But sometimes these are obscured by tree cover. If you click on “map,” you’ll see a simple line rendering, like a traditional map, but with many buildings outlined. Depending on the tree cover, you may find this view helpful.

georeference historic map overlay in Google EarthMore Genealogy Mapping Gems

Google Earth + Old Map = Family History Discovery

4 Great Local History Apps for Genealogy

4 Steps for Using Google Earth for Genealogy

Ancestral Landmark Discovery Using Google Earth for Family History

google earth for family hsitory and genealogy landmark findThom learned how to use Google Earth for family history after watching my free Google Earth for Genealogy video, and then made a landmark discovery: his ancestors’ pond, business and a photo of his family at work.

This Using Google Earth for Family History success story was recently sent in by Thom, a young genealogist who blogs at The Millennial Genealogist. Be sure to click on the picture that goes with his story–it’s really neat.

“I am writing to share with you a TOTAL (and entirely unexpected) success in using Google tools for my research. By way of introduction, I am a young genealogist (age 21) from Massachusetts. I recently discovered your podcast and have been working through the archived episodes on my daily 1.5 hour commute. I watched your Google Earth presentation last weekend, and had some time to try your tips out after work today.

My family has strong roots in North Attleboro, Bristol County, Massachusetts. So I decided that my first task would be to find a good historical map to overlay. A quick Google search yielded a 1943 USGS map of the greater Attleboro area on the University of New Hampshire website. Some quick adjustments left me with this great result:

attleboro map overlay google earth for family history

My curiosity having been piqued, I began exploring the map. I know that two sets of my second-great-grandparents, Bert Barrett and Grace Freeman, and James Adams and Elizabeth Todd, all lived near Oldtown Church (presently the First Congregational Church). I zoomed in:

Attleboro topo map google earth for family hsitory

Looking at Google’s current street names, Oldtown Church is right by the intersection of Mt. Hope and Old Post (you’ll note the small cross). Now keep following Mt. Hope Street – do you see what I see? Todd’s Pond! I just knew this couldn’t be a coincidence. So I went straight to Google again:

attleboro google search
And the very first result, a page within a Google Book on the history of North Attleboro, was astonishing:

In the days before electric refrigeration, North Attleborough’s homes and stores relied upon ice harvested from either Whiting’s Pond or Todd’s Pond (depicted here). By the time this 1906 photograph was taken, farmers George, Henry, James, and William Todd found selling ice more profitable than farming and founded the Oldham Ice Co. Todd’s Pond was located on the westerly side of Old Post Road near the corner of Allen Avenue. The Oldtown Church is visible in the background.  -from North Attleborough by Bob Lanpher, Dorothea Donnelly and George Cunningham (Images of America series, Arcadia; click here to see the picture that goes with this photo, along with other pictures he found with a follow-up visit to the area)

The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the "uptown trade" to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; by F. Ray, Harper's Weekly, 30 August 1884. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. Click to view.

The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the “uptown trade” to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; by F. Ray, Harper’s Weekly, 30 August 1884. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. Click to view.

Mentioned by name are great-great-grandmother Elizabeth’s four brothers, George, Henry, James, and William Todd. What a spectacular find! I plan to reach out to the local museum that prepared the book to see if they can provide a better copy, and even additional media should I be so fortunate.

In short, I wanted to take a moment to say THANK YOU so very much! Had I not been exploring Google Earth at your suggestion, I’m not sure if I ever would have ever noticed “Todd’s Pond.”

I hope you are using Google Earth for family history! Paired with Google Books and the rest of rest of Google’s genealogy tool box, it can help you unearth fascinating facts about your family history. Here’s an image I found (using Google Images) that shows the process of harvesting ice, a profession long gone with the age of modern refrigeration.

Resources for Using Google Earth for Family History

In my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’ll teach you how to use Google Earth for family history, along with Google Books, Google Images and more. My Google Earth for Genealogy video tutorial series will then round out your education. Both are packed with step-by-step instructions and examples from my own family history research to inspire you. Google and all its powerful tools are FREE. Why not invest some time in learning to harness its power?

More Google Earth for Family History Success Stories

Alvie Discovers His Unknown Childhood Home: 4 Steps for Using Google Earth for Genealogy

Was This My Ancestor’s Neighborhood?

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