5 Free Online Historical Maps for Genealogy

These free online historical maps may help you learn more about your ancestors’ daily lives and flesh out your family history. Find maps for Victorian and Edwardian England and Wales; indigenous people of Canada and the U.S.; European synagogues; the Soviet military during WWII and even shipwrecks in and around Ireland.

We’ve reported previously on fantastic interactive map tools to help you learn more about your ancestors’ worlds. The best interactive maps don’t just give you locations: they combine locales with statistics, historical timelines, images or stories to help you get a sense of that time and place. (One amazing site that comes to mind is Bomb Site, an interactive map of the London Blitz.)

Recently, several interactive map tools have come across my desk for consideration in our weekly Friday Records post, so here’s a nice roundup of them. Whether you have ancestors from these places or cultural communities, or whether you just love old maps as Lisa Louise Cooke and I do, we think you’ll enjoy these.

Featured Free Online Historical Map: Populations Past

Populations Past is a new interactive online atlas of Victorian and Edwardian populations in England and Wales. According to the site overview page, “The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of major change in the dynamics of the British population….[But] this transition was not uniform across England and Wales….This website allows users to create and view maps of different demographic measures and related socio-economic indicators every 10 years between 1851 and 1911. These include fertility, childhood mortality, marriage, migration status, household compositions, age-structure, occupational status and population density.” Brief explanations are included, and you can zoom in, compare maps and even download them. The atlas is hosted on the University of Cambridge website.

Map of Native Lands and People

Yes! Magazine has reported on the free Native Land website and app, which help you learn about the history of wherever you are (or wherever you want to learn about). According to the article, the site “seeks to map Indigenous languages, treaties, and territories across Turtle Island” (North America). As you can see from the screenshot below, though, other parts of the world are also included. When you enter any ZIP code, the map “will zoom in on your inquiry, color-code it, and pull up data on the area’s Indigenous history, original language, and tribal ties.”

The site’s About page stresses that the boundaries and names used are meant to come from the point of view of native people (rather than their conquerors) and that different perspectives exist. The site does actively solicit user feedback, though so much has been received that corrections are temporarily on hold. It’s certainly a fascinating lens through which to view the history of the land your ancestors lived on or settled—or perhaps even the property on which you yourself live now.

Map of European synagogues

Over 3000 synagogues have been mapped out at the free website, Historic Synagogues of Europe. The site aims “to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date inventory of the historic synagogues of Europe,” encompassing the 47 member states of the Council of Europe plus Belarus. Information about the various buildings, their historical and cultural significance, their current condition and their associated communities are included. Genealogists tracing Jewish ancestors might search extant synagogues located near an ancestor’s home, if known, to learn more about the building and at least to generally identify the communities that called it home. Sadly, though, according to this report on the site, only about 19% of European synagogues built before World War II are still standing.

4,000 Russian maps being digitized

A collection of about 4,000 topographical maps at Indiana University have traveled a long way (physically and culturally) since being produced by the Soviet military between 1883 and 1947. According to a press release, these maps of “the Eastern Bloc Borderlands project portray Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Western Russia – all areas greatly impacted by World War II and of strategic importance to Russia and the Soviet Union.”

These regions have changed greatly since the maps were created. In many cases, the maps identify villages and boundaries that no longer exist. The collection is being digitized because it contains such unique information that is of value to the international community. (What value may it have for your family history??)

About 1,000 of these maps have already been digitized and can be viewed at Indiana University’s Image Collections Online. The rest are forthcoming.

Shipwrecks around Ireland

Do you have relatives who may have been shipwrecked off the coast of Ireland? A new interactive map, the National Monuments Service Wreck Viewer, charts nearly 4,000 shipwrecks around the island. The data comes from the Wreck Inventory of Ireland Database, which catalogs thousands more wrecks that don’t have precisely known locations. In addition to a location, some wrecks report the name of the ship, the date of the wreck, the type of boat or ship and source of data (from Lloyd’s to a group of amateur divers). Many wrecks show very scant information but you may be able to use it in combination with other family history discoveries, such as newspaper articles or emigrant passenger lists, to add depth to your family history stories.

More Free Historical Maps Online!

Did I mention we love historical maps here at Genealogy Gems? Click on the articles below to read about more of our favorites. And for the ultimate historical maps education, join Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning, which gives you access to exclusive video classes by Lisa Louise Cooke on using historical maps and even Google Earth for genealogy! 

Vintage NYC Street Views on Google Earth

4 Must-Explore Ancestry.com Collections

Meyers Gazetteer Online for German Genealogy

Vintage NYC Street Views on Google Earth

You can now see New York City street views from the late 1800s and early 1900s as Google Earth street views. Take a virtual visit to the Big Apple as it was 100 years ago! Or travel back even further in time to an 1836 map of NYC conveniently overlaid on a modern Google Earth view. These are just two of the many ways to use Google Earth for genealogy—and for fun.

Vintage New York City Street Views on Google Earth

Over 80,000 original photos from the late 1800s and early 1900s have been mapped into Google Earth to provide what’s essentially a Google Street View map of old New York City! The site is called OldNYC, and it’s free.

As you can see from this overview map, the old photos are concentrated in the areas of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Lower and Upper Manhattan. Dots represents historic photos that have been overlaid on Google Earth’s modern map (satellite view is also available).

You can zoom in to click on individual dots, which will bring up one or more individual photos of certain neighborhoods or street fronts:

Select the photos that match up best with your family history interests, such as a shot of your family’s old store front or apartment building. Or choose images that represent the time period in which your relatives lived in the area, so you can get a flavor of what their neighborhood would have looked like. (Click here for some ideas about where to look for your family’s exact address during the late 1800s or early 1900s.)

These photos all come from the New York Public Library’s Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s collection, which is also free to view online. According to this article at BusinessInsider.com, a developer Dan Vanderkam worked with the New York Public Library to plot all the photos onto Google Earth. (A hat-tip to Genealogy Gems listener and reader Jennifer, who sent me this article because she knows how much I love old maps and data visualization!)

Another old NYC street view: 1836 map

While we’re on the subject, I also want to mention another cool tool for visualizing old NYC street views. At the Smithsonian.com, there’s a cool historic map overlay of an 1836 New York City map in Google Earth. Use the scrolling and zooming tools to explore the parts of NYC that were already settled–and to compare them to what’s there today. (You can also swap views to see the 1836 map with just a little round window of the modern streets.)

The accompanying article quotes famous map collector David Rumsey about the 1836 map, which is his. He describes how you can see that much of the topography of Manhattan has changed over the years—did you know Manhattan used to be hilly? And I love how he calls out artistic features on the old map, too.

Unfortunately, the old map doesn’t show much in the way of residents’ property lines or buildings. But you can clearly see the street layouts and where the parks and hills were. Comparing these areas with Google Earth’s street view today can help you better understand what things looked like in a much older version of one of the world’s great cities.

Use Google Earth for your genealogy

There are so many ways to use Google Earth for genealogy! My free video class will get you started. After a quick tutorial on downloading and navigating Google Earth, see how to utilize its powerful tools to identify an old family photo, map out addresses that may have changed and even plot an old ancestral homestead. Click here to enjoy this free video!

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.

Deciphering Place Names Just Got Easier

When you need help deciphering place names in hard-to-read genealogy documents, two free online tools may have great suggestions for you. Use them to take the guesswork out of identifying great-grandpa’s hometown!

Thanks to guest blogger Katherine Schober, expert German translator and author of the new book, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting, for this article on deciphering place names (or anything else) in hard-to-read old documents.

There are times when you know from the context of an old document that a certain handwritten word is a city or town–but you aren’t sure of the exact letters the scribe has written. Perhaps you can make out most of the name, but not the first letter. Or maybe you can’t tell whether you’re looking at an “r” or an “n” in the middle of the word. Other times, you can read the place name, but this particular spelling doesn’t appear on a map.

Deciphering place names with a simple trick—and 2 free online tools

Two online resources that are very helpful for identifying town names are Google’s search engine and Meyer’s Gazetteer. At both sites, you can enter what you do know and have these sites help suggest possible place names.

Google search suggestions

Type your transcribed town name into Google—along with any other known place clues, such as the county/province or country name–and see if you get any search results for the region you are researching. If you do, congratulations, you likely transcribed it correctly!

If not, Google may actually suggest the correct transcription of your word for you. For example, when I was translating a nineteenth-century document a few months ago, I read the letters of the town as “L-e-h-t”. I typed “Leht, Germany” into Google, and waited to see what search results would appear. As it turned out, there were no search results for “Leht, Germany,” but Google’s “Did you mean…” function actually provided four other possibilities for what I could have meant as a town name! Here’s what it gave me:

After comparing these Google suggestions with my handwritten word and the specific region of Germany, I realized that the word actually had an “r” and an “e” squeezed in and was, therefore, the German town of “Lehrte.” Taking advantage of this “Did you mean” feature of Google can be very helpful when trying to decipher city and town names.

(Learn hundreds more tips on using Google search–and all the other free Google tools–in Lisa Louise Cooke’s popular book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.)

More help from Meyer’s Gazetteer

If you can only recognize the first few or the final few letters of a German town, Meyer’s Gazetteer is the site for you. Meyer’s Gazetteer is a free database containing names and information on pre-World War I German cities, towns, and villages (meaning that this site includes towns in present-day France, Poland, and other places). Type in the letters you recognize in your word and use an asterisk to represent the letters you don’t. Meyer’s Gazetteer will then provide you with a list of all places with your letter combination. Then you can then see if there is a town that matches your handwritten word and region.

In the example below, I recognized a capital “A” at the beginning of the word. The middle letters looked like a scribble, but I could see “e-n-b-a-c-h” as the final letters of the word. I typed this into Meyer’s Gazetteer, using an asterisk for those unclear middle letters. The website then provided me with a list of possibilities, and–by only looking at the town names in my specific German region–I was able to significantly narrow down what my handwritten town name could be. By comparing this list to my handwritten word, I was able to then decipher the remaining letters and figure out the name of the town. (Click here for more tips on using Meyer’s Gazetteer.)

By taking advantage of the resources available online, you can make your transcription process much easier and much more fun. Best of luck!

About the Author

Katherine Schober is a German translator who specializes in genealogy documents. Her new book, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting, is available in paperback or Kindle format. Check out Katherine’s other Genealogy Gems guest blog posts:

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

4 Must-Explore Ancestry.com Collections

Some Ancestry.com collections are super valuable but, for one reason or another, are easy to miss. You DON’T want to miss these four exclusive Ancestry.com collections that were hand-picked by an Ancestry staffer: landowner maps, iconic shopping catalog images, Prohibition-era identification cards and even WWII-era motion pictures.

4 Ancestry.com collections you don’t want to miss

Recently at RootsTech 2018, I compared historical record collections on the genealogy giants (Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com). An Ancestry.com staffer saw my lecture and emailed me with some of his favorite (and exclusive) Ancestry.com collections that don’t appear among your ‘shaky leaf’ hints, so they’re easy to miss. The descriptions below come from him or the site, and I’ve added some sample images–including a map showing the location of my great-great grandfather’s land.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalogs, 1896-1993

“Do you know what your great-grandparents would have worn? What would they have wanted for Christmas? Get an idea by looking at the Sears Catalog through the years. The original 1888 mailer carrying watches and jewelry expanded into a catalog in 1894 that kept growing offering an ever-widening range of products: sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and clothing. In the late 1800s the catalog began carrying Christmas holiday items leading to its eventual status as the “Wish Book.”

Other interesting facts about the Sears and Roebuck Catalog include some of the people who were involved in the making of it. Big name 40s and 50s film stars Lauren Bacall and Susan Hayward model fashions in pages of the catalog. Also featured are Ted Williams, a major baseball player in the 40s; Al Unser, a race car driver; and Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy.”

If your ancestor was a member of a fraternal organization such as the Freemasons or the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, you may be able to find pictures of pins created for their organizations. Music history in America also credits Sears catalog with changing American lifestyle because of the inexpensive but quality musical instruments offered through mail order.”

Prohibition agent identification cards, 1920-1925

“With the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1920, Prohibition agents were called upon to do the often unpopular work of enforcing the law, which included shutting down speakeasies and stills and interrupting the trafficking of bootleg alcoholic beverages. This collection contains identification card files for prohibition agents, prohibition inspectors, prohibition directors, warehouse agents, narcotics agents, and narcotics inspectors in the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s Prohibition Unit.”

County Land Ownership Maps (US), 1860-1918

“Land ownership maps are portrayals of land purchased, granted, or inherited. They range in complexity from rough outlines of the boundaries of one tract of land to detailed county atlases showing every landowner at the time of compilation.

These maps are valuable to genealogists because they often contain the names of landowners, they predate topographic maps, they show important historical township and county boundaries [and] can include photos of county officers, landholders, and some buildings and homes. This database contains approximately 1,200 U.S. county land ownership atlases from the Library of Congress’ Geography and Maps division, covering the years 1860-1918…These maps can be searched by state, county, year and owner’s name.”

Note from Sunny: This collection has proven valuable to me because it helped me locate my great-great grandfather’s property on a Pennsylvania map. Shown here!

WWII Newsreels, 1942-1946

“Newsreels averaged 10 minutes in length and consisted of U.S. military footage depicting allied military operations and other events from the home front. Much of the footage was taken by military combat photographers and is in excellent condition.

This database contains all 267 issues of the ‘United News’ newsreels. Some of the more well-known WWII events depicted in these newsreels includes: Marines Raise Flag Over Iwo Jima, D-Day, Japanese Sign Final Surrender, Invasion of Sicily, and MacArthur Returns to the Philippines.

Note from Sunny: Search this database using keywords relating to your family, such as places, military units or a descriptive term such as engineer. The sample footage shown here, “Yanks help repair French railroad” appears in this Ancestry.com collection. (For ease of display on our site, we’re showing you the same footage from YouTube.)

Learn more about the genealogy giants

Learn more about what’s on Ancestry.com and the other genealogy giants, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com). I specialize in comparing these sites to each other so you’ll know where to turn to meet your research needs. Click here to read more about the genealogy giants and to see my exclusive quick reference guide, Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites. It’s arguably the smartest investment you can make before investing time and subscription dollars in the major genealogy websites.

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

About the Author: Sunny Morton

About the Author: Sunny Morton

Sunny is a Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems; her voice is often heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast and Premium Podcasts. She’s  known for her expertise on the world’s biggest family history websites (she’s the author of Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites); writing personal and family histories (she also wrote Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy); and sharing her favorite reads for the Genealogy Gems Book Club.

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 Ancestry.com (volumes 1 and 2 for 1950-1993), FamilySearch.org or MyHeritage.com (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, Ancestry.com.

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 Newspapers.com (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!

5 Expert Tips for Using Meyers Gazetteer for Your German Genealogy

Track down your German ancestors with Germany genealogy expert Jim Beidler. He’s here to share great tips for using MeyersGaz.org, the recent online collection of crucial historical German maps.

meyersgaz.org Meyers Gazatteer

The Meyers Gazetteer is a comprehensive, indexed map to every place name in the Second German Empire (1871-1918). It’s based on the 1912 book commonly known as “Meyers Orts” or the Meyers Gazetteer: Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs. Recently, a free version of the Meyers Gazetteer became available online at www.MeyersGaz.org.

5 Tips for Using the Meyers Gazetteer

German research expert Jim Beidler, author of Trace Your German Roots Online, recently offered Genealogy Gems followers five tips for using the site to trace your German roots:

1. Correctly locating the village of origin is often the key to finding Germany’s many locally-based records. The FamilySearch catalog, shown here, places German villages in the same political jurisdictions as Meyers-Ort (Second Empire), which can be incredibly helpful when looking for microfilmed church and other records. (Click here to learn more using the FamilySearch catalog and the end of their microfilm lending program.)

2. When searching the Meyers Gazetteer online, don’t use diacritical marks such as the umlaut (the two dots) or expand umlauted vowels (such as by turning an ä into an ae).

3. Filter search results to a specific German region to narrow results.

4. Explore places with an interactive map that allows you to zoom in and out and toggle back and forth between the past and present. After clicking on a search result, click Map. An interactive map will appear. Roll over Toggle Historical Map to see options to resize and to select whether the map shows you local jurisdictions, surrounding German civil registration offices (StdAs), and Catholic, Protestant and Jewish places of worship.

5.  Click on Ecclesiastical to learn more about church parishes within 20 miles, which may have kept records on your family.

More from Jim Beidler on the Meyers Gazetteer

Genealogy Gems Premium members can sign in to our website and hear Jim go more in depth on the Meyers Gazetteer for German genealogy research in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 143. Jim applies his decades of German research experience to the latest technological advances and brings you along for the ride!

Jim Beidler is the author of Trace Your German Roots Online, one of Family Tree Books’ top-selling genealogy guides. Get an additional 10% off when you use the link above and the coupon code GEMS17. *Coupon code valid through 12/31/17. 

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