The places where your ancestors lived can tell you a lot about their lives. I’m going to show you a free and easy technique for plotting land in Google Earth.
Would you like to be able to find your ancestor’s property on a map today? Keep reading and watch the video to learn how. We’re going to take U.S. government survey legal land descriptions found in sources such as Federal Land Patents and quickly and easily plot the boundaries in Google Earth Pro. I’ll also show you an easy way to do it for property in Canada too.
In the video I show you how to plot the boundaries of a piece of land in Google Earth. We’re going to take U.S. government survey legal land descriptions found in sources such as Federal Land Patents and quickly and easily plot the boundaries in Google Earth Pro. I’ll also show you an easy way to do it for property in Canada too. These strategies come from my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox,
Download or Update the Free Google Earth Pro Software
These days there are actually three versions of Google Earth:
Google Earth downloadable software
Google Earth for Chrome Web browser
Google Earth app
All are free, but they are not the same. The app and web browser versions are sort of “Google Earth lite.” The software is what you want because it has all the bells and whistles that will allow you to do all the things I’m going to show you today.
Plotting legal land descriptions in Google Earth has its advantages. If you’re plotting the land of your ancestors, you’ll be able to see what the area looks like today and what the current street names are. In Google Earth you’ll also have access to additional tools that you can use in conjunction with the boundaries you’re going to create, such as historic maps, area photos, and a wide range of data sets that provide more information about the area.
The first thing to do is check to make sure you have the most current version of Google Earth on your computer. Again, we’re using the software so you need to do this on your desktop or laptop computer. You want to make sure you have Google Earth Pro – LINK – A tell tale sign that you don’t is if the Google Earth globe icon on your desktop is grey and not blue. Open it and in the menu go to Help > About Google Earth. Here it should say Google Earth Pro and you can see the version number.
Now that you have it on your computer, open it up and leave it running in the background. You’ll need a decent internet connection for it to run.
Next pull up the legal land description that you want to plot. Here’s one that I have for some property owned by George Burket. I found this at the Bureau of Land Management Government Land Office Records website. This free website is where you can search for land patent that your ancestors once held.
Legal land description at GLO
Even though the Bureau of Land Management places it on the map on their website, you can’t download this or add to it. The advantage of plotting this in Google Earth is that you will have access to much more geographic data, you can add many more details to the map, you can use it in conjunction with other related mapping work that you’re doing, and you can save and share it.
This description gives us the exact coordinates of the property. Jot down the land description or keep it open in your browser tab so you can refer to it.
This website is free, although some of the features are available only with a paid subscription. Thankfully, the tool for plotting your ancestor’s land patent is free. Some of the free features do require that you sign up for a free account. The feature we are going to use currently does not.
On the Township and Range – Search by Description page you will see a field for each piece of information found in the land description. It’s important to enter this information in the order presented starting with the State. Select the state from the drop-down menu. Pause a moment to allow the fields to recalculate. This allows the appropriate data to be loaded into the next field based on your selection.
Entering data at Earth Point
After you have made each selection, click the Fly to on Google Earth button. This will generate a KML file which can be saved to your computer. KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language, which is the file type that Google Earth uses and understands. KMZ are zipped KML files which also are used by Google Earth.
Save the file to the desired location on your hard drive. Then click the file to open it. It will automatically open in Google Earth (which you already have open). The KML file is now located in your TemporaryPlaces folder in the Places panel. The land is has now been automatically plotted on the map.
The orange outline is the township. In this example it is township T20N R14E. Click the orange ball in the center of the township for details. In the details you’ll find the total number of acres in the township, the latitude and longitude coordinates for the center of the township and corners.
Township in Google Earth
The pink / magenta outline is the Section where the property is. Click the pink center dot for the details:
Land section in Google Earth
In this example Section 9 consists of 648 acres.
Notice that Earth Point was able to plot the land down to the Section level. However George Burket did not own the entire section. We must return to the land description for the Aliquots.
Aliquots in Legal Land Description
In this example, the land was the southeast quarter (SE1/4) of section 9. The land was a total of 160 acres.
We can use the Polygon tool in Google Earth to plot the 160 acres. In the toolbar, click the Polygon tool. This will open the New Polygon dialog box. Type a title, description and source citation.
As you hover your mouse over the map you will notice that the cursor is now a square shape. Click the screen on each of the four corners one at a time in order to set the four corners of the property – in this case the southeast quarter of the section. Once you have drawn the shape you can click on the handle on any corner to adjust precisely.
Click the Style / Color tab in the New Polygon dialog box to adjust the color and opacity of the acreage polygon. You can add color and thickness to the outline, and color and opacity to the fill of the shape. When you have it set the way you want it, click OK to close the New Polygon box. The Polygon is now set.
Moving Plotted Land in the Places Panel
On the left side of the Google Earth screen you will see a series of panels: Search, Places and Layers. At the bottom of the Places panel is the Temporary folder. This is where the KML file was placed when it was opened. However, like its name implies, this is a temporary location. If you want to keep it, you’ll need to move it to a filed location within the Places panel. This will not change the position of the polygon on the map, only where it is filed and saved in the Places panel.
To file a polygon, click on the file in the Places panel, drag it to the desired location, and drop it. Next, go the main menu and click File > Save My Places. This will save your work so that when you close the program it will not be lost. Google Earth doesn’t auto-save.
Turning Google Earth Polygons On and Off
The polygon plotting the acreage will be visible on the map when the box is checked in the Places panel. If you uncheck the box for the polygon it will still be there, but it will not be visible on the map. This allows you to create and save many items of interest without always having to have them displayed and cluttering up the map in Google Earth.
How to Edit a Polygon in Google Earth
After your land polygon has been set, you may want to rename it. There are two ways to do this:
On a PC right-click on the polygon, either on the map or in the Places panel, and select Rename from the pop-up menu. Type the new name and then press Enter on your keyboard.
Click to select the polygon in the Places panel (highlighting it in blue) and then go to the main menu to Edit > Rename. Type the new name and then press Enter on your keyboard.
You can also restyle the polygon and edit the text. Start by going to the Places panel and click the arrow pointing at the Polygon’s globe icon. This will open it and show the nested content. Click to select the Polygon. Now you can right-click it (PC) and select Properties – OR – go to the menu under Edit > Properties. Either way it will reopen the Polygon dialog box so that you can make the desired changes. When you’re done, click the OK button to close the Polygon.
Saving and Sharing Plotted Land
Snagit is the tool I used to capture the various views of the land I plotted in Google Earth. Learn more about Snag it by watching my videos and reading the show notes for episode 61 (for beginners) and episode 66 (advanced).
Plotting Canadian Land
Although the Earth Point website doesn’t plot Canadian land, the Legal Land Description Converter website does. It can help you find land in Western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan & Manitoba) subdivided by the Dominion Land Survey (DLS) and the Alberta Township System (ATS).
How to Plot Canadian Land
Go to Legal Land Description Converter at https://www.legallandconverter.com.
Enter the Section, Township, Range and Meridian information from the land description.
Click the Calc button.
Click the generated KML file and save it to your computer.
Click the file to open it in Google Earth. It will open in the Temporary folder.
It will fly you the location on the map and outline it for you.
Rename the file if desired, and add source information.
Add source citation.
Drag and drop it to the desired location in your Places panel.
Gwynn: I would like to know how to match plat with GPS coordinate/ current street address.
Answer: I cover how to overlay a plat map in Google Earth and discover the current street address in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Roger D: How exact do you need to be in picking points? Does Google snap to mid-points of lines?
Answer: Try to be as exact as you can, however as I showed in the video you can reposition them as needed. Google Earth doesn’t snap.
Lyn: Can I do this with English tithe maps?
Answer: There isn’t a website converter that I know of. However I do cover how to overlay digitized maps in Google Earth in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
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Show Notes: How to use Google site search to search a website that doesn’t have a good search engine, or doesn’t have one at all. Google’s Site Search will help you find exactly what you need! This tip comes from the hour-long Premium Membership “Elevenses with Lisa” video called 5 Genealogy Search Hacks. Premium Members can download the exclusive cheat sheet PDF on the show notes page.
or to double-check that you found everything at that site.
Essentially, you can use Google Site search as a custom search engine for a specific website.
For example, USGenWebis a free genealogy website that has been around for a long time and has a vast number of pages and content. There isn’t a search box on the home page, but you can click Search & Site Map in the menu. However, you’ll notice that their search engine is powered by a third party called FreeFind which has been around since 1998. Because it’s free and a third party, the search field is definitely not secure. Since that’s the case, you might as well use the largest and most powerful search engine in the world, Google, to search to run your search instead. Google’s site search is the way to do that.
A note about websites like USGenWeb: Make sure that you are searching the correct website.
Notice the URL for the USGenWeb website:https://usgenweb.org/index.html. Click the desired state on the map on the home page. Now, look at the URL again.
We probably spend more time staring at our web browser than we do staring into the eyes of our loved ones. Since that’s the case, wouldn’t it be nice to be looking at a browser tab that not only makes you more productive but also inspires you? Well, you can and today I’ll show you how in the Chrome browser.
Plain Jane Chrome Browser Tabs
Normally when I click the plus sign on the right end of my browser tabs it opens a new tab that isn’t much to look at:
(Image above: Clicking the Plus sign opens a new browser tab.)
Well, recently I have been customizing the “New Tab” on my Chrome web browser, and the results have been helpful and enjoyable.
Now I find myself smiling each time I open a new browser tab. There, looking back at me, are ancestors. They are happily picnicking in a meadow under shady trees. They look relaxed in their white cotton shirts, sleeves casually rolled up, and glass bottled soda in hand.
(Image above: Chrome new browser tab with custom image.)
This sepia tone photo was taken early in the 20th century. It not only inspires me to keep up the genealogical search I am on, but also to take a chill pill when I hit a stubborn research brick wall.
Keep reading and I’ll show you how to add your own custom image to Chrome’s New tab.
Benefits of Customizing Chrome’s New Tab
My NewTab features more than just an old family photo. It also increases the speed of my online navigation by serving up the websites I need and use most often.
Notice the website shortcut icons I’ve added to the bottom of the page (image below.) With one click I’m on my way to search for historic newspapers at the Library of Congress Chronicling America website, or peruse the latest records at MyHeritage.
(Image above: Website shortcuts)
Customizing the New tab on your Chrome web browser can also increase your search speed.
Notice the suggested related searches that fall between the search query box and the customized website shortcuts. Google has the ability to suggest additional searches based on my most recent previous search.
(Image above: Related searches suggested in Chrome’s New Tab.)
So why would this be beneficial?
Envision yourself conducting a Google search for a particular record collection. You receive the search results, and several look promising. You may even click through to one of those results and start reviewing the page. But as you read, it occurs to you that there may be a better way to state your query that could deliver better results. Or perhaps you wonder if you’re using the best terminology.
Rather than losing the search you’ve already run (and that website you’ve already started reading), you open a New web browser tab. With a customized New Tab, Google will start you out with some suggestions for additional searches. These aren’t just random. Google takes into account the most popular type of searches on the topic and the terminology or keywords that it has determined would retrieve good results.
Is it perfect? No. But suggested related searches can give you a jump start, and lead you to results you might not have otherwise found.
Google’s Customization versus a Browser Extension
Now before I show you how to customize your New Tab, you may be wondering why I’m not just using a browser extension to do the customization.
Yes, there are a variety of Chrome browser extensions that allow you to change the New Tab page. But the answer to this question comes down to security. Browser extensions have the potential to leak your private information. It’s always best to stick with the Google customizations if possible.
Since we don’t spend that much time on the New Tab page, the features we are about to customize should be all we need. However, if you decide to use a browser extension, I encourage you to do your homework to do your best to determine if the extension is trustworthy.
How to Add Your Own Image to the Chrome Browser New Tab
Probably the most difficult part about customizing the background of the New Tab is selecting the photo!
I spent more time on picking my photo than I did actually setting it up. But don’t fret too long about it. It’s so easy to change the image that you can change it on a daily basis and rotate images if you just can’t make up your mind. Let’s get started:
1. Click the Plus sign
At the top of your browser, click the plus (+) sign on the far right to open a New TabYou can also open a New Tab by using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + T.
And here’s a tip: Keep the tab that this article appears in open so that you can easily jump back and forth between the instructions and the customization page.
2. Click the Customize button
You’ll find the Customize button in the bottom right corner of the page.
(Image above: On the New Tab, click the Customize button.)
3.Upload the image
Select Background and click Upload from device:
(Image above: Upload image to the Chrome browser)
4. Find the Image
An Open dialog box will pop-up. Navigate to the desired image on your hard drive.
(Image above: Navigate in the “Open” dialogue box to the image that you want to use as your custom New Tab background.)
5. Select and open the image
Click to select the image and click the Open button. The image will now fill the screen. Don’t worry, you haven’t uploaded your photo into the public Google search engine. You are only customizing your Google account, and only you can see the photo.
Landscape images work the best for the New Tab page background. If you have a Portrait shaped photo, try cropping it to more of a landscape shape before uploading.
(Image above: Chrome new browser tab with uploaded image.)
If you want to change it back to plain or swap photos, simply click the customize icon in the bottom right corner that looks like a pencil.
How to Add Shortcuts to the NewTab
Now that you have your family looking back at your from your New browser tab, let’s add shortcuts to your favorite websites.
1. Click the Plus sign
Click the “Add Shortcut” plus sign beneath the search field.
2. Add the name and URL
Open a new tab, navigate to the desired web site, and then copy the URL in the address bar. Go back to the tab with the customization page, and in the Edit Shortcut window, type the name of the website, and paste the URL you just copied.
(Image above: type in the website name and URL.)
3. Click the Done button
Once you click the Done button, you will see your new shortcut below the search field.
Repeat the process to add additional website shortcuts.
5. Edit Shortcuts
If you want to change one of the shortcuts that you’ve added, hover your mouse over it and click the three vertical dots in the upper right corner of the icon.
(Image above: Hover your mouse over the shortcut and click the three vertical dots to edit.)
Then you will have the option to edit or remove the shortcut.
(Image above: Edit shortcut dialogue box.)
Related Search Prompts on Chrome’s New Tab
As I mentioned earlier in this article, Google will provide related search suggestions when you open a new tab. You fill find them between the search query box and the shortcuts.
These can be helpful in providing you additional keywords worth searching. Google bases these prompts on what people usually search for. Here’s an example of the related searches that appeared when I searched for Historic Newspapers:
(Image above: Related searches suggested in Chrome’s New Tab.)
These search suggestions will change as you search for different things using Google.
How to Remove Related Search Prompts
Not everyone appreciates Google’s efforts to be helpful. If you would rather see more of your background photo and not the related search prompts, they are easy to remove.
Simply click on the three vertical dots just to the upper right of the prompts:
(Image above: Click the three vertical dots.)
In the pop-up balloon you have two options:
Don’t Show This Topic tells Google not to show the topic appearing on the tab again. In my example, I would not use this because I expect to be searching for historic newspapers again in the future. But if my search were just a one time thing, or the search prompts were completely irrelevant, then I would let Google know I don’t want to see this topic in the future by selecting this option.
Never Show Suggestions tells Google to never show suggestions on the New Tab again.
Make your changes in the pop-up balloon.
How to Return to the New Tab Default Settings
I love having a customized New Tab to greet me each time I click the plus button. However, there may be a time when, for whatever reason, you will want to return the New Tab to its original state. That’s easy enough to do! Here’s how to remove or change the background image:
Click the pencil icon in the bottom right corner of the screen. This will take you back into Customize mode.
If you don’t want any background image, click No Background. If you would like something completely different, you can also select from a collection of photos provided by Google:
To remove the background image, select Background > No Background
In this same pop-up dialogue box you can also remove your shortcuts in one swoop. Click Shortcuts and then Hide Shortcuts, and then click Done:
More Googly Ideas
I hope you’ve enjoyed this simple way to spice up Chrome’s New browser tab. You’ll find tons of exciting ideas on how to use Google more effectively for genealogy and family history in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.