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.
This blast from the past episode comes from the digitally remastered Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes 11 and 12 (originally recorded in 2007). They are now interwoven with fresh narration and updated show notes. Topics include: Google Images; Top 10 Tips for finding Graduation Gems in your family history; Display your family history with an easy to create Decoupage plate.
Did you know you can use Google to help identify images, to find more images like them online, and even to track down images that have been moved to a different place online? Find these great Google tech tips in this episode, along with 10 tech-savvy tricks for finding an ancestor’s school records. You will also hear how to create a family history photo decoupage plate: a perfect craft to give as a gift or create with children.
This “blast from the past” episode comes from the digitally remastered Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes 11 and 12 (originally recorded in 2007). They are now interwoven with fresh narration; below you’ll find all-new show notes.
Google Image searches: Updated tips
Click here to watch a short new tutorial video on using Google Images to find images for your genealogy research.
Conduct an initial search using the search terms you want. The Image category (along with other categories) will appear on the screen along with your search results. For images of people: enter name as search term in quotes: “Mark Twain.” If you have an unusual name or if you have extra time to scroll through results, enter the name without quotation marks. Other search terms to try: ancestral place names, tombstone, name of a building (school, church, etc.), the make and model of Grandpa’s car, etc.
Click on one of the image thumbnails to get to a highlight page (shown here) where you can visit the full webpage or view the image. If you click View images, you’ll get the web address.
To retrieve images that no longer appear at the expected URL: Click on View image to get the image URL. Copy the image’s URL (Ctrl+C in Windows) and paste it (Ctrl+V) into your web browser to go to that image’s page. When you click through, you’re back in Web view. The first few search results should be from the website with the image you want. Click on a link that says “cache.” A cached version is an older version of the website (hopefully a version dated before the image was moved or removed). Browse that version of the site to find the image.
NEW Tip: Use Google Chrome to identify an image and find additional images showing the same subject, such as a place, person or subject.
From the Google home page, click Images.
In the Google search box, you’ll see a little camera icon. Click on it.
If you have an image from a website, insert the URL for that image. If you have an image on your computer, click Upload an image. Choose the file you want.
Google will identify the image as best it can, whether a location, person, or object, and it will show you image search results that seem comparable.
Click hereto watch a free video tutorial on this topic.
GEM: Decoupage a Family Photo Plate
Clear glass plate with a smooth finish (available at
kitchen outlet and craft stores)
Sponge craft brush
Fine paper-cutting scissors (Cuticle scissors work well)
Small bottle of acrylic craft paint in a color you would like for the back
A flat paintbrush
Brush-on clear acrylic varnish for a glossy finish on the back of the plate
A selection of photos (including other images that complement the photos)
Assembling your plate:
Lay out your design to fit the plate
Add words if desired. You can draw directly on the copy or print it out and cut it to fit.
Put an even coat of glue on the front of each photo. Don’t worry about brush strokes, but be careful not to go over it too many times which could cause the ink to run.
Apply the photos to the back of the plate, working in reverse order (the first images placed on the plate will be in the foreground of the design). Glue the edges firmly. Turn the plate over to check the placement of images. Smooth using craft brush.
Brush glue over the back of each photo.
Turn the plate around so you can see the image from the front and work out the air bubbles.
Continue to place the images until the entire plate is covered. Let it dry 24 hours.
Use painters’ tape to tape off the edges before you apply the acrylic paint to the back of the plate. Paint the back and let dry. Apply a second coat. Let dry.
Apply an acrylic varnish for a glossy finish on the back. Let dry.
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. And it is in the works for RootsMagic to be fully integrated with Ancestry.com, too: you’ll be able to sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.
Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze.com/Lisa, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems.
GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB
Our current book is Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Follow the story of Mary North, a wealthy young Londoner who signs up for the war effort when the Great War reaches England. Originally assigned as a schoolteacher, she turns to other tasks after her students evacuate to the countryside, but not before beginning a relationship that leads to a love triangle and long-distance war-time romance. As her love interest dodges air raids on Malta, she dodges danger in London driving ambulances during air raids in the Blitz.
This story is intense, eye-opening and full of insights into the human experience of living and loving in a war zone and afterward. Everyone Brave is Forgiven is inspired by love letters exchanged between the author’s grandparents during World War II.
Click here for more Genealogy Gems Book Club titles
GEM: Top 10 Tips for finding Graduation Gems in your family history
Establish a timeline. Check your genealogy database to figure out when your ancestor would have attended high school or college.
Consult family papers and books. Go through old family papers & books looking for senior calling cards, high school autograph books, journals and diaries, senior portraits, fraternity or sorority memorabilia and yearbooks.
Search newspapers. Look for school announcements, honor rolls, sports coverage, end-of-year activities and related articles. Updated tips and online resources:
Ancestry.com has moved the bulk of its historical newspaper collection to its sister subscription website, Newpapers.com.
Search your browser for the public library website in the town where your ancestor attended school. Check the online card catalogue, look for a local history or genealogy webpage, or contact them to see what newspapers they have, and whether any can be loaned (on microfilm) through interlibrary loan.
Search the Library of Congress’ newspaper website, Chronicling America, for digitized newspaper content relating your ancestor’s school years. Also, search its U.S. Newspaper Directory since 1690 for the names and library holdings of local newspapers.
Contact local historical and genealogical societies for newspaper holdings.
Consult the websites of U.S. state archives and libraries: click here to find a directory of state libraries
State historical and genealogical societies. In addition to newspapers, state historical and genealogical societies might have old yearbooks or school photograph collections. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society library has a large (and growing) collection of Ohio school yearbooks. Local historical and genealogical societies may also have school memorabilia collections.
RootsWeb, now at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Check the message board for the county and state you’re looking for. Post a message asking if anyone has access to yearbooks or other school info.
TIP: Use Google site search operator to find mentions of yearbooks on the county page you’re looking at. Add site: to the front of the Rootsweb page for the locale, then the word yearbook after it. For example:
Yearbookgenealogy.com and the National Yearbook Project, mentioned in the show, no longer exist as such
US GenWeb at www.usgenweb.org. Search on the county website where the school was located. Is there anyone willing to do a lookup? Is there a place to post which yearbooks you’re looking for?
Call the school, if it’s still open. If they don’t have old yearbooks, they may be able to put you in touch with a local librarian or historian who does.
TIP: Go to www.whowhere.com and type the school name in “Business Name.” Call around 4:00 pm local time, when the kids are gone but the school office is still open.
ebay: Do a search on the school or town you’re looking for to see if anyone out there is selling a yearbook that you need. Also search for old photographs or postcards of the school. Here’s my extra trick: From the results page, check the box to include completed listings and email potential sellers to inquire about the books you are looking for.
TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask ? ebay sellers want to sell! And if all else fails, set up an ebay Favorite Search to keep a look out for you. Go to and check out Episode #3 for instructions on how to do this.
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.
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You Just Found Your Event Speaker! Your next genealogy event deserves a dynamic, educational and entertaining presenter! A genealogist since childhood, a background in theater, and hundreds of presentations around the world position Lisa as a world-class genealogy...
Google is a many-faceted gem when it comes to searching for ancestors online. Are you getting the most out of what Google offers?
Google searching–entering your ancestors’ names and other keywords into the main Google search box–is where you start using Google for genealogy. But the search box isn’t the only Google feature that can help you find hidden genealogy treasures online. Here are 7 important Google resources you need:
Google will sweep the internet for your favorite keyword searches on a regular basis! Just set up as many of these searches as you need with Google Alerts. It’s free and you can customize it to search when and what you want. Click here to learn to set up Google Alerts for genealogy.
You may already know that Google Books will keyword search within billions of pages of text in published books from around the world. Some of these books are even available to read in full on the site. Searching Google Books can lead you to facts, stories, new sources for your research and even images. For example, click here to read a post about finding old maps in Google Books.
Web content changes all the time. Sometimes the text, pictures or other content we most want just disappears. A page is revised, or a webpage or an entire website is taken offline. Use Google Cache to look at webpages that no longer exist! Click here to learn more.
I teach people all over the world how to use Google Earth in their genealogy research! Google Earth is the ultimate online map of the world: free, interactive, three-dimensional, multi-layered and crowd-sourced with all kinds of extra content. You can use it to identify ancestral hometowns and even their properties; zoom in to see what it looks like today; find old buildings, cemeteries, schools or churches relating to their lives, and more. Click here to watch a free video on using Google Earth for your genealogy.
When using Google for genealogy you can also visualize your results. Google has a dedicated area for finding the images you want, like certain people, places or historical events: Google Images. Google Images will even narrow your results to certain parameters: black and white images only; maps or pictures of people only; photographs but not illustrations and–my favorite–images without copyright restrictions that you may re-use in your family history write-ups.
Google News Archive
Though no longer actively digitizing and indexing newspapers, Google News Archive can help you locate online content for specific newspapers. Click here to access its alphabetical listing of newspapers. You can also enter keyword-searches in the search box on that webpage for all the newspapers listed here.
When you want to dig into scholarly articles, theses, dissertations and other academic sources, turn to Google Scholar. This resource specializes in searching the “smart stuff,” as I think of it. Sometimes you can find very specialized content, like a biography of a little-known minister or a history of a little tiny town. Read this inspiring story about using Google Scholar for genealogy!
Ready to learn more about how to use Google for genealogy and mining it for your own genealogical treasures? The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, is your go-to resource! In its chapters–fully revised and updated –you’ll learn more about all these Google toolsand more. Better yet, after you learn how to use these tools for family history research, you’ll find yourself using them to find all kinds of things, from recipes to trivia, to a manual for your old car.
It’s Nice to Share
I’ll bet you have friends who would benefit from this article on how to use Google for genealogy. Share it and they will be doing the genealogy happy dance, and so will I!
Here are some handy sharing buttons, or just copy and paste the URL for this article into a Facebook post or email. Thanks!