The Best Way to Find Old Maps for Genealogy at the David Rumsey Website

Old maps are vitally important for genealogy because the characteristics of a location can change in many ways over time. Historic maps help us understand the world as it was at the time our ancestors lived. 

Here is a short list of just a few of the things that may have changed:

  • Street addresses
  • roads 
  • town names
  • county boundaries
  • waterways that may have been filled in or opened up
  • railway lines 

In fact, the country itself where they lived may be a completely different country. For example, my German ancestors lived in Prussia in the 19th century. Today, that area is part of Poland. Therefore, all of the village names have been changed to Polish names. 

The David Rumsey Map Collection is an excellent place to go to find maps of your ancestors homeland for free.

Best way to find old maps at David Rumsey

Watch the Map Search Video

I’m going to explain the 7 steps to finding the maps you need for your genealogy research at this wonderful website! I highly recommend that you watch the short video below to see it in action as you read. The player will stay with you as you scroll down the page. 

Step 1: Go to the David Rumsey Map Collection Website

The first thing you need to do is go to the David Rumsey website here. You’ll be greeted on the home page with glorious historic maps. (Stay focused because it’s easy to get distracted by all the fascinating maps!)

Old maps for genealogy at David Rumsey website

Scroll down on the David Rumsey website home page.

Step 2: Scroll Down to the Bottom of the David Rumsey Home Page

While you can search for a place name in the search box at the top of the page, there’s a better way to search. Scroll down the page until you get to Featured App: MapRank Search (it’s almost at the bottom.)

Step 3: Launch Map Rank Search

The Featured App – MapRank Search is the best place to search the website, but it’s easy to miss because it’s not at the top. So go ahead and click the Launch MapRank button in the upper corner of this section. 

launch map rank search at David Rumsey website

In the Featured App: MaprRank Search section click the Launch MapRank button

When you click the button it will open a new tab in your web browser which will take you to the Geographical Searching with MapRank Search page.

Quick Tip: The Fastest Way to MapRank Search

You can get there faster by going directly to https://rumsey.mapranksearch.com. I didn’t take you straight there from the beginning because I think it’s important to be aware of the home page and everything else it offers. However, today our focus is conducting the optimal search for old maps for you family history. 

Step 4 Selecting the Map Time Frame

Here’s what the search page looks like. 

David Rumsey MapRank Search Page

The DavidRumsey.com search page

There are two very important features on this app page that will help you get the best results possible: the time slider and the location search box.

The time slider is located beneath the map:

Timeslider for map search

Time Slider for searching maps by time frame

It’s important to first select the time frame that you are searching because that will dictate the results you get when you search on the location name. (We’ll get to that in just a moment.) 

There is a slider on each end of the timeline. Slide them to specify the desired time frame. In my example below, I’m looking for maps between 1800 and 1900. 

time slider for map search

Searching for maps between 1800 and 1900

As you move the sliders, you’ll notice that the maps in the right hand column will change. This is because only maps that fall within the range you select will be offered in the Instant Search Results column. But before we look at those, we need to type in a location in the next step.

Step 5: Selecting the Location

With your time frame selected, now you’re ready to type the location in the search box.

As you type, the app will make suggestions. But wait! Before you click the Find a Place button to run the search, look carefully at the list of suggested locations that may appear. Many locations names can be found in different areas. That is certainly the case with the name of the tiny village where my great grandfather was born: Kotten.

searching a location for maps

Type the location name to search the maps

In fact, the list doesn’t even include the Kotten I am looking for.

In cases like this, it is best to search a little more broadly. When Kotten was part of Prussia, it was located in Kreis Johannisburg so I could try searching for that. Even better might be to search for the largest city in the area since Kotten was such a tiny village. Arys was the largest city in the area. 

Once you type in the name (and select from the suggestions if needed) click the Find a Place button just to the right of the search box. 

Step 6: Analyze the Map Results

In my example of searching for the city of Arys (which is the name it was known by in the 19th century when it was part of East Prussia) the modern-day map displayed is actually Poland.

Poland map

My search resulted in a map showing Orzysz, Poland

However, the David Rumsey website does a good job of cross-referencing the older German names (Arys) with the new Polish names (Orzysz). This is another reason why searching for a larger city works well. Larger cities are more likely to be in the David Rumsey system for cross-referencing, and of course they are easier to spot on the map. Generally speaking, the location you searched will be in the center of the display map. 

Quick Tip: Verifying Location Names

Another quick way to cross-reference location names (or verify your findings in David Rumsey) is by searching for the name in Google Earth. In the example below, I typed in the Prussian city of Arys. Google Earth will offer options if more than one matching result exists.

I was a bit surprised to see “Arys” as one of the three listed results since it is not called that today. When I clicked Arys it took me to the city of Arys in the Turkistan Region of Kazakhstan, far away from Poland! Clicking Orzysz in the results list took me to the area of Poland that was once East Prussia. This confirms the results I received at the David Rumsey website. 

Finding a map location in Google Earth

Learn more about using Google Earth for Genealogy by watching my free class here

Now it’s time to review the map results listed in the Instant Search Results column on the right. Isn’t it fantastic that David Rumsey’s website not only presented me with the correct Polish location, but also maps published between 1800 and 1900 that include Arys? I think so! 

Finding the city on the David Rumsey map

Map results appear in the column on the right side of the page.

Click the map you think best suits your needs. The map will open in in a new tab in your web browser. (These browsers tabs provide a nice bread crumb trail for your searching activities.) 

All of the source information about the historic map that you chose will appear in the column on the left. (See the image in Step 7.) If you decide to use this map you’ll definitely want to accurately cite the source. Learn more about the importance of source citations here.

Step 7: Export the Map

I was delighted to find the village of Kotten on this map of Arys published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme in 1893!

When you find a map that you would like to use for your family history research, export it to your computer. To do this, click Export in the upper right corner of the map and select the desired size. You can select a size ranging from Small Thumbnail to Extra Extra Large. Keep in mind that the larger the size, the more clarity you will have as you zoom in closer and closer. This is very important if you plan on using the map in an overlay in Google Earth. You can learn how to create your own map overlays in my video tutorial series on using Google Earth for genealogy available here, and in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.

how to export an old map

Click “Export” to save the map to your computer.

Be patient while downloading to your computer because it can take several moments to export a large map. The saved file will probably be zipped. To unzip it, on a PC right-click and select Extract All from the pop-up menu. This creates an open version of the folder containing the map. 

Get Started Finding Your Ancestral Locations in Old Maps

With this step-by-step process you are now ready to explore any given ancestor’s world through the rich details of historic maps. I can’t wait to hear what you discover! Please be sure to leave a comment below. And if you found this tutorial helpful, will you please share it with your friends on social media so we can help even more people find the homes of their ancestors? Thank you!

Find Old Maps Online at this Gateway Site

gateway to maps of the worldNext time you’re trying to find old maps online, take a look at OldMapsOnline.

As the site explains, “The OldMapsOnline Portal is an easy-to-use gateway to historical maps in libraries around the world.” And not just a few minor libraries, but a long list of major libraries, like:
  • the British Library
  • David Rumsey Map Collection
  • Charles University (Prague)
  • Dutch National Archives
  • Geo-spacial.org (Romanian)
  • Harvard Library Map Collection
  • Map Library of Catalonia
  • Land Survey Office Czech Republic
  • the National Libraries for nations like Scotland, Wales and Colombia
The portal allows the user to search for online digital historical maps across numerous different collections via a geographical search. Search by typing a place-name or by clicking in the map window, and narrow by date. The search results provide a direct link to the map image on the website of the host institution.”

Historic_Maps_VideoTo learn more about using old maps online and for genealogy, go to our home page and search on the Maps category on the lower left side of the page. Genealogy Gems Premium members also have access to full-length video classes like 5 Ways to Enhance Your Genealogy Research with Old MapsGoogle Earth for GenealogySanborn Fire Insurance Maps (NEW!); and Time Travel with Google EarthNot a Genealogy Gems Premium member? Click here to become one!

Learn about Homestead Land Records with Lisa Louise Cooke

Homestead land records tell us more about our forebears who settled the western U.S. Learn more with Lisa Louise Cooke at the Land Records and Genealogy Symposium July 14-15, 2017 in Beatrice, Nebraska. 

homestead land records

Lisa Louise Cooke will be a featured speaker at the Land Records and Genealogy Symposium in Beatrice, Nebraska on July 14-15, 2017. The 2-day event is co-sponsored by the Homestead National Monument of America, a unit of the National Park Service, and the Beatrice Campus of Southeast Community College.

Homestead land records and our ancestors

Homestead land records

Omer Madison Kem, (later, Representative to the United States Congress) in front of his sod house in Nebraska (1886). Click image to view at American Memory (Library of Congress digital archive).

“The Homestead Act of 1862 had a profound affect on the United States and throughout the world,” states the symposium webpage. “Under the provisions of this law, the U.S. government gave away 270 million acres of land to 1.6 million individuals and families for the purposes of settlement and cultivation. Today there may be as many as 93 million descendants of homesteaders.”

Our homesteading ancestors may show up in land patent records and related paperwork. Over five million documents are searchable by name and location at the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records website. These databases found at major genealogy websites may also be helpful for finding homestead land records and related paperwork:

Out ancestors’ homestead land records may reveal when they purchased and/or applied for land and where they were living at the time. In many instances, immigrants had to be citizens to purchase land, so you may find information about their naturalization. You’ll often find land records in the same area purchased by relatives, which can help you reconstruct family groups and more confidently identify your family.

Participants in the Land Records and Genealogy Symposium will learn to use records of different kinds–and strategies for researching them–in their genealogical and historical research. Lisa Louise Cooke’s lectures will focus on using powerful online tools to map out your family history and find mention of ancestors that may be buried deep in online resources. Other lectures will also help you chart the stories of your frontier ancestors, many of them immigrants, who purchased land from the government in the Midwest and Western United States.

What: Land Records and Genealogy Symposium, co-sponsored by the Homestead National Monument of America (National Park Service) and the Beatrice Campus of Southeast Community College

When: July 14-15, 2017 (8 am – 4 pm on Friday, with optional dinner presentation; 8:30 am – 3 pm on Saturday)

Where: Southeast Community College, Beatrice, Nebraska

Can’t make it to Nebraska?

how to use google earth for genealogyLearn to plot your ancestors’ homestead records in Google Earth in Lisa Louise Cooke’s Google Earth for Genealogy video series.

Genealogy Gems Premium website members can learn more about homestead land records in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 33, in an interview with expert Billie Edgington. (Click here to learn more about all the benefits of Premium membership, including access to the full Premium Podcast archive of nearly 150 episodes!)

Click here to see all of Lisa’s upcoming presentations: is there one near you?

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