Our ability to find our ancestors is rooted in two important pieces of information: the locations where they lived and the time frames in which they lived there. This means that old maps are essential to our genealogy research.
The good news is that there is an abundance of free digitized old maps available online. One of the best resources is the David Rumsey Map Collection website. There you will find over 100,000 free digitized historic maps. These maps span the globe and centuries. They are perfect for bringing geographic perspective to your family tree.
Elevenses with Lisa Show Notes
In this episode 36 of my free webinar video series Elevenses with Lisa I’ll show you how to navigate this ever-expanding free website. Watch the video and then follow along with the show notes in this article. Here you’ll find answers to questions such as:
What’s the best way to find maps at David Rumsey’s map website?
What is the difference between the search tools (Luna Viewer and MapRank Search)?
What are the advanced search techniques for finding the old maps?
How can I download maps at DavidRumsey.com?
Is it OK to use the maps from DavidRumsey.com in my family history projects?
Rumsey Historical Maps in Google Earth
As we discussed in Ways to Use Google Earth for Genealogy (Elevenses with Lisa episode 12) there are approximately 120 Rumsey old maps available for free in Google Earth. You can find them in the Layers Panel under Gallery. Each map is already georeferenced as an overlay for you.
Click image to watch the video and read the article on ways to use Google Earth for genealogy
You can also create your own overlays in Google Earth using Rumsey Maps or digitized maps from other sources. I cover this step-by-step in chapter 16 of my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Best Strategies for Finding Free Old Maps
Once you’ve exhausted the few hundred old maps in Google Earth, head to the David Rumsey Map Collection website. Rumsey’s collection includes over 150,000 map, over 100,000 of which have been digitized and are available for free on his website.
Copyright and Use Permission
You will probably be anxious to use these wonderful old maps in a variety of ways. The Rumsey website provides clear direction on copyright and use permission. Go to: DavidRumsey.com > Home Page > About > Copyright and Permissions.
The good news is that generally speaking, you are free to download and use the digitized maps for your own personal use.
The Best Way to View the Maps
There are several ways to view maps:
The Luna Viewer: Browse and search 100,000+ maps
The GeoReferencer: Help georeferenced maps, compare maps overlays
MapRank Search: Browse & search 6000 maps by time & place
Google Earth: 120 maps in the Layers panel, 140 can be added
Google Maps: 120 maps included
Second Life: View some in 3 dimensions and at a huge scale. Location: Rumsey Map Islands. Includes a welcome center with hundreds of maps, and a 600 meter tall map cylinder showing hundreds of maps.
The Collections Ticker: Pop-out distraction!
Insight Java Client: Downloadable workspace
Of this list, the best two tools to user are:
The Luna Viewer: Browse and search 100,000+ maps
MapRank Search: Browse & search 6000 maps by time & place
I will show you how to use each. Note that in these examples we will be using a computer to search the site rather than a mobile device or tablet.
The Luna Viewer: How to browse & search the maps
In the main menu under View Collection select the Luna Viewer. Under Luna Viewer click the Launch Luna Viewer button.
The Luna Viewer at David Rumsey Map Collection
Tips for keyword searching:
In most cases it helps to start with a fairly broad search to see the full range of available maps
Be cautious with abbreviations. “MN” does not return “Minn” or “Minnestota”.
Advance search provides you with the use of full Boolean operators like “and,” “or,” “greater than,” “contains,” and others.
After a search, to return to the full collection, click on “show all” under the search button.
Let’s look at an example of using the keyword search in tandem with the Refine column. If you search for New York City, you will be searching all of the data associated with the maps. Since many maps may have been published in New York City, you will likely see many maps for other areas. You can improve this search by going to the Refine column and under Where clicking on New York City.
The Refine column will show you the first five options in each category (What, Where, Who, When). Click More to reveal all of the additional refining options in that category.
Click More to see all refining options in the Luna Viewer
From the returned results, click a map to view it.
You can select multiple items in the Refine column to filter more narrowly. Remove a filter by clicking it under Remove at the top of the Refine column.
Like genealogical records, old maps may include several pages. Look above the blue BUY PRINT button to see the number of Related maps. In my example of a map of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, there were two map pages available. Click Related to display all of the available pages.
Click the Related link to view all related map pages.
DavidRumsey.com Advanced Search
The Advanced Search feature can be found in two locations:
Inside the search box – click your mouse in the box and select Advanced Search from the drop-down list
At the bottom of the Refine column on the left side of the screen.
Advanced Search gives you more control over how you search. Let’s look at an example by searching for Sanborn fire insurance maps.
Searching for Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
The David Rumsey Map Collection website includes many Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. These maps were created for insurance purposes and provide an incredible amount of detail about individual buildings and dwellings in a given neighborhood.
I recommend using the Advanced Search feature to search for these maps. This is because over the years the name of the company as publisher changed.
How to Find Sanborn Maps:
Click on Advanced Search at the bottom of the Refine column
In the “find all of these words” section, click Fields and select Publisher
Type in Sanborn
On the results page, go to the Refine column and Who click More
There are at least six variations of the Sanborn publishing name.
Old Map books and atlases often include valuable historical text often called historical sketches. You can find these using the Advanced search. Search for the exact phrase Historical Sketch. Run this search and then in the Refine column under Where select an area of interest.
How to Download Maps from DavidRumsey.com
Click the map from the results list
On the map’s dedicated page click the EXPORT button at the top of the page.
Select the appropriate size from the drop-down list. (Larger maps may take a few moments to download)
Typically the maps will download to the Downloads folder on your computer
Tips for Selecting Download (Export) Map Size: Save space on your computer and future headaches by selecting the correct size map for your use. If you plan on using the map to create an overlay or create a nice large print, select the largest size possible ( I recommend at least Extra Large for creating map overlays in the Google Earth.) This will ensure that the map doesn’t appear fuzzy when you Zoom in. High-resolution is also recommended when printing. For example, if you plan on including the map in a book about your family’s history (for personal use, not for resale) a high-resolution map will print crisp and clear. Maps for use on the web or something like a PowerPoint presentation would be fine at lower resolutions.
MapRank Search at DavidRumsey.com
The MapRank Search “app” at the David Rumsey Map Collection website allows you to browse & search 6000 maps by two important criteria: Time & Place.
There are two ways to find the MapRank Search:
In the main menu under View Collection click MapRank Search. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the Launch MapRank Search
Scroll to the bottom of the home page until you see Featured App – MapRank Search, and click the Launch MapRank Search
How to Find Maps Using MapRank Search:
Start with entering the location name in the search box (in the upper right corner) and click the Find a Place
The location will appear on the modern-day map. The old maps that match the location will appear in the column on the right, prioritized starting with the map that most closely matches what you searched.
Below the modern-day map, move the time slider levers to narrow in on the desired time frame.
Note that the old maps in the results column will change based on the specified time frame.
Broaden the location if desired by zooming out a bit on the modern-day map. Note that the results list will change as you zoom.
Hover your mouse over a map in the results list and notice that a reddish-brown box will appear the selected map and will also appear on the modern-day map. This indicates the area of the map that the old map covers. This will aid you in selecting the map that will suit your needs.
Click a map from the results list and it will open in a new browser tab, although some maps will appear as an overlay on the modern-day map. In that case, click the Luna Viewer button to go to the page where the map can be downloaded.
How to Compare Modern-day Maps with Old Maps
Whether you have found the map by searching with the Luna Viewer or the MapRank Search you will eventually find yourself on the page where the single map is displayed. On the left is the source information.
In the upper right corner of the screen click the View in GeoReferencer button. You will be taken to a page where you can view the old map overlayed on the modern-day map. In the upper right corner move the slider to make the old map transparent so that you can compare between the two maps.
Recap: Comparing the Two Best Search Tools at DavidRumsey.com
Luna Viewer: – 100,000 maps
– Search, then refine
– Sometimes glitchy interface
MapRank Search: – 6000+ maps
– More control with time slider & map
– Map results list ranked by closest coverage
Live Chat Q&A: Answers to Your Questions About David Rumsey Maps
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Megan: What is the difference between Google Earth and My Maps? From Lisa: Google Earth is a free software download. This is where I create what I call family history tours. They are a collection of data points and media that come together as a research tool and storytelling tool. My Maps are created in Google Maps. I prefer creating in Google Earth because it offers more tools and options, and it’s where I keep all my mapping work.
From Gwynn: Heard in the past Java Client might have security holes has this been fixed? From Lisa: Read more about the latest on Java Client at the website’s FAQ page.
From GeneBuds: Must set up account to use Luna Viewer? From Lisa: No, you don’t have to have an account to use the Luna Viewer. “Registering for an account allows you to save your work and preferences, search external media, create Media Groups and Presentations, customize your settings, create annotations, and upload your own content.” As I mentioned in the video, I prefer to do all my work in Google Earth.
From Gwynn: Sanborn Fire Maps: Where do I find the Key to the symbols? Are they the same from year to year or do they change? From Lisa: Here’s the main resource page for Sanborn maps at the Library of Congress. You will find specific information about interpreting the maps including Keys and Colors here.
From Karen: If you are specifically looking for plat maps for our US farmers would you put the word plat in the search field? From Lisa: I would use the Advanced Search and enter the word plat in the “Find all these words” box. Click the plus sign to add an additional “Find all these words” field and type in the name of the location. If that doesn’t deliver the desired result, omit the location and just search on the word plant. Then, on the results page, go to the Refine column and under Where click More. Then you have a nice list to browse. You might spot a map that includes your location. TIP: When you find a result, be sure to check the Related number at the top of the page so that you didn’t miss any additional pages of the map.
From Mark: Lisa and Bill, is the intro music something that you all wrote? From Lisa and Bill: No, it’s by a talented musician named Dan Lebowitz. Our goal this year was to learn to play it ourselves 🙂 We’re glad you love it as much as we do!
Google your family history with Genealogy Gems! Google has a great collection of free online search tools–all powered by the same Google search engine–that can help you discover your family history. In this new Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning video,...
Betty has at least 130 good reasons to use Google Books for genealogy! She used this powerful Google tool to find her ancestor’s name in a book–which led to a treasure trove of his original letters in an archive. Here’s what happened–and how to try this with your own family history research.
You’ve heard me say that Google Books is the tool I turn to every day. Now, you may be thinking, “But my ancestors wouldn’t be in history books!” Resist the temptation to make assumptions about sources, and about your ancestors. With over 25 million books, Google Books is more likely to have something pertinent to your genealogy research than you think. And as I often tell my audiences, those books can include source citations, providing a trail to even more treasures.
Why to Use Google Books for Genealogy: Success Story!
At the National Genealogical Society conference this past spring, Betty attended my class and then stopped by the Genealogy Gems booth to share her story. I recorded it, and here’s a transcription:
Betty: I was stuck on my Duncan Mackenzie ancestor, so I put his name in Google Books, because when you’re stuck, that’s what you do!
Lisa: Yes, I do!
Betty: So, up popped this history of Mississippi, it was sort of a specific history, and it said Duncan Mackenzie had written a letter to his brother-in-law in North Carolina from Covington County, Mississippi. And of course I already had my tax records and my census records that placed him in Covington County. This was in the 1840s. I thought, this just couldn’t be him! Why would any of my relatives be in a book? [Sound familiar?]
So, finally, weeks later, it occurred to me to go back and look at the footnotes in the book, and I found that the letters could be found in the Duncan McLarin papers at Duke University. So, I didn’t even think to even borrow the microfilm. I just told my husband, “next time you go East for work, we need to go by Duke University.” So I set up a time, and I went, and it WAS my great-great-grandfather who wrote those letters! I have now transcribed 130 letters from that collection. They let me scan them all, and I’ve been back again to scan the rest of the legal papers.
Lisa: So, an online search into Google Books not only help you find something online, but it led you to the offline gems!
Betty: And it just changed my life! Because I spend all my time on these letters. It’s distracted me from other lines! [LOL! I get that!]
How to Use Google Books for Genealogy
Are you ready to put Google Books to work in your own research and discover some genealogy gems of your own? Here, I re-create Betty’s search for you, so you can see how to get started:
1. Go to Google Books (books.google.com). Enter search terms that would pertain to your ancestor, like a name and a place.
2. Browse the search results. The first three that show up here all look promising. Click on the first one.
3. Review the text that comes up in the text screen. As you can see here, Duncan McKenzie of Covington County is mentioned–and the source note at the bottom of the page tells you that the original letter cited in the book is at Duke University.
Learn More about Using Google Books for Genealogy
Learn more by watching my free Google Books video series at the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel. Click the video below to watch the first one. (And be sure to subscribe while you’re there, because there are more videos to come!)
Then, watch the video below for a quick preview of my full one hour video class (and downloadable handout) called Google Books: The Tool You Need Every Day!, available to all Genealogy Gems Premium Members.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 21 Video and Show Notes
Live show air date: August 20, 2020
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.
How to Find Free Genealogy Resources
In the genealogy community it’s often said, “Only a fraction of genealogical records are online.” That’s true indeed, but it’s not a reason not to start your search online. A more helpful and accurate piece of advice would be “while not everything is online, all search for genealogical information starts online.”
The reason for this is simple. Online research before you go will reveal:
If the materials are available at a more convenient location
If the materials are available somewhere online for free
The call number, location, and other specific information you need to quickly access the materials once you arrive.
Details about gaining access to the facility and materials.
The last bullet point above will help you avoid the disappointment of discovering an unforeseen closure, or that the specific records you need are actually help at a satellite location.
New genealogical information and records are uploaded daily to the internet. Some of this information is available for free. In this article and episode we will cover strategic ways to locate and access free genealogy online.
The Amount of Data Continues to Increase – Read more about the growth of online information here.
The Path of Least Resistance to Free Genealogy
Most genealogists want to obtain records at the lowest available cost with the least amount of travel. Therefore, always starting your search online just makes good sense.
Here’s our path of least resistance:
Free and Online: FamilySearch, Google, WorldCat
Online and Subscription: Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, niche sites
Free and Locally Offline: Libraries, Archives, Universities
Offline and Distant: Examples include the National Archives, Allen County Library, Family History Library, NEHGS
The FamilySearch Catalog: New digitized images are added daily from microfilms & digital camera operators. These include books, maps, compiled family histories, and more. The catalog also includes materials that are not online but are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or through Inter-library loan.
The FamilySearch Wiki is a free online genealogical guide comprised of more than 93,000 articles. It covers 244 countries, territories, and islands. It includes links to genealogy databases and online resources as well as how-to information.
Use the FamilySearch Wiki Watchlist to follow pages of research interest. Here’s how to watch Wiki pages for new and free genealogy content:
Log in with your free FamilySearch account
navigate to the desired page
click the Watchlist link in the upper right corner of the page.
Look for the Watchlist link, and the blue buttons that lead to free online genealogy records for that location.
Google is still your best bet for finding sources both online and offline.
You can dramatically improve your search results by incorporating search operators into your search. Watch episode 13 of Elevenses with Lisa to learn about how to use search operators when googling for genealogy.
Set up free Google Alerts to be on the lookout for new and updated search results. You’ll receive them by email, and you can control the frequency.
Google Alerts do the work of searching for free genealogy for you.
How to Create a Google Alert:
Highlight and copy (Control C on Windows or Command C on Mac) the search query that you typed into the Google search box
Go to www.google.com/alerts
Sign into your free Google account
Paste (Control V or Command V) your search query into the Search Query box on the Google Alerts page
Select the Result Type you desire (ex. Everything, News, etc.)
Select how often you wish to receive alerts
Select How Many results you want to receive (I recommend Only the Best Results)
Enter / Select the email address you want your alerts to be sent to
Click the Create Alert button
Partnerships Make Free Genealogy Available
Many of the genealogy giants enter partnerships with each other in order to facilitate digitization and indexing of genealogical records. This means that the same materials may be found in different locations on the web, and sometimes for free.
17,900 subscribing member libraries in 123 countries collectively maintain WorldCat’s database which is the world’s largest bibliographic database.
Use WorldCat to check that you are indeed accessing the resource from the most convenient repository and if it’s available for free. Here’s how:
Run your search
Click an item
Under Find a Copy in the Library enter your zip code
The library closest to you will be listed at the top
Once you get your search results, look to the left in the Formats box. There you can quickly narrow down to only items that are online by clicking boxes like DownloadableArticle. Some of these may require a log in on the website you are referred to.
To find free records at MyHeritage.com, go to https://tinyurl.com/LisaMyHeritage. In the footer menu of the website, click on Historical Records. Then fill in your search criteria. (Update: If you don’t see Historical Records in the footer, go to Research > Collection Catalog and search on the keyword “free.”) Scroll down the search results and look for the green free tags.
To find free records at Findmypast which specialized in British genealogy but also includes records from around the world, go to https://tinyurl.com/FMPLisa.
(Some links in our articles are affiliate links. We will be compensated at no additional cost to use when you use them. This makes it possible for us to bring this free show to you. Thank you!)
Google Site Search Can Help Locate Free Genealogy
A site search works like many search operators as previously discussed in Elevenses with Lisa episode 13 (watch and read here.) It provides Google with specific instructions about the type of search you want to conduct with your search terms and keywords.
This Site search tip comes from Lisa Louise Cooke’s book The Genealogists’s Google Toolbox.
Site search runs your query only on the specified website. This is extremely helpful and efficient if:
you have a particular website in mind that you want to search,
you aren’t having success using the search field provided by the website,
the website you want to search doesn’t have a search field.
Here’s an example of a Site search:
Free Pennsylvania site:ancestry.com
Try running the search above for yourself. You’ll find results that include many free genealogy records pertaining to Pennsylvania. Substitute the words to meet your search needs.
Construct a Site search for Free Genealogy by first typing in the words and phrases you wish to search for. Include the word free. Leave the appropriate spacing between them and follow the last item with a space. Then type site: and add the website home page address (URL). You can copy the URL and simply paste it in place. There is no space between the colon and the URL. And note that www is not required.
Searching for Offline Local Sources with Free Genealogy Information
To find what’s local and free:
Search WorldCat.org (be sure to use the Zip Code filtering to find the genealogy materials at the location closest to you.)
Use Google to search.
Find your local Family History Center here. These centers have unique free resources as well as free access to some subscription genealogy websites.
When you find a library, archive or other repository, visit their website and look for:
Databases they offer
Their online catalog to plan your research
Other associated libraries
Details on planning a visit
Get Free Genealogy Help on Facebook
Search for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) on Facebook.
Show Notes: If you’ve created a MyMap in Google Maps, there’s a lot more that you can do with it if you import it into Google Earth. However, exporting it out of MyMaps as a KMZ that can be used in Google Earth isn’t really obvious. The good news is that it’s not hard to do. I’ll explain how and I’ll also show you how to import the KMZ file into Google Earth.
If you have several items in your MyMaps project, make sure that each item that you want to be included in the file that you’re exporting has a checkmark next to it. Whatever is checked is activated on the map display and will be included in your exported file.
Next, in the upper left corner of Google MyMaps, you’ll see three vertically stacked dots. When we click that, you’ll get a menu that includes Download KML. KML and KMZ are file extensions that are supported by Google Earth.
You’ll also see View Map in Google Earth in this menu. If you click that the MyMaps project will open in a new web browser tab in the web version of Google Earth. You don’t want that because the web version does not have all the features that are available in the free downloadable software version of Google Earth.
Click to select Download KML. KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language. This is a geographic file. The difference between KML and KMZ is that KML is typically a single item while a KMZ is a zipped file potentially containing several items. Each placemark and data item added to your project is a single item. When you have several like in our example project, you will want to export it as a KMZ. So even though the menu says Download KML, go ahead and click it.
When you click it you’ll get a pop-up menu with two options:
Keep data up to date with network link KML (only usable online).
This will include all your data. If any of that data is coming from another source on the cloud and that source updates, your data will update in Google Earth.
Export as KML instead of KMZ. Does not support all icons. This can zip your project as a .KMZ but it might not transfer all your icons, particularly those that might be coming from another source on the cloud.
In many cases, either of these would be fine. But when in doubt, I select Keep data up to date with network link KML so that all my project data will remain current.
After you make your selection, your file will be exported to your hard drive. You can select the destination where you want it saved. It will be a KMZ file because there are multiple items that have been zipped into one package.
How to Open an Exported MyMaps KMZ File
On a PC you will see the downloaded KMZ file in the bar at the bottom of your screen. If you click the up arrow you can open the location on your hard drive where the file was saved. You can also click Open. That opens the KMZ in a program that can read it like Google Earth if it’s already installed on your computer. The easiest way to open the file is to simply double-click it. Your computer will automatically detect that you are opening a KMZ file and it will automatically launch your Google Earth software, and open and display the file in it. It may take a few extra moments to load and run because it’s trying to do two things at once, and Google Earth is a pretty robust program.
There are three panels in Google Earth:
Search (where you enter names, addresses and more to fly to locations in Google Earth),
Places (your Google Earth files and folders These are private and are not published by Google.)
and Layers (data that can be streamed from cloud sources.)
Your project file will be in the Temporary Folder of the Places Panel. Google places opened files in the Temporary folder because it doesn’t know whether you just want to look at it one time, or you want to keep it. When you want to keep a file, you will need to drag and drop it onto MyPlaces at the top of the Places panel, or into a folder you have created.
Also, Google Earth doesn’t autosave. So it’s important to save your work before you close the program. Otherwise, your file will be lost. To save your file, in the menu at the top of the screen select File > Save > Save MyPlaces.
How to Display a MyMaps File in Google Earth
There is a small arrow next to your project file in the Places panel that indicates it is a nested project folder. Click the arrow to display the contents of this zipped container. Inside is the actual MyMaps project folder or the project. Continue to click arrows to reveal the nested content. Now that you can see the individual items, you can now work with them.
To display the entire project on the screen, double-click the main project file (not one of the nested items). Click only to highlight it. Don’t click the linked title because that will only display the descriptive text you included in your original MyMaps project.
Everything that you saw in MyMaps is now in Google Earth. You can check and uncheck items within the project in the Places panel depending on what you want to be displayed on the screen.
How to Add Content to a MyMaps File in Google Earth
You can easily add additional content to your project. Click to select the project, then add content such as a Placemark. If you selected the Keep data up to date with network link KML option when you exported your file, you won’t be able to add items to the existing folders that came over from MyMaps. However, you can add individual items or new folders by selecting the top-level project.
The beauty of working with the project file in Google Earth is that you can now add content from the Layers panel, some of which was not available to you in MyMaps. You can also add additional items from the Toolbar at the top of the Google Earth screen.