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!

DNA and Privacy: No Man is a Genetic Island

The recent identification of the Golden State Killer through a DNA database for genealogy is just one way your DNA may be used in unexpected ways. Lisa Louise Cooke shares 5 key principles to keep in mind when considering your online DNA presence.   Golden State...

Google Scholar and ProQuest Team Up!

This just in! Google Scholar and ProQuest are teaming up to provide a publicly-accessible index to all of ProQuest’s scholarly journal content. Google Scholar already delivers search results on your favorite genealogy keywords (names, places and records) from scholarly publications like dissertations, academic articles and more. (Click here to read my blog post about Google Scholar for genealogy.)

Now the search experience will become more powerful and inclusive. According to a press release, “ProQuest will enable the full text of its scholarly journal content to be indexed in Google Scholar, improving research outcomes. Work is underway and the company anticipates that by the third-quarter of 2015, users starting their research in Google Scholar will be able to access scholarly content via ProQuest.”

“ProQuest has rich, vast content that advances the work of researchers, scholars and students,” blogged the CEO of ProQuest. “Respecting the different ways researchers and librarians choose to conduct their research is essential to ensuring that content is simple to discover and use. We know Google Scholar is a popular starting point for researchers of all kinds. Our teamwork with Google will enable these patrons to be automatically recognized as authenticated ProQuest users and seamlessly link to their ProQuest collections, where they can connect with full-text scholarly content.”

It appears that there will still be a charge to access copyright-protected material (“authenticated ProQuest users” in the quote above are those that have access via a ProQuest subscription). According to the press release, “Users who are not recognized will be sent to a landing page with the abstract or an image of the first page, protecting all rights holders. To read full text, the users will authenticate themselves. There is nothing for libraries to set up – the linking will be seamless and automatic.”

Genealogists Google Toolbox 2nd edition coverLearn more about using Google Scholar and other advance Google search techniques to discover your family history online in The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox Second Edition. The newly-updated and fully-revised book is available now!

Can Google Help Me Search Digitized Newspaper Pages?

my ancestor in the newspaper newsCan Google help you search digitized newspapers you find online? Recently I heard from Garth in Ontario, Canada with a question like that. Here’s what he asked and here’s what I told him:

“A friend found a digitized newspaper article by clicking on this link and going through various years–very time consuming! I’m thinking there has to be a better way with Google, but no luck. I think I have used most of your techniques from Genealogy Gems. Would appreciate any hints.”

genealogy gems podcast mailboxFirst of all, thanks to Garth for alerting us to an online local archive of Canadian newspapers, The Clarington Local Newspapers collection. I like making people aware of collections like this. Here’s what I told him:

If the website had text transcriptions of articles then Google would have easily been able to grab the phrase “Arthur Levi Brunt” off any page. The search would be “Arthur Levi Brunt”  or, even better, would be a site search, which would be formatted like this: site:http://vitacollections.ca/claringtonnews “Arthur Levi Brunt.” In Google site searches, you start with the word “site” with a colon, followed by the home page in which to search, followed by the exact phrase you want to search in quotes.

However, the Clarington Digital News website relies on its own built-in Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to spot and retrieve search terms on the digitized newspaper images. Google doesn’t have access to their OCR, and can’t apply OCR itself to images on the web (the pages on this site are images, not pdfs). So in this case, Google would not be able to locate the same article.

I did notice in looking at the Clarington News site that there is a search box, so your friend didn’t need to browse through the years looking for article on Arthur. Simply entering his name in site’s search box instantly brought up the relevant list in seconds. Here’s a link to that search, so you can see for yourself. Perhaps a few of the other newspaper articles found in that search will be of interest to your friend as well!

Genealogists Google Toolbox 2nd edition coverLearn more about Google search strategies (Google site search is just one!) in my newly-revised, hot off the press 2nd edition of The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition. So many genealogy gems like these news articles are buried online: you just need to know how to harness the power of Google’s FREE tools to find them!

Pin It on Pinterest

MENU