One of the best ways to understand our ancestors’ world is to get a bird’s eye view of it using maps. Maps can show an outline of how our family moved through time, place to place. Tracking a family’s movements over time on a map can also provide clues, if not answers, to as yet unsolved family secrets and mysteries.

Google road map

The resource most of us access first is Google Maps, and with good reason. It is a powerful tool, especially when it comes to tracking, which we will cover in Part Two. But Google isn’t the only game in town. Another excellent map resource is Michelin Maps. I personally prefer the look of the Michelin roadmap, but on the other hand prefer Google’s Terrain Mode.

Michelin road map

The most important function on both maps is the zoom feature. Some towns show up on one and not on the other, so it’s best to check both map sites and zoom in and out slowly to see what they reveal. 

These two maps show us the cities and towns nearby that more than likely our ancestors were familiar with and visited. In-laws usually come from neighboring villages and you may recognize some of the place names already. There’s another feature that can give a sense of their lifestyle and way of living. 

When we switch the view to Terrain Mode we see that one Seedorf, an ancestral hub of mine,  is quite a small community in the middle of plots of farmland. Again, zooming in and out will reveal other details about the area such as backroads, woodlands, waterways, and even home and plot sizes. 

Google Aerial View, Seedorf farmland

Contrast this roadmap view to an aerial cityscape. In the map below we see how the city of Geneva (another family hub) is divided by a river and how the neighborhoods are laid out. It’s often the case that one side of a river is always richer than the other so this could provide a clue as to status and financial means.

Google Aerial View, Geneva Cityscape

Neighborhoods are often known for specific specialties such as the garment district, the farmers’ market, or the manufacturing section of town for a particular product like shoemakers, pottery, even prostitution. All these are clues when it comes to understanding the day to day life of our ancestors and how they lived and worked.

Just from these two types of maps we can start to get a glimpse into their lives: urban or rural, local natural resources like forests for wood, waterways for travel and food, mountains for mining, the seaside for shipping and seafood, and all the related industries that go with each of these types of land features. Overall, maps are a top tier resource for successful family history research and story gathering. 

While digital maps are a great tool there is something to be said for old fashioned pin up on the wall type maps with colored push-pins. Once we have a good sense of the region and different locales where our ancestors lived it’s often quite helpful to plot it all out so you can get a visual view of the big picture, something the genealogy sites don’t do very well. A good atlas is a good investment, especially if it covers a specific time period or geographical region. 

There are many different kinds of maps and nearly all of them are useful for getting a real feel for the places of our family ancestors. Physical maps, political maps, thematic and regional maps all provide insight into the place they lived, worked, married, arrived to or fled. For those focusing on Early American family histories, Mapping America is one of the best resources to have on hand.

explore your early american family history mapping america

“Mapping America illuminates with scene-setting text and more than 150 color images—from the exotic and fanciful maps of Renaissance explorers to the magnificent maps of the Golden Age and the thrilling battle-maps and charts of the American Revolutionary War, in addition to paintings from the masters of eighteenth century art, scores of photographs, and detailed diagrams.” 

With this resource we get to really see how our ancestors participated and contributed to the overall growth and progress of the nation, whether it was farming, manufacturing, ranching, or fishing, building, digging, or hauling, everyone played a part. And that’s one of the biggest rewards of this kind of family research; we can feel directly connected to our personal history as well as the history of our place on the planet. 

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Explore your family history with

If you are researching your European ancestors one of the best resources you can get is The Family Tree Historical Maps Book.  A Country-by-Country Atlas of European History, 1700s-1900s. “From Ireland to Italy, Portugal to Poland, Germany to Greece, and everywhere in between, explore your ancestors’ European homelands through more than 200 gorgeous reproductions of 18th-century maps, 19th-century and early 20th-century maps.” Borders and those in power change over time, and in many cases frequently, so it is helpful to get a picture of how things actually were when your ancestors lived there. 

In Part Two we will look at an easy way to track a family’s movements over time and see what can be revealed by doing so. 

Were any questions answered for you when you researched your ancestral maps? We love hearing family stories and the journey to discover them, so please share in the comments or send an email. Questions are always welcome too. 

“We all carry inside us people who came before us.” ~ Liam Callanan

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