Mapping Your Family History

Using Maps for Family History Research

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.

Map Resources

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 MapCarta Maps. I personally prefer the look of the MapCarta road-map, but on the other hand I prefer Google’s Terrain Mode.

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 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 back roads, woodlands, waterways, and even home and plot sizes.

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 richer than the other, so this could provide a clue as to status and financial means. If anything it is a jumping off point because the map raises questions. Questions are what drive the research; curiosity is the name of the game.

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 the lives of the people who lived there. 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 are clues and information that help develop the family narrative. Overall, maps are a top tier resource for successful family history research and story gathering.

Old-School Map on the Wall

While digital maps are a great tool, there is something to be said for old-fashioned pin-up 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.

Types of Maps

There are many different kinds of maps and nearly all of them are useful for getting a real feel for the places of our families’ 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: The Incredible Story and Stunning Hand-Colored Maps and Engravings that Created the United States is one of the best resources to have on hand.

“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 what an exciting part it was!

Next time you are looking for clues to your family’s past, don’t forget to turn to maps. They can be a powerful resource for discovering and understanding your ancestors’ world. We’d love to hear what you find. Questions and comments welcome. DISCLOSURE: This post includes an Amazon affiliate link. If you make a purchase through the link, I’ll earn a few pennies at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting the blog!


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