Avoid Detours with Historical Maps, by Juliana Smith

14th st. Brooklyn 1929 copy.gifHere in the Midwestern United States, we’re thoroughly convinced that construction season was invented to make us appreciate winter. This morning I took my daughter to school and by the time I picked her up, my alternate route was closed off, forcing me to find an alternate alternate route. In the afternoon I have to take an alternate alternate alternate route lest I risk driving through a neighborhood at precisely the time that an elementary school is being dismissed. (I made that mistake once. Never again.)

To top it off, I cannot figure out what they are doing in some of these places. I am convinced that no work is being done whatsoever except that every night some gremlin gleefully rearranges the cones and hides somewhere so that he can watch as confused commuters try to guess which lane they’re supposed to be in–and I’m a terrible guesser!

As we work on tracing our ancestors, we may find ourselves facing similar challenges. In determining what route our ancestors took in immigrating to a new country, or moving to a new destination, we may find that they too took some detours. In last week’s column, we talked about how some immigrants to the U.S. detoured through Canada. I also alluded to multiple names that have been given to the town where my great-grandmother’s family lived. That provides another geographical challenge. Changing borders, county lines, street names and numbering, and population expansion into new territories have made some of the places in which our ancestors lived all but unrecognizable.

Fortunately, historical maps are becoming increasingly available online. Ancestry has a fantastic collection of historical maps, gazetteers, and atlases that we can use to get a better view of the landscape as it was in the days of our ancestors. Here are a few of my favorites:

U.S. Land Ownership Maps and Atlases
There are two databases that feature land ownership maps and atlases for the U.S.

Both databases are browsable by state and then by city or county. I found several New York City and Brooklyn maps that I didn’t even know were available. For example, there is an 1850 Map of New York City. On it you’ll find lists of hotels, including the infamous Tammany Hall (which I just realized happens to be very close to where my Irish Kellys were living in 1850), public buildings, squares and markets, cemeteries, charitable institutions, schools, parks, and churches.

Browse through both collections and see what you can find. One thing to keep in mind though, these collections contain a wide variety of formats, from bird’s eye views to very detailed close-up maps that include the names of property owners. You’ll find different navigations schemes on many of them, but when you find one that shows your ancestor’s neighborhood in great detail, you’ll be glad you took the time to find it.

I also found a 1929 Brooklyn atlas with detailed maps that cover small sections of the city. The image accompanying this article shows one plate covering an area where one of my ancestors lived around this time. (To locate the correct section of Brooklyn, I had to first go to the “Indexes.” I looked for 467 Fourteenth Street, where my Dennis family lived for a while in the 1920s.)

“Index 4” had the entry for Fourteenth Street and told me that house numbers 383-494 were on page 46. The page numbers didn’t match up exactly to the plate numbers but they were close. Plate number 46 was just north of Fourteenth Street and as I scrolled to the bottom of the map, I could see a large number 45 indicating where Plate 45 picked up at the bottom. I went back and selected Plate 45 and it was exactly what I was looking for. (Click on the image of the map with this article to see that plate.)

There are maps in these collections for quite a few large cities, as well as county maps for more rural areas. Regardless of where your U.S. ancestors lived, be sure to check out both of these collections.

Lippincott’s Gazetteer of the World, 1913

World Wars I and II redrew many lines in Europe, so for those of us whose European immigrant ancestors left home before the outbreak of World War I, learning about our ancestral origins can be challenging. Lippincott’s Gazetteer of the World, 1913 lists major towns, cities, and counties and describes them as they were before the war. Here’s the entry for Gomor megye where my great-grandparents were born.

Gomor, a county of Hungary, in the N., traversed by spurs of the Carpathians. It has great and varied mineral wealth. Capital, Rima-Szombat.

Cassell’s Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland

When I found my fourth great-grandfather’s town of origin in the Emigrant Savings Bank database a few years back, I had a tough time finding any information about the town–Glackmore, Co. Donegal, Ireland. While I’ve since found more information online about the area, Cassell’s Gazetteer provided me with this glimpse:

“Glackmore, mountain on the borders of East and West Inishowen bars., N.E. co. Don., Ir., 4N. of Muff. It lies immediately south-west of Crockglass and together with that mountain shelters the west side of Lough Foyle.”

Finding Your Way
One last tip–when searching these databases, be sure to put the location name in the Keyword field. That seems to bring up the best results. Try browsing them by location too. I found some unexpected gems this way.

While learning the geographical environment in which your ancestors lived requires a little digging, it is well worth the effort. Once you are familiar with the “lay of the land,” it will be easier for you to find your way to the records that they created in that area, while taking fewer detours.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

5 thoughts on “Avoid Detours with Historical Maps, by Juliana Smith

  1. I drove a truck with my husband for some years, and I became convienced that there was no construction being done. It was a matter of not enough storage. From season to season, cones came out to be able to store the “mowers ahead, etc,” signs that were used in the summer months, and the opposite the next season.
    I enjoyed your article though. It will help me keep in mind as I research that my ancesters may have had to detour due to river crossings, bad weather or many other reasons.
    Thank you.

  2. For years I have tried to figure out why my great great grandfather was born in a different state than all his siblings (both older and younger). Then I found some other family members (cousins) living in that county and wondered if perhaps his family was visiting them when he was born.

    It was certainly a detour! I’ll keep looking for the road signs. Perhaps I’ll find the answer.

  3. I think the gazetteer images are great. These images capture maps from the 1870-1890’s. The maps I find useful are the historic USGS maps. UNH started an online archive of New England and New York. The maps date from 1890-1950. Maptech is hosting all the UNH maps with maps from Ohio to Virginia.


    They are expanding thier historic maps with volunteers doing the scanning.

    I thought the article was incomplete without this info. Although the maps do not cover the whole US, the ablity to track changes is priceless.

  4. Please print all the pages that go with the “US County Land Ownership Atlases,c. 1864-1918”.Example,I chose state of Kentucky,Bath County, and the Table of Contents shows there are 60 pages,but there are only 29 pages in your databse for Bath County. ????

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