Maps are an important source for locating places where your ancestors lived. They identify political boundaries, names of places, geographical features, cemeteries, synagogues and churches, and migration routes. Historical maps are especially useful for finding communities that no longer exist and for understanding boundary changes.
Maps are published separately or in collections called atlases. Maps may also be included in gazetteers, guidebooks, local histories, directories, and history books.
Different types of maps will help you several ways:
- Historical atlases describe the development of countries. They show boundaries, migration routes, settlement patterns, military campaigns, and other historical information.
- Topographical maps show elevations and include physical and manmade features.
- Road atlases show a lot of detail.
- Ordinance maps show specific areas of a country in great detail.
- City or street maps are useful in researching large cities, such as Berlin, London, or Minsk.
If there is a research outline for the country or state where your ancestor lived, see the "Maps" section of the outline.
Use maps carefully for the following reasons:
- Often several places have the same name. For example, there were more than 800 towns called Aecahpoba (Aleksandrovka) in the Russian Empire.
- The spelling and even the names of some towns may have changed. This is particularly true of eastern European countries whose boundaries have changed. For example, the town presently known as Zagreb in Croatia was called Agram before the Austrian Empire was dissolved.
- Foreign place-names are often misspelled by record keepers of other countries. Sometimes difficult names were shortened and important diacritical marks omitted.
- Political and local boundaries are not always clearly indicated on all maps.
Finding the Specific Place on the Map
To do successful genealogical research, you must identify the place where your ancestor lived. Because many localities have the same name, you may need some additional information before you can find the correct place on a map. Search gazetteers, histories, family records, and other sources to learn all you can about:
- The country, state or province, county, and town of your ancestor’s birthplace or residence.
- The location of the synagogues or churches in these areas.
- The size of the town.
- Your ancestor’s occupation (this can indicate the size or industries of the town).
- Nearby localities, such as large cities.
- Industries in the area.
- The dates the town existed, if and when it was renamed, and other names it was known by.
- Geographical features, such as rivers and mountains.
Use gazetteers to identify the government district your ancestor’s town was in. This will help you distinguish it from other towns of the same name and enable you to locate it on a map. For further information, see "Gazetteers" in this outline.
Finding Maps and Atlases
Collections of maps and atlases are available at historical societies, county record offices, libraries, and on the Internet. The Family History Library has a good collection of maps and atlases for most countries of the world. Check for these records in the Family History Library Catalog.
Because of boundary changes, the dissolution of empires, and the changes in place names, it is especially important to use maps in researching Central and Eastern European countries. Some helpful maps for these areas include:
Eastern Europe. Scale 1:250,000. Washington, DC: Army Map Service, 1956–1959. (FHL map 947 E7e; film 1183629.) This map comes with a two-volume place-name index that lists the sheet number and longitude and latitude for each place (FHL book 947 E7e index; fiche 6001727–6001728). A grid map at the front of the film also shows what sections are on which maps. References to this map are found in gazetteers of this region published by the U.S. Board on Geographical Names.
Generalkarte von Mitteleuropa (General Map of Central Europe). Scale 1:200,000. Wien: Bundesamt für Eich-und Vermessungswesen, 1889–1967. (FHL book 940 E7bm; film 1181580.) This map includes the region from middle Germany to western Ukraine and down to Greece, an area of high concentration for Jews. The grid map at the beginning of the film lists numbers across the top and at the left. The section maps use the top number plus the left number together as a map number.
Militär-Landesaufnahme und Spezialkarte der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie (Military Topographical and Specialized Map of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire). Wien: Das Institut, 1879–1928. (FHL book 943.6 E3am; film 1045395). Includes all of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire except for modern Austria. Overview map at the first of the film gives map numbers.
Karte des Deutschen Reiches (Map of the German Empire). 647 Maps. Berlin: Königlichen Preussischen Landesaufnahme, 1914–1917. (FHL film 0068814.) Overview map at the first of the film shows map numbers in the top right corner.
Recently published road atlases for each central and eastern European country have alphabetical indexes and show how town names are listed today. They can be found at public libraries or bookstores.
A historical atlas can be very helpful in visualizing your ancestor’s homeland and may resolve research questions. Historical atlases are available at most libraries. The Family History Library has several historical atlases including:
Magocsi, Paul Robert. Historical Atlas of East Central Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993. (FHL book 942 H2ho vol. 1.)