Being familiar with the area in which an ancestor lived is essential to family history research. By using maps, you can learn more about the name, location, and history of the city or town in which your ancestors lived. This, in turn, can help you uncover new record sources for your ancestors. A number of different maps may be useful in your family history research, depending upon your specific research needs and goals:
Road Maps & Atlases
While basic, these maps can be useful to genealogists as they can help us pinpoint present-day towns and find our way from one location to the other. Start your foray into maps by checking a standard road atlas or map for the name and location of your ancestor's town. If you're not successful in locating the place by name, then search out a historical map or atlas from the time when your ancestors lived. You can also try using an online place name finder to pinpoint your ancestor's former location.
County, Parish, & Province Maps
Atlases and road maps are excellent resources to start your search, but may not provide the detail that you need. This is where more local maps come to the rescue. Such maps are highly detailed, showing features such as unnamed county roads, major landmarks, and cemeteries, and are usually available for from county or other government offices.
Topographic and other relief maps show land forms - hills, valleys, rivers, streams, and vegetation - as well as roads and landmarks. One of the most widely used of all maps, a topographic map can help suggest patterns of settlement and migration, as well as locate cemeteries, buildings, or your ancestor's property, based on land descriptions and geographical features.
Land Maps, Surveys, & Plat Books
Land and property records provide a historical record of ownership and, as such, are usually meticuously maintained by governments. A land map or plat book from a county courthouse, town hall, or other government entity will usually provide details on a specific property location as well as the names of the property owners, neighbors, etc.
City Directory Maps
While used primarily by genealogists as an alternative to census records, many city directories actually contain a street map providing details on area streets and major topographical features (i.e. railroads, rivers). Comparing the map from a city directory with a present-day map can reveal streets that no longer exist or have undergone name changes.
Fire Insurance Maps
Used by insurance companies to determine the risk factors in underwriting a business or home, fire insurance maps can provide interesting details for many cities, towns, and neighborhoods, such as the outline of each building, the size, shape and construction materials, function of the structures, and location of windows and doors. The maps also give street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers.