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Friday, October 23, 2015

Historic Maps of Europe and the British Isles

Europa in Geologischer Beziehung nach den Hauptmassen der Gebirgs-Formationen. 3te Abtheilung: Geologie, No. 4. Gotha, bei J. Perthes. 1843. David Rumsey Maps
One of the most challenging aspects of genealogical research can be determining the country of origin of an immigrant. In beginning such a search, commonly the place recorded as the birth location either no longer exists or the place names are so painfully distorted as to be unrecognizable. It is an historical fact that the boundaries and even the names of the countries in Europe and even the parishes in Great Briton have changed over time due to political action or wars. In some parts of Eastern Europe, the names of the places could have been recorded in German, Russian or Polish.

These name changes often reflect differences in where the records about the ancestral family may be found.

As part of the methodology for solving these difficult immigration problems, maps are a good starting point for not only finding obscure locations but also for providing a perspective of the country boundaries at the time your immigrants left the Old Country for the new. However, depending on the type of map, the information may be vague or very specific.

Identifying the place where your ancestors lived is crucial in separating them from people with the same of similar names. Sometimes the identification needs to be as specific as the house or farm where they lived. Some historic maps have that degree of detail.

One type of map with detail down to the identify of individual houses or farms are the ordnance maps of Great Britain. Here is an example from Scotland:

Sheet 32 - [Edinburgh]
Publication date: 1857
Ordnance maps were prepared for military purposes but the value of this type of map to genealogists is the detail of the entries. The names of the farmhouses are included. There are also databases and gazetteers that list place names, but with a map you can see approximate distances and surrounding communities. One way to identify family groups is to plot all the places listed as births and marriages on a map and calculate the distances involved. The older the records, the more likely that extreme distances did not happen and that despite similar names the people may not be related.

The determination of which jurisdiction was in power at the time of your ancestor's event may be crucial in determining if the information is at all reasonable. Maps provide the insight into the lives of the ancestor and his or her family. It is important to remember that as you go back in time, the distances people could travel every day had to decrease.

Here is an map of Europe from the early 1800s.

Faden, William (1749-1836)Composite Map: Map of the Ce…1816
You may have to click on the map to see some of the detail or you can also click on the caption and look at the original. In the original map from the David Rumsey Map Collection, you can zoom in on the map and see the boundaries of the various countries that existed in that time period and identify the country where you ancestor may have lived. The names of the countries have all changed, some many times, since 1816. Just as a suggestion, look at this map and try to find a country named "Germany." In the U.S. Federal Census Records the country of origin is sometimes listed as Germany even during time periods when there was no country with that name.

Another valuable website with access to tens of thousands of historical maps is Here are some of my earlier posts that have references to map resources:

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