One of the threshold levels of awareness of a newly minted genealogical researcher is to begin to understand that geographically defined jurisdictions change over time. Once the researcher begins to dig into the history of the area where each ancestor lived and commences to verify how the various levels of source creating entitles lined up, real progress is possible in discovering valuable information about ancestors. The problem of establishing county boundaries in the United States is trivial when compared to the challenge of sorting out the political boundaries in Europe at any given time in the past. This is where maps and history become the constant companion of the genealogical researcher.
When I write about the "place" I am excluding all the vague references to "Germany" or "Russia" contained in the U.S. Federal Census records. Those references are not a ticket to search in Europe. The place name must be much more specific than any name of any country. If you want to get into a detailed discussion of the process of searching for origins, go to the FamilySearch Research Wiki on United States Emigration and Immigration.
Ultimately, you have to go to the maps of the place you determine is where your ancestors lived in the "Old Country." The above map came from OldMapsOnline.org, a very useful site for finding specific historical maps of any part of the world. There are also extensive lists of links to map sites on various library websites:
- Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection Maps on Other Web Sites
- University of Chicago Library, Map Links
- Map History / History of Cartography: THE Gateway to the Subject
- British Library, Maps: Scanned collections online
There are a lot more sites with links and maps, just keep looking. Then there are websites that catalog the name changes of locations in Europe. One of the challenges is figuring out how to spell the name of the place identified by U.S. research. Over time, the various locations in Europe (and elsewhere) have changed names as the rulers of that particular area have changed. Here are a few sites to get you started:
- Index of German-Polish and Polish-German names of the localities in Poland & Russia, by Anna Sluszkiewicz
- PolandGenWeb, Town Locators
There are dozens of more such websites. Just keep looking for place name changes on Google. That should get you started.