Want to Know Your Ancestor’s World? Look at a Map.

free historical maps

Be sure to read my article on why we genealogists need to use maps.

These resources are ones that I use on a consistent basis. Many are free (3 are $) and all are among the best resources for

  1. understanding your ancestor’s world
  2. “seeing” the routes Americans would have used in early days
  3. getting an inkling of your ancestor’s world (see below)
  4. seeing how maps fit into your family history

I wrote all of the Ancestor’s World posts to help other genealogists get a good sense of what was going on around the world in any given time period. If you think about how today’s events impact your life, think about the events of your ancestor’s day. How long would it have taken for a major event to reach their small town? Could they even read? What would they have thought of this?

One of the reasons I love period maps is that they tell me so much about the world in which an ancestor lived. Think of even 19th century America: These states would not have existed:

  • Oklahoma
  • New Mexico
  • Arizona
  • Alaska
  • Hawaii

As you can see, you can learn a lot from just looking at a map that was “modern” during an ancestor’s life.

Have fun digging into this list – and don’t hesitate to find a (copyright-free) period map to add to your family history, story, or genealogy software.

Applying Old Maps to Family History Webinar ($) – From Family Tree University

David Rumsey Map Collection – Over 71,000 maps online

Historical Maps of Europe ($) – Excellent reference book from Family Tree

Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas – Use the navigation links on the left side of the page to go to maps of various geographical areas. (don’t miss the historic road maps)

Osher Map Library – use the search box and the date slider bar to find maps of various time periods. You can download low resolution maps.

Family Tree Historical Atlas of American Cities ($) There’s nothing like a period map to help understand your ancestor’s world.

Library of Congress – A truly eclectic collection

Sanborn Fire Insurance  – These were done for insurance purposes are are extremely detailed maps of towns


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  1. Because of old plat maps I was able to verify a land transaction between a father and son to verify the father’s name. Opening up one more generation! Anyone looking to prove a family connection will understand this excitement. Months of constant work finally paid off through a land record. BLM lands GLO record had scans of the original hand written documents connecting father and son. So search for your ancestors on the BLM site you never know. The site is limited to the Eastern states but then again that is probably all there was at that time.

    1. Hi Belle – Awesome work! By the way, the BLM site is actually the states that were not the original 13 (plus a couple more). Lots in the Midwest. Nancy

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