Historic plat and land ownership maps of all sorts can be a boon for family historians. As their name implies, these maps indicate who owned parcels of land in a particular geographic area for a specific time period. Usually land ownership maps were done on a county-by-county basis, but that is not always necessarily the case. While many of these ownership maps simply provide the property owner’s name and possibly the number of acres owned, a number of maps also provide other details such as the type of land (forest or farm), the nature of the crop production, the number (and sometimes type) of dwellings, and the location of other important structures such as roads (with their next destination indicated), churches, and court houses.
With the data provided by plat maps, often including in the township, section, and range number possibilities for particular areas of land, the researcher can seek additional information through deed and tax records. It is important to remember that historically families of like ethnic groups tended to migrate together, travel together, and settle together. So once one had found an ancestor on a plat map, “looking around” a little for individuals of the same surname and individuals who may belong to collateral lines or share the same village of origin in the old country is a wise activity in which to engage.
When searching through census records for larger cities in unindexed census years, another type of map—the ward map—can prove to be quite useful. Ward maps typically delineate the boundaries of all the wards for a particular city during a specific year. Thus, if one has to search in the city of Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1870 census, it would be useful to actually look in the 1870 Indianapolis city directory for the individual, record his street address, and then locate that street address on the 1871/2 ward map for Indianapolis. Finding a particular ward in an unindexed census by scanning the page headers, and then searching through that ward for a particular individual is much faster than having to look through an entire city for that same person. This research method can also be employed when we have reason to believe that an individual is in a particular census year in a larger city but does not show up in the index.
Many ward maps can be found as supplemental pages in the front or back of numerous city directories. Most public libraries have city directories for the cities in which they are located as well as surrounding towns and villages. State libraries typically have very robust collections of city directories, either in print or on microfilm, for the cities within their respective states. Some ward maps can simply be found as part of institutional cartographic collections.
Some of the most interesting and perhaps unusual maps genealogists can use are fire insurance maps. Fire insurance maps can provide a variety of assistance to the genealogist. First, because of their detail, one can use them to determine which new house numbers correspond to particular old dwellings when a community or city re-numbers. One can also create a list of organizations in the area which may have been frequented by a potential ancestor. Such organizations may include churches, schools, laundries, groceries, department stores, lumber yards, and the like. By researching the organizational records of those entities, one may uncover new evidence and clues regarding a family’s past. And certainly urban growth and how that growth affected neighborhoods and regions of a particular city can be evidenced in these fire insurance maps.
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.
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 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.
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.