Place Your Ancestors:
Your Guide to Using Atlases, Maps & Gazetteers


handwrittenmap Research is much more effective if you aren't plucking people and events out of thin air. Just as history is important to a genealogist, so is geography. Maps show us jurisdictions and boundaries -- and for that we often want to see historical maps. Virginia looked a lot different in 1791 than in did in 1891 or 1991. If we possibly can, we want a map from the time period of the research. Maps show us distances and proximate places. We know how far people moved and how close they were to other family members. Maps show us physical features... mountains, valleys, rivers.. as well as cultural points of interest, such as churches and cemeteries. Maps can place military and other historical event and show us migration trails that our ancestors traveled.

Atlases * Maps * Gazetteers * Vendors * More Links

Start with a book that teach about using maps for genealogical research -- to buy or read at a library.

Walking With Your Ancestors: A Genealogists Guide to Using Maps and Geography. Family Tree Books, 2005 (find in a library)


Atlases are a series of maps compiled in a book, often annotated to to show specific information, e.g., land owners, county boundary formation or military events.

County Atlases

These are invaluable, especially so because they contain maps of townships, villages and cities as well as the county.

Images from the 1895 U.S. Atlas (all counties in the U.S.) have been scanned and are available online. (Scroll down to select the state you want; then choose county)

Here are a few projects to digitize historical county atlases and provide them online; to see if there is one for the jurisdiction use a Google search with words historical county atlases digital. Here are some examples:

Boundaries & Jurisdictions



Ideally we will find a state map showing counties and a county map that shows towns, villages and cities. This allows us to more concretely place our ancestors and get an idea of distances between various locations.

State maps

County Maps

County maps hat show us townships (towns), villages and cities, as well as perhaps Perhaps also cemeteries and other important places, are just as important, but can be more difficult to find.

Township, City or Village Maps

Maps of a specific township, village or city can also be useful. They are more likely to show detailed information, such as land ownership, locations of cemeteries, churches and other important places. They also are more likely to show place names that might not be found in maps of larger jurisdictions, which are more likely to sacrifice details. You are most likely to find a township map in an atlas for the county, but you might also send a request to the local library or the local government office for a reference to a good map of the township or city.

Topographic maps

Topographic maps show natural (and sometimes cultural) features that are often absent from the types of maps we are used to using. For more information, see this Wikipedia article on topographic maps.

Other maps

Map Collections online

There are some map collections available online, but I am rarely able to bring up a good, viewable copy to work with. Maybe it's me. I use them to find out what maps exist and if one looks good, I can often order a copy. Or see if I can find a copy at the University of Michigan Library. Map Library . (See their Genealogy Research Guide for Maps, Atlases and Gazetteers)


A gazetteer is a listing of place names... it helps you locate a place if you only know the name, but have no idea where it is. A gazetteer is a handy reference book to have on hand, but there are also gazetteers online.

Often, however, you will want a gazetteer that was published long ago because it will, include names of places that are no longer used. Some gazetteers have phonetic variations in the spelling of names; if not, you will need to try under a variety of spellings, as the one you have in hand may not be correct. A few historical gazetteers are available online at Google Books -- there may now be more than listed here.


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This page last updated April 15, 2012