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A researcher can't get a feel for an area without understanding the lay of the land. Maps and atlases help genealogists sort out where their ancestors lived, in relation to regional and national boundaries, churches, rail lines, and other factors that help determine which records hold most hope. |
Relax - the basic rules for finding places are the same no matter what area you are dealing with. And despite what some may think, virtually every city, town and village can be found on a map or in a gazetteer. It's just a matter of sorting out where the place is, then finding the document that proves its existence.
The most common problem? Researchers don't have the correct place name. So gather as much information as possible, using every source at your disposal. Double-check. Don't rely on printed transcripts - for example, on the Ellis Island web site, always check the handwritten name. And while you are there, check for other people from the same village.
Remember that many place names have changed over the years, so determine the time frame of your source document. Some places have disappeared entirely, either swallowed up by larger communities nearby, or simply gone. Sometimes, records indicate a province, or an area, or a village name - and it's hard to determine which is which. It's possible that five different names all refer to the same place - but every different one can be a clue to help you find the correct location. The more names you find, the easier the search will be.
If you know the name of the neighbouring villages, it will be easier to pinpoint the village you're after. A cluster of villages can be like a fingerprint, creating a unique map reference. (Remember that many names were used many times, in many areas. The record is likely held by Alexandrowka; there are at least 800 places with that name in the former Soviet Union.)
Try to use the local language as much as possible, which means understanding the way each letter sounds. That can be a key to sorting out how a town name might have been spelled - or mis-spelled - in an old record. Cyrillic is easy, when you set your mind to it. If you learn the sounds of 20 Russian letters, you will be able to find villages on most Russian maps. For starters: P sounds like R, C sounds like S, H sounds like N, and B sounds like V.
Maps are visual aids and can help people understand more about how their ancestors lived. They can help to put areas into perspective. They are also essential when dealing with old church records, which could list a variety of different small villages. Maps can help a researcher determine other resources to check, and where those resources might be located.
Maps come in different scales, and it's important to know which ones are best for which purpose. A map with a scale of 1:10,000 to 1:15,000 will usually show street names and major buildings. One of 1:25,000 scale will show neighborhoods, and one inch on the map will translate into about two-fifths of a mile on the ground. A map of 1:100,000 scale will show regions, and is ideal for taking along on a research trip into the area.
A 1:200,000 map will get most of the small villages in most areas. A 1:300,000 map will miss some - there simply isn't enough room to include all of the names in a type large enough to read. A 1:700,000 map can include all of Poland, but the coverage comes at a cost, because thousands of villages will not be shown. These nation-wide maps can still be of value, because they show the relationship of different cities and regions, and offer clues to migration routes.
Keep these numbers in mind:
1:4,525 -- shows individual streets (Godfrey series in the UK is in this scale)
1:5,000 -- shows individual streets, with names
1:25,000 -- shows individual streets, but no names
1:50,000 -- shows nice local detail
1:63,360 -- shows one inch to one mile
1:190,080 -- shows one inch to three miles
1:200,000 -- shows most small villages in the area
1:300,000 -- misses half the villages, because there is not enough room to show the names
1:316,800 -- shows one inch to five miles
1:500,000 -- shows entire country, but offers little detail
Remember that Greenwich was not the only prime meridian!
Gazetteers for virtually every area are available through the Family History Library and its branches. Gazetteers could have key information about administrative districts, churches, populations, proximity to railways, telegraph offices, post offices and more. In European research, the most well-known gazetteer is Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon der Deutschen Reich. It is available on microfiche at all Family History Centers and on websites such as Ancestry and BYU.
Using Maps and Gazetteers in Your Research
By Dave Obee - on the Federation of East European Family History Societies site
World City DB
Perry Castaneda Historical Map Collection
One the website of the University of Texas libraries.
David Rumsey Collection
The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has more than 13,600 maps online.
Basic maps from many countries
National Imagery and Mapping Agency
Database of foreign geographic features
FamilySearch library catalogue
Finding aid to Prairie land records
Alberta Genealogical Society
Canadian Geographical Names
National Atlas of Canada
Information on products available in digital and conventional form, including base maps, geographical names and thematic maps that reflect the social, economic, environmental and cultural fabric of Canada.
Atlas of Canada Map Archives
Consists of 943 maps of the previously printed 1st edition of the Atlas published in 1906, the 2nd edition in 1915, the 3rd edition in 1957, the 4th edition in 1974 and finally, the 5th edition published 1995.
The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project
Maps, Plans and Charts
On the website of Library and Archives Canada.
Cartes geographiques numeriques
More than a thousand cartographic digitized pictures of Quebec and New France.
Saskatchewan Wheat Pool maps
Find A Church UK
Ordnance Survey search page
Online gazetteer of 50,000 locations in England
Old maps of England
Ancestry Gazetteer of England and Wales
Cassini historical maps
East and West Prussia Gazetteer
By Steve S. Barthel
For Eastern Europe
Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon der Deutschen Reichs (Ancestry)
Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon der Deutschen Reichs L-Z(BYU)
Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon der Deutschen Reichs L-Z(BYU)
(This gazetteer is also part of the basic collection on microfiche at all Family History Centers)
Land Patents in the United States
U.S. Principal Meridians and Base Lines
Map My Ancestors
Map My Family Tree
Updated September 18, 2011
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