Maps are incredibly useful in our genealogy. They can put our ancestors in context with their surroundings like few other sources can. There are numerous types of maps, each with its own benefits to our research. Here are 5 types that you should know.
Just like the name implies, a boundary map shows the boundaries of a particular area. They are great for getting an overview of how things relate to each other. Below is a portion of the 1887 map of Riley County, Kansas.
It’s important to look at the boundary maps for the time period that your ancestor lived there, as boundaries do change. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries by the Newberry Library used to have an interactive timeline where you could select a county and see its boundaries change over time. The timeline has been “temporarily unavailable” for several months, but is supposed to be coming back soon. In the mean time, you can download the maps of boundary changes for an entire state as a PDF.
Landowner or Cadastral Maps
A landowner or cadastral map is a special type of boundary map that shows the parcels of land and who owns them. While that may or may not be the same as the people who actually live there, these maps are an excellent way of piecing together the neighborhood. Below is part of the 1858 Landowners Map of Franklin County, Indiana.
A topographic map (often called a topo map) shows the lay of the land. It shows the changes in elevation, waterways, etc. It can help us see why our ancestors moved in certain ways or why they did (or didn’t) do certain occupations. Not much flat land? Probably didn’t farm much corn or wheat. Attended a church further away than you expected? Maybe the terrain made it easier to get to that one than the church that was closer. Below is a topographic map of part of Santa Cruz County, Arizona.
Transportation maps include things like major roadways, railroads, and canals. This makes envisioning possible migration paths so much clearer. Transportation maps on a small scale can show inter-urban rail lines, which can help you see exactly how your ancestors got from place to place in their everyday lives. Below is a small portion of the “Electric railway map of eastern New England, 1898.”
Insurance maps were used by insurance companies to help them assess fire risk. The most common were the Sanborn maps. Insurance maps show the buildings in a town, how many stories they were, what they were made of, and other details that could be important in determining the risk of a fire, such as a factory not having a night watchman. Below is a small portion of the 1909 Sanborn map for Advance, Boone County, Indiana. (Note how it shows the buggy shop had a concrete floor.)
What’s your favorite type of map?