Historical maps are crucial to genealogy research! Learn how to find free online historical maps to use in your genealogy research.
What genealogy researcher does not love a good historical map?!
I’ve always been a fan of maps – even as a young child. Remember those Trip-tiks AAA used to give out when you planned a vacation? I used to get my very own, so I could check off each town and state line as we traveled to someplace fun. When I had children of my own, my husband and I got them their own Trip-tik maps for our family vacations, too.
Let me say my adult children are very good at reading maps! I digress…..
As a genealogy researcher, I love spending time studying all types of maps. Old road maps, topographical maps, insurance maps and even maps drawn in deeds or the back of a napkin(!) allow us as genealogy researchers to quite literally place our ancestors in a specific location and time. Knowing where an ancestor was in time and place can help you the researcher understand migration patterns and the community where an ancestor lived.
When we understand where our ancestors lived, what resources they had close, and what type of home they had, we can begin to understand the daily life decisions they made. Understanding our ancestors on that level and the social history surrounding them, is often what is needed to break down genealogy brick walls.
Fortunately, for us as researchers, many maps of all types can be found online for FREE.[You know me, I’m a frugal genealogist and free is good!]
Where To Find Free Online Historical Maps
Explore these FREE resources for online historical maps.
1. Google Maps and Google Earth – Great resources for visualizing where your ancestors lived. I frequently use the street view on Google Maps to explore towns and neighborhoods where my ancestors lived. It’s possible to see an ancestor’s actual house if it still stands.
2. David Rumsey’s Historical Maps – With over 112,000 images, this fantastic (and large) historical map collection is a “must see” for your research. It includes maps from around the world. You can find street maps, aerial maps and even climate maps. Were your ancestors farmers? Take a peek at those climate maps.
3. Library of Congress – The Library of Congress has an excellent collection of maps from around the world including the Sanborn maps (see #6), historic maps of cities like San Francisco, military maps and so much more. Use the search bar to find a specific map or type of map or if you have time, enjoy browsing the maps.
4. The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin houses over 250,000 maps with about 20% digitized. The PCL contains indices for historical maps from a variety libraries and archives. Note: This site is no longer being updated as of 2021, but does remain available.
5. Alabama Maps (The University of Alabama) – The University of Alabama’s large collection contain maps both for the US and the World divided into 4 categories of maps: Contemporary Map Index, Historical Map Archive, Interactive Maps, and Aerial Photography Index. Don’t overlook the climate data maps for learning about the area where your ancestor lived.
6. Sanborn Maps – Sanborn Fire insurance maps are fantastic for detailing a city. As a bonus, they are quite pretty to look at, too. These are found at the Library of Congress (see #3 above), but due to their uniqueness I chose to give them their own separate listing here. Detailed in nature,iInsurance maps provide detail about your ancestor’s home such as the building material (brick or wood) or whether a structure was a single family or multifamily dwelling.
7. Atlas of Historical County Boundaries – A large project documenting county boundary changes, the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries helps genealogy researchers not to lose track of your ancestors in the records. Bookmark this site and keep up with the changing county boundaries through the years as you research.
8. City Directories – Maps of a city or town were often included in a city directory. Check the back and the front sections for local street maps and even street name changes that may be listed. Remember smaller towns may be in a regional or close larger town directory. Start your search for city directories on Google Books!
9. Osher Map Library Housed at the University of Southern Maine, explore a large collection of historical maps. These collections are continually being updated.
11.National Library of Australia– For those of you with Australian roots, find large and varied map collection including topographical maps, street maps, Australian state and territory maps and more.
Old-Maps.co.uk– A comprehensive map collection covering England, Scotland and Wales. [As of Oct 2021, Old Maps is no longer available.]
13. A Vision of Britain Old Map Collection – Maps centered focused on Britain from 1801 to current.
14. National Library of Scotland – The National Library of Scotland has a large collection of historical maps covering the United Kingdom. Do not overlook this resource simply because you do not have Scottish ancestors!
15. USGS Topo Maps – The historical topographical maps are helpful to the genealogy researcher where the “old” names of local landmarks and features can be found. Additionally, learning about the topography – or contours – of the land where your ancestors lived can potentially lead to clues to your ancestors migration patterns, farming patterns and even types of occupations.
16. Historic Map Works – Based in Maine, Historic Map Works has a large and varied collection of maps including property atlases, historic maps, nautical charts (seafaring ancestors, anyone?) and aerial views. The site also has city directories.
How to Search For Maps To Use In Genealogy Research
The list above covers predominantly U.S. based sites and a few worldwide sites with free historical maps. If you do not see maps covering the region you research, searching for online maps is relatively easy.
Structure and perform a Google search using search terms such as:
“Online historical maps [region/country]”
**You do not need to include the quotation marks in your actual search.
For example, in the search for your German ancestors and maps for where they lived, try structuring your search term as “Online historical maps Germany“.
Google will even give you a few suggestions to fine tune your search.
Or try adding a date for narrow your results:
“Online historical maps [regions/country] [year]”
An example would be “Online historical maps France 1890”.
Note: Typing the quotation marks into the search bar is not necessary.
As part of your genealogy research plan, spend time searching and exploring online historical map collections. Familiarize yourself with the land, the city and the general area where your ancestors lived to improve your research results for those brick wall ancestors.
Learn More About Using Maps in Your Genealogy Research
You’ve found the maps for the location(s) where your ancestor lived. Now what?
Learn more about using maps in your genealogy research in this quick video: