Old maps are vitally important for genealogy because the characteristics of a location can change in many ways over time. Historic maps help us understand the world as it was at the time our ancestors lived.
Here is a short list of just a few of the things that may have changed:
- Street addresses
- town names
- county boundaries
- waterways that may have been filled in or opened up
- railway lines
In fact, the country itself where they lived may be a completely different country. For example, my German ancestors lived in Prussia in the 19th century. Today, that area is part of Poland. Therefore, all of the village names have been changed to Polish names.
The David Rumsey Map Collection is an excellent place to go to find maps of your ancestors homeland for free.
Watch the Map Search Video
I’m going to explain the 7 steps to finding the maps you need for your genealogy research at this wonderful website! I highly recommend that you watch the short video below to see it in action as you read. The player will stay with you as you scroll down the page.
Step 1: Go to the David Rumsey Map Collection Website
The first thing you need to do is go to the David Rumsey website here. You’ll be greeted on the home page with glorious historic maps. (Stay focused because it’s easy to get distracted by all the fascinating maps!)
Step 2: Scroll Down to the Bottom of the David Rumsey Home Page
While you can search for a place name in the search box at the top of the page, there’s a better way to search. Scroll down the page until you get to Featured App: MapRank Search (it’s almost at the bottom.)
Step 3: Launch Map Rank Search
The Featured App – MapRank Search is the best place to search the website, but it’s easy to miss because it’s not at the top. So go ahead and click the Launch MapRank button in the upper corner of this section.
When you click the button it will open a new tab in your web browser which will take you to the Geographical Searching with MapRank Search page.
Quick Tip: The Fastest Way to MapRank Search
You can get there faster by going directly to https://rumsey.mapranksearch.com. I didn’t take you straight there from the beginning because I think it’s important to be aware of the home page and everything else it offers. However, today our focus is conducting the optimal search for old maps for you family history.
Step 4 Selecting the Map Time Frame
Here’s what the search page looks like.
There are two very important features on this app page that will help you get the best results possible: the time slider and the location search box.
The time slider is located beneath the map:
It’s important to first select the time frame that you are searching because that will dictate the results you get when you search on the location name. (We’ll get to that in just a moment.)
There is a slider on each end of the timeline. Slide them to specify the desired time frame. In my example below, I’m looking for maps between 1800 and 1900.
As you move the sliders, you’ll notice that the maps in the right hand column will change. This is because only maps that fall within the range you select will be offered in the Instant Search Results column. But before we look at those, we need to type in a location in the next step.
Step 5: Selecting the Location
With your time frame selected, now you’re ready to type the location in the search box.
As you type, the app will make suggestions. But wait! Before you click the Find a Place button to run the search, look carefully at the list of suggested locations that may appear. Many locations names can be found in different areas. That is certainly the case with the name of the tiny village where my great grandfather was born: Kotten.
In fact, the list doesn’t even include the Kotten I am looking for.
In cases like this, it is best to search a little more broadly. When Kotten was part of Prussia, it was located in Kreis Johannisburg so I could try searching for that. Even better might be to search for the largest city in the area since Kotten was such a tiny village. Arys was the largest city in the area.
Once you type in the name (and select from the suggestions if needed) click the Find a Place button just to the right of the search box.
Step 6: Analyze the Map Results
In my example of searching for the city of Arys (which is the name it was known by in the 19th century when it was part of East Prussia) the modern-day map displayed is actually Poland.
However, the David Rumsey website does a good job of cross-referencing the older German names (Arys) with the new Polish names (Orzysz). This is another reason why searching for a larger city works well. Larger cities are more likely to be in the David Rumsey system for cross-referencing, and of course they are easier to spot on the map. Generally speaking, the location you searched will be in the center of the display map.
Quick Tip: Verifying Location Names
Another quick way to cross-reference location names (or verify your findings in David Rumsey) is by searching for the name in Google Earth. In the example below, I typed in the Prussian city of Arys. Google Earth will offer options if more than one matching result exists.
I was a bit surprised to see “Arys” as one of the three listed results since it is not called that today. When I clicked Arys it took me to the city of Arys in the Turkistan Region of Kazakhstan, far away from Poland! Clicking Orzysz in the results list took me to the area of Poland that was once East Prussia. This confirms the results I received at the David Rumsey website.
Learn more about using Google Earth for Genealogy by watching my free class here.
Now it’s time to review the map results listed in the Instant Search Results column on the right. Isn’t it fantastic that David Rumsey’s website not only presented me with the correct Polish location, but also maps published between 1800 and 1900 that include Arys? I think so!
Click the map you think best suits your needs. The map will open in in a new tab in your web browser. (These browsers tabs provide a nice bread crumb trail for your searching activities.)
All of the source information about the historic map that you chose will appear in the column on the left. (See the image in Step 7.) If you decide to use this map you’ll definitely want to accurately cite the source. Learn more about the importance of source citations here.
Step 7: Export the Map
I was delighted to find the village of Kotten on this map of Arys published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme in 1893!
When you find a map that you would like to use for your family history research, export it to your computer. To do this, click Export in the upper right corner of the map and select the desired size. You can select a size ranging from Small Thumbnail to Extra Extra Large. Keep in mind that the larger the size, the more clarity you will have as you zoom in closer and closer. This is very important if you plan on using the map in an overlay in Google Earth. You can learn how to create your own map overlays in my video tutorial series on using Google Earth for genealogy available here, and in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Be patient while downloading to your computer because it can take several moments to export a large map. The saved file will probably be zipped. To unzip it, on a PC right-click and select Extract All from the pop-up menu. This creates an open version of the folder containing the map.
Get Started Finding Your Ancestral Locations in Old Maps
With this step-by-step process you are now ready to explore any given ancestor’s world through the rich details of historic maps. I can’t wait to hear what you discover! Please be sure to leave a comment below. And if you found this tutorial helpful, will you please share it with your friends on social media so we can help even more people find the homes of their ancestors? Thank you!