Old Maps, A Source of Ancestral Treasure
by Bob Brooke
The geography of the U.S. has determined its local history in each phase of its
development. Trappers followed Indian paths across the Appalachian Mountains in
search of better furs. Settlers followed in search of better land. Those who left the
comparative comforts of life in the increasingly crowded coastal areas were busy
surviving and carving out a new life for themselves.
Every genealogist, whether amateur or professional, should become familiar with maps
of areas being researched. All kinds of maps are useful--road maps, land ownership
maps, and historic maps. Maps which indicate the topography of an area are
particularly useful, since they reveal the natural barriers to travel such as
Mountains were major barriers to travel and migration, while waterways were common
transportation routes. Therefore, in seeking records of earlier times, a careful
study of maps will aid in determining possible sources for records. Today, man's
technological capability to build roads across and through mountains has changed
transportation and migration patterns significantly.
The problem of finding vital records for an individual isn't easily solved without
knowledge of the geography of the area being searched. The first step is to obtain a
good modern local map to aid in orientation. Older maps of the area can be compared
with the modern one to help locate particular sites.
The best place to start is the local library of the place to be studied. Old maps
will show locations of settlements, towns, and even farms in relation to one another.
While some settlements and villages were great distances apart, others were clustered
around a mill or a trading post. The closeness of a town to a county border may
indicate where research should be started, for county lines were often changed and at
time were even run through the center of a homestead. In Pennsylvania, for instance,
Olde Chester County split to form Chester and Delaware Counties.
Towns themselves may have split. Also in Chester County, the 18th-century settlement
of Paoli later split to form the village of Paoli and the Borough of Malvern. This
may necessitate the search for records in more than one place.
A topographical map--one that shows the geographical features of an area--should be
helpful in showing how mountains, rivers, valleys and marshes affected the lives of
settlers. Old roads that seem rambling today often followed old Indian trails or were
carved through former woodlands, skirting great trees, rock outcroppings or marshy
areas, or sidestepping an established homestead.
The contour map--one with lines indicating the elevations of an area--shows mountains
that acted as barriers, harbored animals, and later yielded coal and metals.
Mountains formed barriers to more than settlement. They also kept young men from
seeking wives. After a hard day of work, a man would hardly want to climb over a
mountain to court. Instead, he may have taken a path through the woods or took his
boat upstream, since after a day of work and an evening of visiting, going home
downstream was easier. Where terrain interfered, nearness played a significant role
in courtship and marriage.
Land ownership maps, based on land ownership at the time the maps were drafted, are
particularly interesting and useful. Research libraries, as well as the Library of
Congress, contain many of these. Try to find copies of maps pertinent to the locales
and times in which ancestors lived. A sequence of maps of the county is helpful in
studying the development of the area.
Other sources of maps include The National Archives and the Coast and Geodetic
Survey. In addition, local historical societies are a great source. If all else
fails, check with Map Source(800/262-7123; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) or the U.S.
Government Printing Office Map Catalog(http://www.access.gpo or from U.S. Government
Bookstores in 23 cities) Plat or subdivision books in county courthouses across the
country also provide clues.
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