Maps for local and family history

A guide to using maps to aid your Victorian local history research.

Why use maps for your local and family history research?

Maps allow you to pinpoint a place that you can’t otherwise find, particularly a place that has changed names. As borders changed, so did place names, and it is helpful to know all the names by which a place is known – particularly when the name may have been incorrectly scribbled down on an immigration card by someone who had never heard of the location.
Maps reveal what life was like in your local area or the kinds of lives your ancestors lived. Historical maps can help you to reconstruct what life was like for your ancestors. For example, a town plan showing features such as houses, businesses, churches and schools can help you to understand  the kinds of jobs and educational opportunities that were available to them.
Topographic maps reveal the natural features of an area, such as creeks, hills, swamps, forests, or even the kinds of soils or rocks in the region. With a topographic map you can see how difficult it may have been for an ancestor to farm the land, or traverse a mountain or large lake to get to the closest town or even to church or school. In the past these geographical structures served as solid boundaries that seriously affected migrations.

Maps can help you find other family history resources. A map can tell you which administrative district covered the area where your ancestors lived.  This allows you to check the appropriate district records to further your research.

Discover the regional centres that may hold records pertaining to your ancestors.  This is particularly true in Europe and the UK where parish registers are important sources of information, and the United States where local archives and courthouses hold many historical records.

Maps make information from other sources clearer. If another source, such as a newspaper article or a diary entry, mentions particular locations, a detailed map may allow you to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of your ancestor. Maps make it easier to follow the narratives provided by other sources.

Maps in atlases provide information about the economic, environmental or social conditions at a particular time. You can use this information to make deductions about:

    The sorts of lives your ancestors would have led
    Towns they might have frequented
    Jobs they may have held
    What they might have farmed

Maps can reveal:

  • the layout of a particular town or locality at a particular point in time
  • clues about what life in a particular place might have been like
  • how a place changed over time
  • the exact location of the home, workplace or property of a particular individual
  • the exact location of places mentioned in other sources
  • the location of historical features which no longer exist