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Using Maps and Gazetteers In Your Research

Many, many genealogists aren't using maps to their full potential. Consider some of the comments we've heard at our map store:

I don't want a map, they just need to know where my ancestral village is.
I don't need a map until I have finished my research.
A 1:100,000 map is not good enough. I want one that's at least 1:700,000.

And those are just the highlights. So here goes - some of the basic points to keep in mind while working with maps. To use a map properly, you have to be able to visualize the area the map shows. You have to be able to see it in your mind, based on the information offered to you in the map. To do that you have to understand how the map presents the information, and the purpose of the map. In other words, look for the legend, so you get some idea of distances, and you find out what all those symbols mean.

In looking for a village in Eastern Europe, of course, you have to be flexible to a certain extent. The spelling you've been given might not appear on any map. It might have been a phonetic spelling done by a clerk who had never been to the area in question, and was simply doing his best to sort out what your ancestor was saying. If you know the exact name you're looking for, that will help. There might be times, though, when you'll have to get a map of an entire region, and then scan it for whatever seems right. Just try to ensure that you have the right general area.

In simple terms, there are three reasons to use maps in genealogical research. The first is the basic one, the one that most people understand. You use maps to locate towns and villages. A map will give you a general idea of where the community is.

The second reason is to discover how these people lived. A good topographical map will do that for you. You may find out that their village was in a forest area, or on the seacoast. Maybe it was 10 miles from the next village. Maybe it was what we would now call a suburb of a large centre. Maybe it was in the mountains; maybe it was on a flood plain. All of these little details add color; they help you get a better general understanding about the lives led by your ancestors.

The third reason is also quite basic, and relates to the first one. A map is a visual index to other resources. We all know that if we can't find a person in one village, we should check the village next door. And we know that civil registration probably took place in an adjacent large centre. A map provides this sort of information to you at a glance.

The intricacies of scale

The first thing to consider is scale. Some of the basic scales you'll find with Eastern European maps are 1:25,000, 1:50,000, 1:100,000, 1:200,000, and 1:700,000 or so.

What do these numbers mean? It's simple. With a 1:25,000 map, one unit on the map covers 25,000 units on the ground. Those units can be centimetres, inches, or the length of your pinkie. It really doesn't matter what you choose, other than the fact that it should be convenient. If you use inches, then one inch on the map translates into 2,083 feet. A mile being 5,280 feet, that means, roughly, that one inch on the map is two-fifths of a mile. And that means that two and a half inches on the map will cover one mile on the ground. If the map is 18 inches across, that means it covers a distance of about seven miles. So this kind of map is the best for showing a neighborhood. Depending on the map, you might find actual houses marked on it.

When you pull back a bit, to take a look at that neighborhood and the ones on either side, you need a map with a smaller scale. So you'd go to the 1:50,000 map, if one is available. To show the town and the ones around it, go to the 1:100,000 map. And so on. At 1:100,000, one inch equals about a mile and a half. If the map is 18 inches across, that means it covers a distance of 27 miles.

The 1:100,000 scale is the best for picking up the locations of small villages. As you move to 1:200,000, you generally start to lose some of the smallest communities. As you pull back and take in a wider area with a map, the scale becomes smaller still. Most of the maps that show all of Poland are in the 1:700,000 range. Clearly, these maps do not have all of the villages, or even all of the small towns.

The advantages of the maps such as 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 are obvious. You can take a look at the immediate neighborhood, and note the proximity of your ancestor's home to churches, places of employment and the like. But you would not want a map of this scale until you know where your village is to be found.

There are also advantages to having maps that cover a wider area. These put the various localities into perspective. You can see the probable routes for migration, including the location of the nearest port. Maps will often show that in rural areas, there has been little change over the years. There may have been a wholesale replacement of the residents, but the countryside has stayed the same.

How to find those villages

One major problem with most maps from Eastern Europe is that there is no index to the towns. The first step, then, is to use an atlas or a gazetteer, however, you can track down just about everything you need.

A gazetteer is fairly straightforward. It will provide an alphabetic list of localities, sometimes sorted into different regions. Depending on the gazetteer you use, you might be able to find out the locations of churches, civil registration offices and more. Most will help you identify the nearest large cities.

When you're looking for a community, there are a couple of things to remember. One is to qualify your information as much as you can. The more knowledge you have, the easier it will be to find your village. If you're talking to relatives who might know where it is, always ask for the names of the adjacent villages. There may be many with the same name - but you won't find the same combinations repeated. Having a group of several communities can be like a fingerprint - it's unique.

If you're having trouble finding your village, you obviously need a map that ties in to the time period of your information. If, for instance, you have a copy of a record from 1880, then you'll need a map from about that period.

You have to be aware of name changes over the years. Some villages had five or six different names during the 20th century. It can also be confusing, because in some cases names disappeared in one spot and popped up elsewhere. You have to be aware of this as you search, and aware of the names your ancestors would have used for the village.

A problem comes up with a document such as a naturalization paper, where the applicant listed a certain name for a village. Is that the contemporary name, or the name that was in use when the person lived there? You'll have to do some detective work to figure it out.

In using old maps, remember that zero degrees longitude is not necessarily at Greenwich, in England. Some maps used Ferro, where zero is about 20 degrees west of Paris. And then there is the old Russian baseline, "Pulkovo zero meridian". It was named for the Pulkovo observatory, about 20 kilometres from Saint Petersburg. The meridian crossed the dome of the observatory. The Russians mapped their empire relative to that meridian. Many other countries had their own zero line, usually going through their capital cities.

And odds are you'll be dealing with many different languages, including Polish, German, Russian, Ukrainian and more. That makes your life much tougher - but not impossible. First of all, you have to have a basic understanding of how letters are pronounced in the other language. This isn't hard. German, for example, is easy for us to learn, because it is so close to English.

People get a bit more worried about when it comes to languages that have funny letters. The first thing to do is convince yourself that it's easy, because it really is. Bear in mind that in dealing with a Russian map, it's not like a book you have to read. All you have to do is find certain letters. Many of the letters are the same as in English; you just have to pay attention to the ones that aren't. If you see a P, it sounds like R. If you see a C, it sounds like S. There are two major reasons to learn how to use another language. For one thing, it will help you find the villages you're looking for. For another, it will greatly expand the range of maps available to you.

What's available

For modern German states, you should be able to find a full range of maps. Just look for the state mapping agency links to them are on the Genealogy Unlimited site. Most of the states have both modern and historical maps.

For the former German areas now in Poland or Russia, there is still a wide range of possibilities. There is a series of 1:100,000 and 1:25,000 maps in black and white, done in 1937 and reprinted many times since. They are available through our shop. There is also a series called Middle Europe, done by the Austrians. It covers the southern half of Germany, and areas to the south and east.

Modern maps of the Baltic States, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are available from the government agencies in those countries. The scales range from 1:25,000 to 1:200,000. The cost varies, but is generally about $10 US per map. There are a couple of superb atlases available for Poland, with scales of 1:200,000 and 1:300,000. There is also have a 1:500,000 atlas of Ukraine; the only catch with it is that you have to be able to read Cyrillic.

And of course, there are maps online. There are considerable differences in quality. I think they will help a researcher a bit, but a printed map is still the best choice because it offers detail not possible in the 72-dots-per-inch world of the Internet.

There are many reprints of maps originally printed at various times over the past 300 years. As usual, the quality varies. It's generally bad, in terms of genealogical research. Some of these maps are fantastic as bits of history. They won't help you find a village, but they are great for putting things into perspective.

Most of these early maps were done by private individuals or companies. Mapping didn't really get serious until the arrival of national mapping programs in the mid 1800s. These were the first topographical maps that were comprehensive, with a scale that made it possible to show most communities. These maps were the basis for much of what has come since. Most of these maps are available in a variety of scales, from 1:25,000 to 1:200,000. They show topographical features, towns, settlements, all kinds of things that will help you determine what life was like back then.

There is another type of map that many of you will have seen already. These are maps drawn specifically for genealogical and local history research. There are two basic kinds - the ones showing specific communities, the other showing villages, and where the residents lived.

The ones showing specific communities include the major maps done by Karl Stumpp, well-known for his books on Germans from Russia. He compiled maps showing where the Germans lived. Similar maps are available for German settlements in Poland. And Jerry Frank has done a tremendous job with the maps on the web site of the Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe.

These maps can quickly help point researchers in the right direction. They rarely have topographical features, but that can be a benefit if you are trying to find a village with a minimum of distractions. A critical fact you need when you use these maps is the time period they represent. Not all of them show this crucial bit of information. You must use these maps, therefore, in conjunction with regular topographical maps.

The other kind is the village map. Over the years a lot of genealogists have compiled maps of villages, showing where the residents lived. Since we're dealing with Eastern Europe, where city directories don't exist, this type of thing is vital to our research.

The Family History Library has a huge selection of maps and gazetteers. To find them, just check the family history library catalog under the country of interest to you, then go to maps or gazetteers. Virtually every university of any size has an extensive collection of maps. Always check to see what they have from Eastern Europe. You may be pleasantly surprised.

The end of Communism over there has had a tremendous benefit to genealogists. We're finally able to get maps of remarkably good quality, and reasonably accurate to boot. Remember: Topographic survey maps of the Soviet Union printed between 1930 and 1990 are suspect. The Soviet Union falsified virtually all public maps of the country, misplacing rivers and streets, distorting boundaries, and omitting geographical features. Accurate maps were classified. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, honest maps were finally produced by new countries.

Overall, you shouldn't have any trouble finding the maps that you need. It may take a bit of digging, but they are there. And if you understand how much information you can get from those maps, it will make your family history research much easier.

About the Author

Dave Obee of Victoria, B.C., is a past-president of FEEFHS, and the owner of Genealogy Unlimited, which specializes in maps of Eastern Europe. He has spoken about maps at several FEEFHS conferences.