Geography is an important aspect of genealogy. Where did your ancestor live? Where was that place located? What township, county or district was it in? Where can you find records for that place?
Genealogists today can often find the names of their ancestors in searchable databases, but if references are not found, it is necessary to search the actual records page by page. Knowing where the family lived will help the search. Census returns are a concrete example. The Canadian census was enumerated geographically. Each province or territory was divided by federal electoral district, which usually corresponded to a county, district or city. Those areas were divided into smaller divisions, such as townships, parishes or city wards.
Sometimes a document will mention a place name and you will need to find out where that place was. Gazetteers are alphabetical listings of place names. They can help you identify the township, county, district, province, etc. in which a place was located. That information is useful when searching records that are arranged geographically, such as census returns. Most libraries hold collections of published gazetteers for Canadian provinces and territories. Older editions can be more relevant to genealogists, especially in cases where a small community is now part of a larger city.
If you hit a brick wall, maps can help solve the mystery. Very often, the solution is in finding where the information was recorded, e.g. the jurisdiction or village. Looking at a map, can help you identify the locality where the event might have been recorded. It can show the nearest locality where birth, marriage and death records may be registered.
Many villages, counties, cities and even countries have experienced numerous name changes over the years. Though their names have changed, some of these places may be noted on an old map. The location of some others may be found on sources such as lists of abandoned post offices, local histories, government records, old newspapers, old city directories, or old country atlases.
Constantly changing place names are not the only challenge; the boundaries of many political jurisdictions may have changed one or more times. Some families lived in the same locality for hundreds of years; their home may have been part of different political jurisdictions many times.
Maps can help you identify place names which no longer appear in modern records. They can also help you correctly identify the place names mentioned in genealogical records which have been altered by phonetic spelling, misspelling and local usage.
Maps can also suggest patterns of settlement and movement and rule out others. Topographic maps may show elements that had an impact on settlement (mountains, hills, rivers) and suggest employment opportunities (mines, transports etc.)
Maps help visualize the places where your ancestors lived. By having a visual aid of those places, it is easier to see how they moved from place to place, where they might have travelled to gain employment or find a spouse.
Maps done by surveyors will indicate the names of owners and the exact location of the land; therefore they are the most interesting maps for genealogists. These maps are usually held by the provincial or territorial archives. Insurance plans may outline the house and its placement on your ancestor's property.
The best maps for genealogical research are the ones that:
Research in Published Sources
County atlases of Canada: a descriptive catalogue, compiled by Betty May and assisted by Frank McGuire, Heather Maddick, Public Archives of Canada, 1970. (AMICUS 6662289)
County maps: land ownership maps of Canada in the 19th century compiled by Heather Maddick, Public Archives of Canada, 1976. (AMICUS 3023224)
Genealogy, geography, and maps: using atlases and gazetteers to find your family by Althea Douglas, Ontario Genealogical Society, 2006. (AMICUS 32474185)
Using Maps and Gazetteers in Your Research by Dave Obee
Using maps in tracing your family history by Betty H. Kidd, Ottawa Branch, Ottawa Genealogical Society, 1974. (AMICUS 19202)
Federation of East European Family History Societies: Map Library
Geographic Names Server
Historic Map Works
Map History Site
Maps, Gazetteers & Geographical Information
Atlas of Canada
BC Geographical Names
Canadian County Atlas Digital Project
Geographical Names of Canada
Historical Atlas of Canada
Noms et lieux du Québec
Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Maps 1924-1984
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Atlas des Deutschen Reichs (Atlas of the German Empire)
GOV - the genealogical gazetteer (Germany)
United Kingdom and Ireland
Gazetteer of British Place Names
Ordnance Survey Ireland
U.S. Board on Geographic Names
United States Digital Map Library