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Making sense of old handwriting

Maps and Atlases

Map of Germany from 1851

Maps and Atlases are useful for seeing a town and its context: the neighboring towns and distances to them, as well as the larger geographical demarcations of the time. Gazetteers similarly provide information about a city, its neighbors and jurisdictions. Some maps will be more recent and require you to trace a location using older maps or gazetteers in order to find historical place names.

General Online Maps

Any one of these could have collections of pertinent maps not listed in the areas below.


Before 1871, Germany consisted of independent kingdoms, principalities, duchies and states. The borders of all have changed considerably over time. In 1871, all of the German states were consolidated, with the exception of the Austrian Empire, into the German Empire. Because of these changes, you might not be able to confirm a town name in old documents with modern maps.


  • This Wikipedia page has detailed maps of historical German provinces as well as links to the individual provinces, duchies or kingdoms. 
  • In European German speaking countries, most families remained within a ten mile radius (~16 kl) of their hometown.  A detailed map of that area could be very useful in identifying the Kleinstadt (small towns) that make up a parish. Maps can supplement gazetteers and geographical dictionaries by showing the physical distance between known ancestral towns and newly discovered towns. They also show relationships between the larger towns often mentioned and used for civil registration and the smaller towns associated with your ancestor. For example, a person can be born in a smaller town, but the parents will register that record in the larger civil registration office. Both names of towns will be on the birth certificate, but your ancestor was born in the smaller town. Many times towns with common names can be differentiated by referencing the larger registration offices. 

  • Meyers Gazetteer has a large collections of maps associated with the website. Once you have found the entry for the place you are interested in, click on the map to see your place in relation to nearby cities.
  • Place Name Indexes: when reading a historical German document, using a alphabetical index to locate the village might be necessary. Dr. Roger Minert has both forward and reverse indexes to help when only a partial name of the village is legible. They are also helpful for German-American research when the priest or scribe is guessing at the spelling of your ancestors home town.
  • The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany by James M. Beidler is a collection of maps both historical and modern which includes roads, political boundaries, topography and demographics.
  • Ravenstein Atlas des Deutschen Reichs by Ludwig Ravenstein is a collection of maps of Germany in 1883 and includes German speaking areas in Western and Eastern Europe. An important part of this Atlas is that small towns and villages are included and can be located. It also has locations of churches and statistics on religious denominations.
  • WHKMLA Historical Atlas: History of Germany is an great place to start for German boundaries from 1815.



  • gets it's data from the topographic map of Switzerland from 1856. It is a comprehensive collection of all first editions and revised versions of the official Dufour Map, the Siegfried Map and the series of national maps.


  • Atlas of Liechtenstein on Wikipedia Commons has a couple of historical maps. 
  • Mapire also has the Liechtenstein 1816-1821 Second Military Survey of the Hapsburg Empire map. 

Austrian Empire

  • has a large collection of detailed Austrian Empire maps online from 1891-1905. 


General Eastern Europe


  • has links to hundreds of detailed, historical maps of almost any region of Russia you need, beginning before the 12th century. 
  • FamilySearch Wiki has a good list and explanation of Russian Maps. 
  • For more help with Russian research, go to the Russian Script Tutorial pages. 


Like Germany, Poland also has a long history of border change, including being partitioned out to surrounding countries between 1795-1918, only to receive their statehood again after WWI. Additionally, Poland was Poland-Lithuania between 1648-1764.

  • Due to the Partitions of Poland between 1795-1918, depending on your area, you will need to search in maps of Russia, Prussia and Austria. Topographic Maps of Eastern Europe has great map collection from this time to help narrow down your ancestral area. 


The Baltics


Belarus can include lands that were part of Lithuania, Poland, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russian Empire, Russia and the Ukraine and had large settlements of German speakers.

North America

German migration into North America includes: Belize, Canada, Mexico, United States.

United States

  • This website has a current list of German populations in the United States, which is a good indication of the patterns of German immigration. 

South and Central America

The most significant German population are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Argentina had the most with over 2 million Volga, Russian Germans alone, and over 3 million total.

  • If you find you have German ancestors in Central or South America, the Spanish Script page may be helpful.
  • These websites to help with Volga and Mennonite colony research.