How can topographic maps be useful in genealogical research?

Once you've gathered as many facts about family history and customs as possible, turn to maps to uncover more specific information or to solve historical mysteries.

In the United States, birth, death, property, and some other kinds of records are normally kept by county governments. If you can name the place where an ancestor lived, new or old maps of that place might show the county seat where useful data about your relatives can be obtained.

Many towns, counties, cities, and even countries have experienced numerous name changes over the years. Historical USGS maps can help locate places that have had name changes or have disappeared. You can also use the Geographic Names Information System to search for place names that might no longer appear on newer maps.

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How do I find, download, or order topographic maps?

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been the primary civilian mapping agency of the United States since 1879. The best known USGS maps are the 1:24,000-scale topographic maps, also known as 7.5-minute quadrangles. Download all dates and scales of USGS topographic maps free of charge from the following applications or order paper copies of all...

Where can I find indexes of USGS topographic maps?

View map indices on these interactive maps (you must zoom in to see the index lines and map names) : Map Locator on the USGS Store - Click the icon on the left that looks like two pieces of paper and select “1:24,000”. TopoView - Click on any of the round map scale indicators on the right side of the map. The National Map Viewer - Click on the...

Why are some of the historical topographic maps yellowed and why do some have extra stamps or marks?

The goals of the Historical Topographic Map Collection (HTMC) project are to find, catalog, and georeference all USGS topographic quadrangle maps published prior to 2007. The overall purpose is to preserve the map archive for scientists, historians, and the public. Library copies of maps (many of which have library stamps) were therefore scanned "...

There are multiple copies of the same map in your Historical Topographic Map Collection that all have the same date. Is there a difference between those maps?

Yes, these are different maps that typically resulted from revisions and reprints. The differences are often minor. The date used to identify a map can be found in the lower right corner. If there are multiple editions with the same compilation date, look for additional dates in the lower right portion of the map collar that might differentiate...

How do US Topo maps differ from historical USGS topographic maps?

Historically, USGS topographic maps were made using data from primary sources including direct field observations. Those maps were compiled, drawn, and edited by hand. By today's standards, those traditional methods are very expensive and time-consuming, and the USGS no longer has funding to make maps that way. A new USGS topographic map series...

Does the Geographic Names Information System Database contain entries for obsolete names and historical geographic features that no longer exist?

Yes, The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) actively seeks names of features that no longer exist. The term "historical" as used in the GNIS specifically means that the feature no longer exists on the landscape. An abandoned ghost town, for example, still exists so it is not historical. Historical features have no reference to age, size,...

How can I name an unnamed natural feature?

Proposals to name an unnamed natural feature can be submitted to the Board on Geographic Names (BGN). The BGN is responsible by law for standardizing geographic names throughout the Federal Government, and promulgates policies governing issues such as commemorative naming, derogatory names, and names in wilderness areas. Please note that no...

What is the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)?

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) was developed by the U.S.Geological Survey (USGS) in cooperation with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), which maintains cooperative working relationships with state names authorities to standardize geographic names. GNIS contains information about the official names for places, features, and...

Where can I find historical photographs from the Great Surveys of the American West?

A number of images from the "Great Surveys of the American West" can be downloaded through the online USGS Photographic Library . Before the USGS was established by Congress as a part of the Department of Interior, four surveys of the western United States took place between 1867 and 1879. Surveys led by Ferdinand Hayden and John Wesley Powell...

How can I find USGS historical photographs?

The USGS Photographic Library, located at our library in Denver, Colorado , is an archive of still photographs dating from the 1870s and taken by USGS scientists as part of their field studies. The works of pioneer photographers W.H. Jackson, T.H. O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, J.K. Hillers, Thomas Moran, A.J. Russell, E.O. Beaman, and William Bell...
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Date published: July 19, 2017

Historical Maps at Your Fingertips

Earlier this month, the USGS launched “TopoView 2.1”, an enhancement to the current popular TopoView mapping service that lets users discover, interact, and download historical USGS topographic maps scans.

Date published: July 5, 2017

Finding Yourself Outdoors

Updated USGS digital topographic maps feature more trails and other recreation points of interest

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December 18, 2017

Lesson 9a: Accessing US Topo and Historical USGS Topographic Maps

In this lesson, we will discuss the USGS Store and how it can be used to access the US Topo and historical USGS Topographic maps. Specifically, this lesson will talk about the USGS Store, both where it’s accessed and what’s available at the store, as well as how you can locate and download free topographic maps through the store. 
 

June 1, 2017

TopoView - A look at version 2.1

A tutorial by USGS scientist and topoView developer Chris Garrity demonstrating how to use topoView version 2.1. TopoView let's you access and download maps free of charge from the USGS's Historical Topographic Map Collection, published between 1884 and 2006. 

Resources:
An Introduction to TopoView (version 1.0)

Image: Alaskan Elders
June 14, 2014

Alaskan Elders

Elders Eliza Jones and Bill Williams sharing knowledge of historic land use and place names.

Image: Cartographers in the Field
January 1, 2007

Cartographers in the Field

This Depression-era oil painting was created by USGS field man Hal Shelton in 1940. The painting depicts mapping techniques used in the early days of cartography, including an alidade and stadia rod for determining distances and elevations and a plane-table for sketching contour lines. A USGS benchmark is visible near the top. The straight white lines represent survey

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Scanned USGS historical map of the Yorktown, Virginia area, circa 1907
December 31, 1907

Scanned USGS historical map of the Yorktown, Virginia area, circa 1907

1907 map - "Scanned USGS historical map of the Yorktown, Virginia area, circa 1907. Source: Historical Topographic Map Collection."