Are you one of the not-very-many genealogy researchers who have used plat maps? If so, you already know what a treasure trove of information these maps might contain. For those who have never used them, plat maps are maps which are drawn to scale and show how local tracts of land are divided up.
Today, we’ll take a look at both formal plat maps and maps that show approximations of property owners in local neighborhoods. Both map sets are gold mines of family history information.
Let’s look first at the “less formal” plat maps, which are often hand drawn neighborhood illustrations. These maps became popular in the late 1800s, concurrent with the 1876 American Centennial celebration. Like county histories and locally published mug books (volumes in which submitters paid a fee to include biographical sketches), county atlases became the “in” thing for a while.
An excellent example of this type of publication is the Atlas of Washington County, Maine, Compiled drawn and Published from Official Plans and Actual Surveys by George N. Colby & Co., Houlton & Machias, ME, 1881. Back in the 1980s, I found a reprint of the original book and bought it.
Here is a portion of one of the map pages:
My 3X great grandfather, Thomas Coleman (purple arrow pointing to T. Coleman) lived in Red Beach, which today is part of Calais, Washington Maine. He died in 1888, so this map was created when he was an elderly man. However, his son, William, lived on the same land and this page (which I cropped) shows all the home owners all the way up into the city of Calais, where I had more family living.
As you can see, the properties are likely close to scale, but don’t have the precision of actual plat maps.
What genealogically related information can I learn from this map?
- I now know exactly where Thomas Coleman lived and can verify his land ownership by seeking out land deeds in Washington County, Maine.
- This map provides a list of many possible FAN club members – friends, associates and neighbors of Thomas Coleman.
- The geographic detail on this map, noting that Thomas lived very close to the road turnoff down to the St. Croix River and just south of land called Devens Head, allows me to use Google Earth to view the area today.
- This map also tells me that, although Thomas Coleman lived in Red Beach, he didn’t live in the village itself. He lived on the outskirts, in the northern most portion towards Calais, where he farmed.
Where can these maps be found?
I have found that WorldCat (free to use) is the most efficient tool to located these old atlases and map books, which were printed for many counties and states, not just Maine. When you find one of interest, there will be a list of all the repositories known to have a copy. Be forewarned that, unless you live in the local area, the library might be quite far away. If I didn’t own a reprint of the Washington County book, the closest copy to me (I live in Tucson) is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, 580 miles away.
However, searching out these map books is well worth the time and energy because county books include every single city, along with each tiny town or village in the county. My book includes 45 towns, 26 villages, 9 plantations (names given to settlements before they became towns, NOT southern style plantations) along with 19 “Timber and Lot Plans.” It wouldn’t matter where in the county my family was living – there would be a map.
If you want to buy an atlas, I would suggest checking eBay. A quick look shows reprints for Hancock and Washington Counties, Maine available for $25. (A first edition of the Hancock County book was also listed for $3,525!)
There is one other map resource I’d like to mention. If you are lucky enough to be researching ancestors who lived in Augusta, Bedford, Botetourt, Fincastle, Franklin, Montgomery, Pulaski, Roanoke, Rockbridge, Wythe Counties, Virginia or in the town of Salem or in the Beverly Patent, which was located in parts of Augusta and Orange Counties or in the Borden Grant, in the 1700s and 1800s, then J.R. Hildebrand, a local cartographer (map maker) is a man about whom you want to know.
Mr. Hildebrand spent years wandering around Virginia, seeking out early landowners and created hand drawn maps showing where everyone lived. However, he only created these maps for Virginia and ONLY in the towns and counties I’ve listed.
In the 1990s, while I was trying to determine a possible father of Martin Miller, my husband’s 4X great grandfather, who married in Botetourt County, Virginia, I purchased Hildebrand’s map of that county.
Here is just a crop of a tiny portion to give you an idea about the detail in these maps:
Using this map, land deeds for Millers, DeedMapper to plot out lot lines and a USGS topographical map, I was able to separate out English and German Miller families and to differentiate between two Jacob Millers to find a likely father of Martin Miller. It was tedious work, but I was successful and later found a pension file and land deed in Franklin County, Tennessee that proved my sleuthing and theory were correct.
Today, I am not sure where to purchase these maps, but I would try the Roanoke Public Library (currently closed due to the pandemic) and the Historical Society of Western Virginia.Either of those repositories can probably tell you if they are still available and where to buy them. The maps probably show up from time to time on sale online, but I couldn’t find any at the moment.
Lastly, in the title of today’s post, I mentioned totally unexpected finds. If you are researching in Missouri, Missouri Digital Heritage has a collection of plat map atlases for most, if not all, of Missouri counties. The Stufflebeans have family ties to Sullivan County, Missouri so I decided to take a look.
I found An Illustrated Historical Atlas of Sullivan County, Missouri, published by the Edwards Brothers of Missouri in 1877, just four years before Colby published the one of Washington County, Maine.
As I browsed through the book, I was amazed by what I found! Yes, of course there were maps. By the way, because Missouri is a PLSS state with township, range and section divisions, this book contains accurate, precise plat maps, unlike the Maine and Virginia maps I’ve just discussed, above. There were also several portraits, which aren’t unheard of in these books, although they aren’t super common either. Portraits are much more likely to be in the county histories and biographies.
Let’s say I am researching Griffin P. Taylor, born c1816, Tennessee. He is found, with his family, in the 1870 census of Morris, Sullivan County, Missouri:
1870 Census, Source: Ancestry
A quick look at online info for him shows a marriage in Indiana to Carrie. That makes sense given that she and their oldest child give Indiana places of birth in this census record.
However, I want to know more about Griffin Taylor – exactly where in Tennessee was he born?
Imagine my surprise when I saw the List of Patrons of the Atlas of Sullivan County, MO. Living in Township 62 North, Range 19 West is my Griffin Taylor! Be sure to take a look at the additional information that patrons had published about them:
Their “Nativity” was included on the patron list! Griffin P. Taylor said he was born in Sullivan County, Eastern Tennessee! It also states that he settled in Sullivan County, Missouri in 1843!
There are no birth records to be found in eastern Tennessee in the early 1800s and Griffen was already living in Indiana by 1840, so he isn’t to be found in a Tennessee census record.
In addition, if the county atlas at which you are looking represents a burned county with land deeds among the lost records, this book also tells you when the family settled there!
Two totally unexpected pieces of important information that I wouldn’t expect to see in a book containing plat maps!
Plat map books, often marketed as county atlases, do take a bit of digging to uncover. Missouri has digitized theirs and they can be viewed for free. For other states, I would again search in WorldCat. I’d also check state archives and historical society online collections.
FamilySearch also has a number of digitized atlases (sometimes called “atlas map”) that can be viewed online. A random search of Peoria County, Illinois brought up Atlas map of Peoria County, Illinois, published by A.T. Andreas in 1873. The Peoria tome followed the same pattern of information found in the Sullivan County book – including place of birth and year settled in the county!
It even included a few (very few) sketches of the home place of some of the residents. How would you like to be descended from Joseph Yates?
Residence and Farm Premises of Joseph Yates, Sec. 1, Radnor Twp.
I hope you’ll now go seeking out plat maps. Who knows what excellent new details you will learn about your ancestors’ lives?