‘Gencaching’ Challenge: Find Historical Maps in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows some of the unique historical maps that can be found in old newspapers, and proposes a fun “gencaching” game to find more of these maps.

Some of the greatest tools of genealogical research are historical maps—but one place we often forget to search for them is old newspapers.

Perhaps it is because we don’t expect to find historical maps in newspaper archives. Some old maps, such as the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (published 1867-2007), and one by Waldseemüller (the first to name the continent as America), are mentioned in historical newspaper articles but not shown.

notice about map-maker Waldseemüller, Irish World newspaper article 20 February 1892

Irish World (New York, New York), 20 February 1892, page 7

However, many other historical maps were published in newspapers. So what types of old maps can we expect to find in newspapers?

Delve into GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives and you’ll note an extraordinary and unique set of cartographic images used to illustrate articles and advertisements.

These historical maps include—but are not limited to—battles, explorations, relief expeditions, and transportation routes, along with proposed and completed municipal, state and national projects. The renditions offer an exciting opportunity to further your family history research, as the majority of these maps printed in old newspapers were not published in books.

Since they were often overlooked, newspaper maps were usually not indexed or cataloged by libraries and historical societies.

“Gencaching” Game to Find Historical Maps

For me, newspaper map searching is a bit like geocaching, the popular activity of treasure hunting using a GPS (global positioning system) to find items hidden away by others—only what you are looking for was placed by the newspaper publishers of yesterday.

To extend this concept to a lineage society or genealogy friend activity, try constructing a “find and seek, or gencaching” game by using GenealogyBank’s search engine to create clues regarding map treasures, such as landmarks that are no longer existent.

If you find some unusual treasure maps, we invite you to share your “gencaching” finds on our blog page in the comments section. Historical map finds that you share with us may be the subject of a follow-up GenealogyBank blog post.

Here are some of the historical maps—and mentions of maps—that I found in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives.

The Great San Francisco Conflagration

San Francisco suffered a massive fire on 3-4 May 1851, as noted in this California newspaper article.

The Effect of the Conflagration, Weekly Pacific News newspaper article 15 May 1851

Weekly Pacific News (San Francisco, California), 15 May 1851, page 1

This massive fire devastated an area known as the Burnt District, and articles and maps were published across the country about the disaster, including this one from a New York newspaper. In this historical San Francisco map, one sees a simple and clear presentation of the burned areas showing the specific street names.

map of the 1851 San Francisco fire, Spectator newspaper article 23 June 1851

Spectator (New York, New York), 23 June 1851, page 1

Historical Military Maps

One can find military skirmish and old battle maps published in newspapers during times of war, including this one from the American Civil War published in an 1864 Pennsylvania newspaper.

map of the 1864 Civil War battle at Spotsylvania, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 14 May 1864

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 May 1864, page 1

This old Civil War map depicts the “Scene of the Great Battle of Tuesday, May 10th, between Generals Grant and Lee” at Spotsylvania during the Great Virginia Campaign. Note that the basic layout shows landmarks, such as the church and old court house, along with the Po River.

This next example, from a 1918 Oregon newspaper, is a historical map of a battle line from World War I. The sector occupied by the American Army in the Lorraine region of France was noted as being close to the German border.

map of WWI battle line in France, Oregonian newspaper article 4 February 1918

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 4 February 1918, page 4

Expeditions and Exploration Maps

As our ancestors explored unchartered territories, expeditions were exciting news. You’ll find numerous newspaper articles about these adventures and explorers, including this piece mentioning the Duke of Abruzzi, Amundsen, Cook, Hedin, Nansen, Perry, and others.

Filling in Blank Spots on the World's Map, Oregonian newspaper article 23 August 1908

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 23 August 1908, page 2

So, it should not surprise us that in 1879 a ship named the Jeanette departed San Francisco Bay with 10,000 people waving and cheering. Perhaps your ancestors were in that enthusiastic crowd—or explorers aboard the ship?

If so, they saw Lt. Commander George Washington DeLong and his small crew of 33 civilians, officers and enlisted men take off for the North Pole—not knowing that only a few of those brave explorers would make it back two years later.

The jubilant sending-off of the Jeanette—and an explanation of the purpose of the voyage—were reported in this 1879 New York newspaper article.

Off to the Pole, New York Herald newspaper article 9 July 1879

New York Herald (New York, New York), 9 July 1879, page 3

Once in the Arctic, the crew became shipwrecked and suffered great hardships.

What a harrowing experience it must have been to be stuck in the ice, and even more horrifying when the ice’s crushing weight destroyed the Jeanette’s hull. They were forced to transport three small lifeboats with equipment and supplies overland, with a plan to sail for the Lena River Delta on the Siberian coast. Despite becoming separated and suffering more hardships, some members of the ship’s crew survived. During a return trip, they were able to locate important items, including the log book.

This 1881 Massachusetts newspaper article is one of many that tell the story.

The Jeanette: Her Shipwrecked Crew Heard From, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 21 December 1881

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 21 December 1881, page 1

You’ll also find numerous newspaper articles and maps pertaining to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first expedition leader to traverse the Northwest Passage, as well as the first to reach the South and North Poles.

Amundsen Off on Air Jaunt to North Pole, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 May 1926

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 May 1926, page 1

Civic Project Proposals

When researching civic projects read all the discussion pieces you can find in the newspapers, and complete follow-up research to verify project rejections and changes. Whenever proposals adversely affect an area, opponents typically offer counter-proposals—and you’ll find their arguments covered in the newspapers as well.

One of the advantages of project proposal newspaper articles is that they may describe earlier time periods, as seen in this 1860 series from a New York newspaper titled “Sketch of Building Operations in Progress in the City.”

Sketch of Building Operations Now in Progress in the City, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 9 July 1860

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 9 July 1860, page 1

Maps of Transportation Projects

As railroads, steamships and other transportation systems expanded, newspapers provided maps. One of the lesser-known projects was Philadelphia’s 1872 Moyamensing Avenue Railroad project, as shown in this map from a Pennsylvania newspaper.

map of the 1872 Moyamensing Avenue Railroad project in Philadelphia, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 4 March 1872

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 March 1872, page 7

Other Types of Maps in Newspapers

In addition to the examples of newspaper maps shown in this blog article, you’ll find historical maps showing the results of natural disasters, aerial views, reliefs, and even tourist attractions—such as this 1922 map of Pikes Peak and the city of Colorado Springs from a Colorado newspaper.

map of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article 20 August 1922

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 20 August 1922, page 25

The more noteworthy or unusual the event or place, the more likely it is that you will find a newspaper article with an accompanying map.

So head to GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives and start researching historical maps and articles about maps. You may wish to limit the query to the Photos & Illustrations category, and add keywords such as the type of map (aerial, relief, illustration, etc.).

GenealogyBank also offers a newspapers search page specifically for Historical Maps.

GenealogyBank's Historical Maps search page

GenealogyBank’s Historical Maps search page

Good luck with your map searches and remember to share your unique finds with us. Your map just might get featured in an upcoming blog post. Happy hunting!

Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank’s Historical Books Section: Another Rich Resource for Genealogists

In addition to its core of 5,850 online newspapers, GenealogyBank has other family history resources to offer genealogists.

As GenealogyBank combs through archives and repositories for the oldest American newspapers, we find many one-of-a-kind early printed items of high genealogical value. These can range from one-page keepsakes to small printed books.

We digitize these and put them in the “Historical Books” section of GenealogyBank.

Old Family Genealogy Records & Funeral Sermon

These historical books and other non-newspaper items were printed between 1800 and 1900; most of them were printed before 1840. These publications can be one page or hundreds of pages long. All of these historical printed materials are of high genealogical interest and are a permanent family treasure to be passed down and kept. Here is a list of some of the books and other printed materials you can discover in our Historical Books archive:

  • Rare books including autobiographies, biographies, genealogies and memoirs
  • Historical maps and atlases
  • Directories and subscribers lists
  • Ad cards and vintage advertisements
  • Church and funeral sermons
  • Travel literature
  • Invitations
  • Old concert and play programs

Imagine finding a copy of the actual sermon preached at the funeral of an ancestor, or the invitation to the 25th anniversary party for your 2nd great-grandparents.

Mr. & Mrs. A.W. Putnam 25th Anniversary of their Marriage Invitation

The best way to search our historical books collection is by surname.

Click on the “Historical Books” section and then enter only the surname of the family that you want to research.  For example, type in: Bristow.

Searching Surnames in GenealogyBank's Historical Books Archive

This will pull up 12 relevant results, ranging from a biography of Benjamin Bristow to the “Patriotic Concert” concert program of popular American composer George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898).

Benjamin Bristow Concert Program & Biography

Dig deeply and mine GenealogyBank for all of its valuable content.

You especially want to sift through the Historical Books collection, with its wide variety of printed ephemera.

Columbia University puts Tibetan newspaper online

Columbia University Libraries has placed a new digital library of 97 issues of the Tibet Mirror (Tib. Yul phyogs so so’i gsar ‘gyur me long) online for scholars to consult and study. Click here to see this collection.

(Image: Yul phyogs so soʾi gsar ʾgyur me long (Kālimpong : G. Tharchin, 1925-<1963>)

The digitized newspapers date from 1933 to 1961, and offer a total of 844 scanned pages drawn from the rich collections of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library.

This Tibetan-language newspaper was published from 1925 to 1963 in Kalimpong, India, and chronicles the most dramatic social and political transformation to have occurred in Tibet during a time when vernacular writing was relatively scarce, and a Tibetan media otherwise non-existent. Columbia’s holdings represent about 30% of the paper’s full run.

“The recent digitization of large portions of the Tibet Mirror is a welcome and significant advancement in the study of modern Tibet,” said Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Assistant Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. “This Tibetan language resource was a key source of news of the world to Tibetans in the middle of the 20th century. As such, it demonstrates that at least some Tibetans were well aware of international developments, from the spread of Communism from Russia to China to the price of wool in Indian markets.”

“To date, no serious study of the contents of this important resource has been published. Having used the existing collections in the past, I am very excited to see how easy it is to navigate around, read and download from this online resource. The contributors Paul Hackett and Tina Harris, Columbia’s Tibetan Studies librarian Lauran Hartley, and all the Columbia staff who made this beautiful site a reality have made an immense contribution to modern Tibetan Studies worldwide,” continued Tuttle.

The digitized newspaper is a cornerstone of the Starr Library’s “Tharchin Collection,” which features the papers of Gegen Dorje Tharchin (1889-1976), a Tibetan Christian convert and the renowned editor of the Tibet Mirror. The Tharchin Collection, which is being readied for public access this year, was acquired with support from the Columbia University Libraries’ Primary Resources Acquisitions Program. In addition to final and draft publications (in both modern and traditional formats), the Collection also includes correspondence; accounts from 1918-1924, and later years; receipts and financial statements; an imprint of a seal designed for the “Future Democratic Tibet Government;” Tibetan hymnals and bibles; scattered photographic prints; advertising solicitations; a list of cotton licenses; and a “Certificate for Traders, Muleteers and Porters.”

The newspapers were a recent gift to C.V. Starr East Asian Library from Dr. Paul G. Hackett, who donated 75 issues, and CUNY graduate student Tina Harris, who donated 22 issues of the paper. The digitized library was created as joint project of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division, and the Libraries Digital Program Division. For more information about the project, contact Hartley at lh2112@columbia.edu.

The C.V. Starr East Asian Library is one of the major collections for the study of East Asia in the United States, with over 820,000 volumes of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Western language materials, as well as some holdings in Mongol and Manchu, and over 6,500 periodical titles. The collection, established in 1902, is particularly strong in Chinese history, literature, and social sciences; Japanese literature, history, and religion, particularly Buddhism; and Korean history. The Library’s website is located at: www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/eastasian/.

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 10 million volumes, over 100,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, graphic and audio-visual materials. The services and collections are organized into 25 libraries and various academic technology centers. The Libraries employs more than 550 professional and support staff. The website of the Libraries at www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb is the gateway to its services and resources.

This collection is not on GenealogyBank.

More about NY Genealogical & Biographical Society’s Library move to NYPL

Saturday we told you that the NY Genealogical & Biographical Society Library was being given to the NY Public Library.

The NYG&B has now issued a public statement giving more about the background and rationale for this decision. Since this news release is not on the G&B website – I am posting it here.

NEWS FROM THE NYG&B SOCIETY – July 21, 2008 – Special edition
The big question on the minds of NYG&B members for the past several months has been, “Where is the collection going and how soon will it be accessible again?” We are now able to share the good news with you. We are very pleased to announce it will be going to the New York Public Library to be incorporated with the wonderful genealogical and manuscripts collections already housed there.

Although the transfer of the collection will take some time—it will take up to two years for the G&B collection to be fully accessible at NYPL—the end result will benefit all genealogists. Our entire collection will be accessible on-line through NYPL’s database. Offering our catalog on-line had been a long-time goal of the G&B, but the resources necessary to carry out this project always seemed beyond reach. Now through our partnership with NYPL, this dream will finally be achieved. Having our catalog available, just a couple clicks away, through the web will be a boon to our out-of-area members who may not have been able to get to our library often, or at all, to discover what resources we had for them.

Additionally, our new offices will be in close proximity to the NYPL. Instead of a ride in a very slow elevator, the collection will now be just a short walk away. Several of our long-time staff members, all of whom have an excellent grasp of the collection and its value, will continue with the G&B, sharing their knowledge and experience with our membership.

We are committed to our extraordinary collection of books, manuscripts, microfilm, microfiche, maps, etc., and will continue to accept pertinent donations, so please remember the NYG&B when you want to make your unique research available to the wider genealogical community.

Our partnership with NYPL does not end with the transfer of our collection from our library to theirs. We are also committed to join forces to provide top-notch educational programming, as the G&B has in the past, but now with the added benefit of the NYPL’s wonderful resources, personnel, and venues. This partnership marks a wonderful, and very exciting beginning for the “new” NYG&B.

Some of you may have seen the article The New York Times published regarding this arrangement on Saturday, July 19, 2008. It contained a factual error in that our Portrait Collection has not been offered to the New-York Historical Society, nor have there been any negotiations with them regarding this collection. Also, although the article did note that the G&B will focus on ” . . . grant-giving, tours, lectures, and other means of encouraging genealogical research . . . ,” it neglected to mention the commitment the G&B has made to providing first rate educational programs with the added support and input of the NYPL staff.

The following press release is being issued jointly today by the NYG&B and the NYPL:

New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Contributes Its 75,000-Volume Collection to the New York Public Library

Step to Create One of the World’s Largest, Most Accessible Genealogical Libraries: A Singular Resource for Researchers of New York Family History

NEW YORK, NY, July 21, 2008-The New York Public Library (NYPL) and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (the G&B) announced jointly today that the New York Public Library will become the new home of the G&B Society’s library of 75,000 published works, 30,000 manuscripts, 22,000 microforms, 1,300 periodicals and digital computer media. Among the materials are 16th and 17th century land records; transcriptions of New York baptismal and marriage records; personal diaries and letters; and census data from as early as the 18th century. Joining the Library’s rich and heavily used genealogical and manuscript collections, the merged materials of the NYPL and the G&B will create an unparalleled, publicly accessible resource for those conducting genealogical research. The NYPL and the G&B will co-sponsor educational programs, create links to each other’s websites, and collaborate in various ways to make this invaluable resource available to the public.”

Combining the two collections will result in an extraordinary resource for people nationwide seeking to learn about family members who were born in New York, lived in New York, or passed through New York on the way to becoming citizens,” said David Ferriero, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries. “The G&B collection’s great strength lies in its holdings for the 17th to 18th centuries with emphasis on the Dutch and English. The NYPL genealogical collections are strongest for the 19th to 20th centuries and embrace many different ethnic groups.”

“New York is the historic center of U.S. immigration. Together, two venerable New York institutions will create one of the world’s largest and most accessible genealogical libraries. As a result of this contribution, the wealth of genealogical resources in the G&B’s unique collection, integrated with the NYPL’s incomparable holdings, will within two years be fully accessible to anyone conducting research in this area,” said G&B Chairman Waddell W. Stillman.

The G & B’s collections will become part of the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and its Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History, and Genealogy. The Manuscripts and Archives Division holds approximately 29,000 linear feet of archival material, with its greatest strengths in the papers of individuals, families, and organizations, primarily in the New York region, from the 18th through 20th centuries.

The Milstein Division is one of the nation’s largest publicly accessible collections of genealogical materials and includes hundreds of thousands of books, serials, photographs, microforms, and ephemeral materials in addition to offering free access to a wide range of tools for electronic research.Last July, the G&B announced the sale of its East 58th Street building and reported that it would be moving its headquarters and library to new locations.

Simultaneously, the G&B announced preliminary plans for the restructuring and enhancement of its service offerings and its membership program. Its goal is to transform a 19th century members-only genealogical society founded in 1869 into a 21st century resource for education, research and scholarship serving increasingly Internet-reliant users interested in New York.” Once we decided to sell our building and move the library to a new location, ‘stewardship’ and ‘accessibility’ became the most important words in our vocabulary,” Mr. Stillman continued.

“We sought the strongest possible partner – an organization that would value the G&B collection highly because it significantly complements its own and that would make the G&B library broadly available to researchers worldwide. Equally important, it had to have the professional staff and resources to appropriately house, catalogue, and properly conserve the collection.

The NYPL has precisely those resources and a collection that fits extremely well with ours.” The G&B’s library on 58th Street closed June 1st, and its books, manuscripts, and other media are being readied to be moved to the NYPL starting in August.