Sunday, September 4, 2011

Today's Favorite Resource: Detailed Historic German Maps

A particular factoid that I remember from a high school American history class is that one out of every six Americans has German ancestry. Given the passage of years (ok, decades!) and the immigration of a variety of other nationalities, that proportion has likely changed; I don’t doubt, however, that there are still significant numbers of Americans researching German lines. My own maternal ancestors came from various corners of the German-speaking world, and I continue to work on those portions of my family tree and learn about the many resources available. I have a few favorite collections that are accessible online; two are free, the other is free at many libraries or by subscription otherwise.

One of the first sites I use for my German map research is Kartenmeister helps me pinpoint a location, tells the various name changes of a town, and gives the past and present political divisions that are so important for locating records.

Here’s what it shows for the village of Sarben, near the town of Czarnikau, in what used to be Prussia (today in Poland) at

Using the information in Kartenmeister, I made myself a little cheat-sheet of basic location info for my ancestral villages in the German province of Posen, Prussia, which today is the Polish province of Wielkopolskie:

Towns in Prussia associated with the Grube-Giese family
German name
Polish name today (no diacritics used)
Roman Catholic parish
East 16° 34′ North 52° 54′
East 16° 41′ North 52° 53′
Gembice, Gembitz
East 16° 41′ North 52° 54′
East 16° 39′ North 52° 56′
East 16° 27′ North 53° 02′
Schönlanke, World Explorer membership or Library Edition
The information I collected from Kartenmeister made it much easier to turn to Germany, Topographic Maps, 1860-1965 [original title and publication info: Karte des Deutschen Reiches 1:100 000. Berlin: Reichsamt für Landesaufnahme, 1860-1965], available at in the World Explorer membership, or via Ancestry Library Edition. This collection of highly detailed maps is a treasure. I can see the lay of the land, where there were fields, forests, buildings, businesses such as brickworks, and streams in the area where my family lived.

To access this collection, at or Ancestry Library Edition,  pull down the Search menu and choose “Card Catalog.” Type in the search term “Germany topographic,” and in the box to the right choose sheet range “Ubersichtsblatt” [“Overview”], sheet number “Ubersichtsblatt,” and then click year ‘all.’  (I found that I have to type “Germany topographic” and not “German topographic”: for some reason, Ancestry won’t find it without that final –y.)

This leads to a large map of Germany divided into numbered squares corresponding to the sheet numbers. Each square includes the name of a major town or city; river names and political divisions are also indicated. Using those clues, I can hone in on the area my ancestors lived in, and find the section number(s) that includes their town. Obviously, I first need to know the name of the town my family came from (from family stories and documents) and have a pretty clear idea where it is located (thank you, Kartenmeister).

Once I have a sheet number, I can return to the map collection’s search page. Now I can choose a sheet range instead of “Ubersichtsblatt, ” then a specific sheet within that range, and sometimes I can choose from several maps of different dates.

To illustrate what the search process and results look like, here is the search screen for those villages around Czarnikau.  I determined that I needed sheet 250, and then:

I chose sheet range “200-299” then sheet “250”; a choice of years is listed, which leads to the maps.

Below is a cropped section of sheet 250, showing Czarnikau and villages including Hutka, Gembitz, and Sarben. If I did this right (but apparently I didn't!), you'd be able to click on the map and blow it up to see just how much detail is present. Yeah, I'm still practicing with capturing images and putting them into my blog; it doesn't always come out quite as well as I'd like.

Bavarian Regional Library Online: Bayerische Landesbibliothek Online
In a future post I’ll look at another resource that I use for a different branch of my ancestry from yet another part of the German Empire, but I want to at least mention it here. The Bavarian Regional Library online at has a wealth of resources, including maps at Some parts of the site have an English language option.