What are County Land Ownership Maps?

Knox County, Illinois, 1861. (image PD)

Land ownership maps are an important resource for researching your ancestors in the United States. The most useful ones for researching your family history were created between 1860 and 1918 when America was being opened up to settlers and the railroads.

As the name suggests, the majority of maps were drawn up to show land ownership in one individual county. The early maps were printed on one large single sheet of paper designed to be affixed to a wall. Later maps were commercially published and sold in atlases or plat books. If commercially viable, some areas could be surveyed and remapped several times over the decades, while other less populated areas were mapped just the once.

The amount of detail they show varies, but many are very detailed showing the names of all landholders and the boundaries of their land holdings. It is this detail that makes them so valuable for genealogists and local history researchers. Particularly if they used in conjunction with the ten-yearly census returns. Some maps provide even more background information. As can be seen above, some maps are very ornate with views of the county and portraits of prominent citizens of the county.

Some maps show the layout of the streets and roads of townships in the county, some dating from their very earliest foundation. Even individual buildings can be seen along with the owners’ names. It is interesting to see the growth of these townships by comparing one of these maps with a modern one on Google Maps and satellite images of the town.

Where can I find them? The Library of Congress’ Geography and Maps division contains over 1,200 U.S. county land ownership atlases. While state and county libraries and archives, and universities, also have large collections of these maps. Some collections are available for free online. There are also commercial suppliers such as Ancestry.com.

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