Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I bet you haven't seen these maps!

I thought I knew a little something about maps. After all, I use maps all the time in my house history research. Maps can be critical in identifying houses and the people who lived in them. Yet after speaking with David Allen of Old-maps.com I discovered just how little I really know about maps.

David not only knows maps, he specializes in a very unique series created in the 1850s before the Civil War.

David’s affair with maps stems from his passion for hiking. He moved to New England in the 1970s and as he walked through the woods he would stumble across stone walls and house ruins. He decided to search for old maps so that he could intentionally go “cellar hunting” during his hikes.

He discovered huge county maps that span five feet across, often hung in town halls. These maps were advertised as displaying every road in existence at the time they were created. In addition, they displayed the home owner’s name and house location. These were the first mass produced maps in the United States using a “positive process” developed in Philadelphia in the 1850s.

David knows more about the maps than most of the genealogists who use his scanned reproductions. He has researched the history of the men who created them, the processes used to make them and how they were surveyed. He’s done the research on the map salesmen and how they were advertised. He has also found names on the maps that don’t appear in the US Federal Censuses. There isn’t too much about these maps that he doesn’t know.

That background is going to be the subject of a talk “Mapping Vermont in the 1850s” [S-312] at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) in April. His talk is being sponsored by the Genealogical Society of Vermont. As far as he knows, most of these pre Civil War maps aren’t available electronically except for the scans he made and a few individual versions done by libraries. They are not available on Ancestry.com.

The maps have even helped David uncover his own family history. A family member had mentioned that a branch of the family had come from Pomfret, Vermont. With the help of the maps and the local town clerk, he was able to locate the home of his great, great grandmother. Not only is the house still standing but David discovered a distant local cousin as well. (see photos above)

In the future, David hopes that genealogists and historians will mine the names on the maps and make them more widely available. He would like to start an indexing project, having volunteers transcribe all the names on the maps.

In addition to the Vermont maps, David has scanned county maps from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and a smaller selection from Maine and New York. CD-roms collections of the map will be available at his booth (#39) at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference.


  1. Hi Marian,

    I was ecstatic when I found one of those five-foot square maps hanging on the wall of the Mercer County PA Historical Society in 2004. It took up a whole hallway wall. I took a digital photo of it in the available light. I also found a set of B&W 8.5 x 11 maps copied from it in the vertical files, and copied some of the townships.

  2. I have seen scans (split up, of course) of some maps like this on a website or two, and they are super helpful. I would love to hear about the Vermont maps.

  3. How wonderful! Maps are one of my passions - wish I could also visit back East to find a few more, and walk along the trails. Thanks for sharing this information.