Using Gazetteers and Atlases for Genealogical Research

Gazetteers and atlases are great resources for genealogical information.

In this article, you will find:

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The county gazetteer (a geographic dictionary) or atlas published in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century is a treasure. The pen sketches of the homes and farms are priceless. The wagons and farm implements in the yard, the crops growing—these reflect a way of life. Also included are township maps, many showing the name of the property owners on their section of land. Nearby cemeteries may be noted. These not only help in establishing the family's residence, but may also lead to the location of a family cemetery. Acreage, occupation, and even their place of nativity may be included. The names of the neighbors can also be helpful.

The Historical Atlas Map of Santa Clara County, California, published by Thompson & West of San Francisco in 1876, includes a Business Directory. Businessmen are listed by name, address, occupation, nativity, year they entered the state, when they came to the county, their post office, and the number of acres owned. You learn that Sheriff J. H. Adams came in 1849 from Illinois during the gold rush, and that Dr. Benjamin Cory of Ohio came even earlier, in 1847. These wonderful atlases are not to be overlooked. Some pen sketches measure 12" X 14" whereas others are 8" X 12" or other sizes. They are unique in design and historical significance. Some of the commercial companies, such as Thompson & West, Lewis Publishing, and others specialized in such histories, preparing them for many counties and states. The originals are collector's items.

If you can find a pen sketch of your family's home or farm in an early atlas, a good reproduction of it will be wonderful for framing.

On scroll to “Maps, Gazeteers & Geographic Information” for numerous items of interest. Sometimes volunteers have transcribed the whole of an early voting register. Check out the marvelous site for Yuba County, California's voting register at for an example. Included are 1872, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1886, 1888, 1892, and 1894, with more in progress. All easily accessed through the search feature provided! You'll find entries for those whose nativity was England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and more, and virtually every state.

He Voted with Pride

Some areas may have published their early voting registers. In California, the published registers of many counties before 1900 are in libraries. They include data not easily obtainable from other sources. The Great Register for Santa Clara County for 1892 includes age; physical description (height, complexion, color of eyes, color of hair); visible marks or scars, if any, and their location; occupation; country of nativity (usually shown as the state); place of residence; post office address; date when naturalized; place where naturalized and by which court; date of registration; and whether sworn.

Tree Tips

If you are unable to learn about voting records at the library, check with the county registrar of voters.

A marvelous sense of the man—what he looked like, how he made his living, if he was an immigrant—are all revealed. John Cotler, a farmer, was age 58 and born in Ireland. He was naturalized 17 August 1855 in the U.S. District Court in Boston. His descendants now know where to find his naturalization papers. Charles Cranz, age 74, was born in Germany, naturalized on 10 April 1840 in Canton, Ohio, and now lived in California. You learn, too, that he was 5' 7" tall, with a light complexion, blue eyes, and brown hair, and a farmer by occupation. Though not all states have such detailed registers, determine what is available for the county of your search.