Cartographic records and genealogical research

This is a guide to help you using cartographic for genealogical research.

Telling your own story

There are few stories you can tell about yourself that are more unique and individual than your own family history. Your genealogy, or family tree, is shared by at most a few other people, and the lines formed by the branches of this tree are just as unique to you and your siblings as your own strands of DNA. This is a story worth telling.  It has shaped your genetic code, and most people would agree that the episodes that make up your family history are far more interesting to read than strings of DNA. Each of the relationships that form the branches on this tree has its own complex characteristics; some are well known and others are a mystery waiting to be uncovered. 
These relationships are also of great interest to a wider community of researchers. Dozens of other genealogists have likely done research on aspects of your family tree that intersect with their own, and there is great opportunity to share information. General historians also use genealogy as a form of micro-history, and many have found it an important way to understand migration (Elliott) and gender history (Sandwell), to name only two areas.


The stories occur not only in time but in space, and learning about your family’s geography is one of the best ways to uncover more of your family’s genealogy. Also, understanding the places your family came from and the history of those places helps to give the story a broader context. Although unique, your family history is only one strand in the fabric of human history. At each point in the story your ancestors shared space, formed communities, and experienced the effects of global events and social trends. For people whose ancestors lived on Prince Edward Island, local historical maps, land records, biographies, and community histories are essential for understanding the basic information about these ancestors as well as the communities they belonged to. The Robertson Library’s digitization projects are making many such documents available to online researchers. As more documents are scanned, described, and opened to the public, researchers in genealogy, history, and other fields of study will be able to locate individual Islanders and see how these lives related to the world around them.

The basics of genealogical research

There are many guides available to researchers interested in genealogy, as well as several established methods for recording and presenting genealogical research. Several guides have been prepared specifically for those working on PEI families, and the most important places to find these guides and resource groups are the Provincial Archives and Records Office (PARO), the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, and the PEI Genealogical Society.
Place is one of what genealogists call the NDPs of family research. NDP stands for the three main points of reference in your family tree: the names of your ancestors, the dates of birth, marriage, death and other important events, and the places where each event occurred. But, why should we use historical maps for doing genealogy? Just as they help with navigating through physical space, historical maps can help you find your way to other genealogical documents. They are especially useful for identifying:
On Prince Edward Island there is little risk of finding an ancestor whose property appeared close to a changing County or Lot line, although this becomes a factor near urban boundaries.  For instance, the lots delineated by Samuel Holland in the winter of 1764-1765 have not changed significantly, but the properties in Charlottetown Royalty were eventually incorporated into Charlottetown’s city limits. The main geographical boundary to be aware of when using Island land records is the location of land records for Prince County. This County’s land registry records, as well as crown grants, and copies of its wills are housed in the Summerside Registry Office; all other land records, including the registry records for Queens and Kings Counties are located in Charlottetown (Coles, 37).
A basic rule of thumb in genealogical research is to start with the known and work toward the unknown, that is, start with what you know about yourself and your immediate family and work backwards in time. The same can be said for using Island maps for tracing your family tree. First, start with your own location; has your family lived there for more than a generation? What about other land that is owned or occupied by your relatives; was it passed down to them from previous generations?



An overview of useful cartographic records

Political and topographical reference maps are certainly useful for finding your way around the world of your ancestors, but for specific information about your own family tree it is best to find cadastral maps such as “plat” or “plan” maps and large-scale historical maps and atlases containing directories of names. In their basic forms cadastral maps show outlines of land parcels as determined by surveys, and the parcels are usually named or numbered to match legal property and taxation records. These maps often ignore topographical features except where they are important for identifying property lines. They also show restrictions and easements on rights to land, and more elaborate cadastral maps may include buildings and property, information on taxes and property values, and sometimes the names of owners.
Even in a predominately rural area such as Prince Edward Island, genealogical research will inevitably lead to cities where you will find new challenges for finding your ancestor’s addresses. Most urban lots were too small to leave space for recording names, and instead researchers usually look for street addresses and property numbers that link to cadastral lists in census manuscripts and land records. Some of the best maps to use for finding specific properties in urban areas include ward maps, birds eye view maps, and fire insurance maps. Although they did not include names, fire insurance maps can tell you a great deal about your ancestor’s home such as its location, construction materials, and how it compared with other homes in the neighbourhood (Boylan).
Once the general location of an ancestor’s property is known, comprehensive maps such as the 1863 Lake Map, Meacham’s 1880 Illustrated Atlas, and the 1926 Cummins Atlas are excellent ways to determine if anyone by that name lived in the location in those years. The Meacham Companion is a reference book available at the Robertson Library that indexes all names in the Illustrated Atlas and links them to sectors on a grid map (Enman). Another way to determine roughly where on PEI your ancestor lived is by searching the Master Name Index which often identifies lot numbers. This index is held at the Public Archives and Records Office, and it appears in digitized form on the PEI Genealogical Society website. If your ancestor’s name is found in one of the atlases, then it would be useful to set parameters around the dates the person lived in this location by determining if he or she appeared in cadastral maps created in other years. 
For this, researchers should consult the manuscript cadastral maps and plans of individual lots and communities. These maps were originally held in the Land Records Office.  Maps dating earlier than 1900 are now stored in the Public Archives and Records Office, and many digitized versions will be available on Island Imagined. The maps and plans are descriptive records that were designed to connect leases, deeds, purchase payments, and tax payments to individual properties and their occupants. They exist in varying quality and quantities, and some geographic areas have greater coverage than others. It is relatively simple to search the collection to determine if your ancestor’s residence will have cadastral maps beyond the atlases mentioned above. The maps are indexed by lot number, so once you identify the general lot where your ancestor appeared (The Meacham Companion and Master Name Index are excellent starting points), you can quickly determine the scale and scope of manuscript maps in the Archives’ collection.
The manuscript maps contain many markings and in most cases these lead to a ledger index showing the tax, lease, or property information for the head of household in each parcel. Information on other residents can then often be gleaned through family wills and probate records.


Locating people on maps: a case study

In order to illustrate some of the possibilities presented by the maps on Island Imagined, we demonstrate a hypothetical search for an individual named George Palmer.  Our family members claim the Palmers lived near Alberton, at one point, in the western part of Prince County. By consulting the Meacham’s Illustrated Atlas (or any contemporary map of Island lots) we know that Lot 4 and Lot 5 encompass Alberton and would be a good place to start. A quick search of the Master Name Index for Palmers with given names starting with “G” reveals that land records included a George P. Palmer in Lot 5 in 1870. The Meacham’s Companion confirms that there was at least one Palmer in this area in 1880, and the Illustrated Atlas identifies a “Geo Palmer” on a lot whose boundaries span 5 acres between the Alberton Road (or Main Street) and the Cascumpeque Harbour.  
At this point an examination of the manuscript map and plan index at the PARO would identify other cadastral maps in Lot 5. A search for “Lot 5” or “Lot Five” on the Island Imagined search page would result in maps such as the two below, dating from 1877 and 1911. From there, we can navigate each map using the buttons in the map window. These buttons allow us to zoom in to the area of Alberton Road where we think we might find George Palmer.
We are relatively confident that George Palmer lived in this area in the 1870s, so we begin in 1877 with the map titled Plan of Town Lots at Cascumpec Point. Township No. 5. (Figure 1). This cadastral map of parcel divisions shows names and acreages for each property, and the smaller numbers along parcel boundaries correspond to frontages and other distances measured in chains and links. A chain was 66 feet in length and consisted of 100 links. We can see that George Palmer appeared on the same parcel as the Illustrated Atlas. His land extended over the original survey (shown as a dotted line) so the cartographer included an extra measurement using geographic coordinates to indicate the location of the parcel boundary. In the 1880 Illustrated Atlas, land hooks are used to indicate that both sides of this dotted line belonged to Palmer. 
Between the Illustrated Atlas and the 1877 Plan, there is also considerable information about George Palmer’s neighbours, community, local infrastructure, and natural environment.  Palmer lived in close proximity to major docks and a rail line. His neighbours owned a range of properties from farm-sized acreages, to town lots and even smaller parcels containing shops and businesses. This end of Alberton appears to have been undergoing urban development, with many subdivided parcels ranging from one and a quarter to two and a quarter acres in size. Most of these parcels were owned by prominent land owners such as G. W. Howlan and the Reid Brothers.
Figure 1: Detail of “Plan of Town Lots at Cascumpec Point. Township No. 5.” (1877)
Figure 1: Detail of “Plan of Town Lots at Cascumpec Point. Township No. 5.” (1877)
The 1911 map, titled Plan of Township No. 5, shows that our hypothetical family history continued in this area for well over three decades (Figure 2). The same parcel of land was occupied in 1911 by a much older George Palmer. In this map we see that the property is owned by G. P. Palmer, so we can be relatively confident that this is the same George P. Palmer that lived in this area in the 1870s. The map is in some ways less detailed than the 1877 and 1880 maps, but in other ways it is far more useful to genealogists. Topographical features were very different in the 1911 map, where the natural and built environment took a back seat to cadastral names and deeds. Acreage, frontage, and some other boundary measurements are still given for each parcel, but there are no buildings evident like the 1880 Illustrated Atlas and the precision of acreages and smaller lots is much lower than the 1877 Plan.


Figure 2: Detail of "Plan of Township No. 5" (1911)

Figure 2: Detail of "Plan of Township No. 5" (1911)

The main advantages to genealogists from consulting manuscript maps such as the 1911 map are the references to deeds and conveyances. This map was designed as a spatial index to a cadastral list, and not as a community map or even a detailed survey. From this map, land records and taxation officials could quickly identify a parcel’s location and basic measurements and create bills for the appropriate parties. For genealogists who have found their ancestors on the maps, the reference to cadastral lists will potentially open up doors to a wealth of information for their family history. The numbers in red ink below the name on each property refers to the conveyance number and deed number in the land records. 
Conveyances are the records of transactions in property ownership. These land records can be quite complicated because of the system of land ownership by large absentee proprietors, or what Islanders call “The Land Question.” An excellent overview of the history, use, and location of land records can be found in the article by Ann Coles, and on the PARO website. Most early conveyances are available at the PARO, where they are indexed alphabetically both by the name of the person selling and the person buying. After 1900, conveyance records are housed at the Prince County and Queens County land registry offices and are alphabetized slightly differently (see Coles). The numbers on the 1911 and many other cadastral maps refer to the “folio” number (Fol.) and “deed” number (Dd) in these records. These records are especially useful for genealogists who have not been able to find wills for an ancestor recorded on a cadastral map. Sometimes property owners conveyed land to their sons and still retained future interest for themselves, thereby disposing of an estate without necessarily drafting a will. Or, a group of family members could convey title to one person, and in this case the deed will include the names of the spouses of each family member, including their address at the time of signing. Records such as this can take what little was known of a person like George Palmer in Alberton and introduce a variety of new avenues for genealogical research.
Historical maps contain a wealth of information for genealogists, and cadastral maps such as the manuscript maps and plans are excellent sources for moving beyond the few and relatively recent years represented by historical atlases. Searching digitized records and online databases is now one of the first actions taken by genealogists.
Many of the lesser known manuscript maps are also becoming more accessible to researchers in digitized form, and the material on IslandImagined adds the capability to search widely through historical maps relating to Prince Edward Island. 





Glossary of common map codes




 Reference Maps

“Topographical Map of Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence (from actual Surveys at the late coast survey of Capt. H. W. Bayfield,” (Saint John, New Brunswick: W. C. and H. H. Baker, 1863).
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Province Prince Edward Island (Toronto: J H Meacham & Co., 1880).
Atlas of Province of Prince Edward Island, Canada and the World, 1927 (Toronto: Cummins Map Company, 1928).
Geoffrey J. Matthews, R. Cole Harris, D. G. G. Kerr, Deryck Holdsworth, R. Louis Gentilcore, and Ronald Harvey Walder. Historical Atlas of Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987; 1993). (
Secondary Resources
John Boylan, “The Best Laid Plans: Fire Insurance Mapping on Prince Edward Island,” Island Magazine 58 (2005): 23-27.
Ann Coles, “A Beginner’s Guide to Island Land Records,” Island Magazine 25 (1989): 35-41.
Bruce S. Elliott, Irish Migrants in the Canadas: A New Approach, 2nd Edition (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 2004).
Richard Mark Enman, “The Meacham Companion,” (Charlottetown: s.n., 1986) UPEI Robertson Library, Special Collections, G1135.A44 1880 PEI.
Dorothy Griffin-Farish, “Finding Your Canadian Ancestors - A Beginner's Guide,” PEIGS Newsletter 34 (2) (April 2009): 22-31.
E. Wade Hone, Land & Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1997).
Roger J. P. Kain and Elizabeth Baigent, The cadastral map in the service of the state: a history of property mapping (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Terrence M. Punch, Genealogical Research in Nova Scotia (Halifax: Petheric Press Ltd, 1983).
___________ “Land and Probate Records in Genealogy,” Connections 5 (3) (March 1983): 6-10.
Alan Rayburn, Geographical Names of Prince Edward Island, Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. Ottawa, 1973.
Ruth Sandwell, Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and Practices of Resettlement on Saltspring Island, 1859-1891 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 2005).
Loretto D. Szucs, and Sandra H. Luebkingeds., The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Inc., 1997).
William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (Genealogical Publishing Com, 1987).
Ann Thurlow, “Digital Island History,” PEIGS Newsletter 35 (2) (April 2010): 13.


This section lists some websites that are of interest to genealogists and that cover much of Europe and North America, as well as websites that focus on Canadian and Prince Edward Island databases.
Provincial Archives and Records Office
PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation
PEI Genealogical Society
The Island Register
Natural Resources Canada: Origin of Canadian Geographical Names
Atlas of Canada website
Manitoba Historical Maps on Flikr
Western Canadian historical maps
The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project
Atlas et cartes historiques  a compilation of links to digitized, online historical atlases and maps
Vancouver Island History hosts maps and census data for Vancouver Island
W.H. Pugsley Collection of Early Canadian Maps
RootsWeb (
US Genealogy Map Site
National Atlas of the United States  historical material focuses mainly on election results, territorial expansion, and the Civil War
Atlas of Historical County Boundaries (USA)
U. S. Census Bureau TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) system
David Rumsey Historical Maps
NC Maps
Norman B Leventhal Map Center
Alabama Maps Historical Archive
The Map Archive
John Robertson’s Historical County Lines
Federation of East European Family History Societies Map Library