Mapping Family History with Ortelius

Maps are tremendous genealogical tools to help build a more comprehensive understanding of what life was like for your ancestors, looking at locations, migration routes, political boundaries, and more. Custom maps let you personalize the historical geography and highlight features relevant to family reports, documents, and photographs.

Here is an example of a family history map made with Ortelius showing the northeast Italian region of Udine (c. 1910). Click here to view a PDF export of the finished map in all its glory.

Tracing Source Maps

Two common techniques for creating custom maps from a source map are 1) to draw over an existing map or aerial photograph highlighting features and adding new information, while leaving the original source map as the background image, and 2) tracing relevant features and then “turning off” the source map, thus resulting in a completely new map.

Remember to consider copyright issues if you intend to publish your finished map and it includes a copyrighted source map.

Finding Source Maps


Finding source maps for tracing can sometimes be a challenge. Fortunately there are many sources of current and historical maps available online. Our example of Drenchia and Stregna, Italy is made by tracing parts of a 1909 source map from the Third Military Mapping Survey of Austria-Hungary. When looking for source map material, try a Google search of the location and date. Here are a few of our favorite historical map sites, many available for download or online viewing:


For more local scale mapping, try your local government agency plat maps and local library collections. In U.S. urban areas, search for Sanborn Fire Insurance maps available at many public and university libraries. Historic railroad and survey maps can also be valuable source material.

Getting Started


After finding the right source map, decide on your page layout and map size. If you aren’t familiar with using Ortelius’ drawing tools, the Ortelius’ Getting Started With Ortelius guide (PDF version 6.77MB) and Getting Started are a great place to start.

Genealogy maps are a fun and interesting way to incorporate the spirit of place into your family history. Ortelius comes prepackaged with hundreds of styles and symbols, and it is easy to create your own custom maps. If you are making a series of maps, consider using a consistent style of colors and map symbols throughout to give your maps a unified look and feel.

Ortelius Earns “Excellent” Rating from ATPM

About This Particular Macintosh awards Ortelius map illustration software a rating of “Excellent” in their recent review. About This Particular Macintosh (ATPM) is a monthly Internet magazine created to celebrate the personal computing experience on the Apple Macintosh. The ATPM review included testing a wide assortment of Ortelius features, particularly the versatility of pre-packaged map templates. Ortelius receives the highest rating based on the overall usage, purpose, and documentation of the vector-based cartography software for Mac OS X.

Their conclusion? “Mapdiva has a winner on its hand. For now, Ortelius has found a niche market to fill. There are some Mac map-making programs out there, but none in the price range or that possess the features found in Ortelius. With the specific map tools found in Ortelius, it is easy to make maps, whether from templates or imported bitmaps, or even if you have to start with a blank page. You can take mapping even further by importing shapefiles, many of which are freely available on the Web. If you have a mapping need, Ortelius makes an excellent choice.” In his evaluation of Ortelius, reviewer Linus Ly continues, “there is much potential in using Ortelius as an educational tool.”

Ortelius Earns 4-Stars from Softpedia

Softpedia awards Ortelius map illustration software 4-stars, with its highest ratings for user interface and features. Softpedia reviewers thoroughly test software products following a series of characteristics and parameters, starting from the installation of the product and to the help system, with ratings based on aspects such as how well organized and intuitive is the products user interface and how useful and well implemented is the product’s feature set.

Softpedia’ Mac Editor, Alexandru Tanase, notes, “There are a lot of fine things about Ortelius. Fi[r]st of all, Ortelius comes with a lot of templates that can be used at any time. Also, Ortelius is very easy to use, has a simple interface, and most of the tools you need are available in the main screen. The graphics are good, the maps look great, and really challenge you to use the program and give it your best in order to create a work of art.”

Their conclusion? “If you like drawing maps, or you do this at the office on a regular basis, be sure to use or just give Ortelius a try. You may find that even the most difficult maps can be created in a record time with no headaches. So, if you are a young cartographer, I truly recommend this program. Give it a try and you won’t be disappointed.”