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.