Create a Genealogy Migration Map Using Google My Maps

Have you considered creating a migration map to trace your ancestors? It’s fast and simple to use Google My Maps or other free mapping tools to map your family’s history. 

Combining mapping technology with your genealogy research gives you an entirely different visual perspective that goes well beyond simply knowing where your relatives lived based on Census or other documents. A map is a fantastic way to trace your relative’s footsteps and immerse yourself in your family history.   

Simple Map-Making Technologies

Featured in this article are the step-by-step instructions on how you can get started creating your own maps today for FREE by using Google My Maps.

You might think that creating custom maps requires advanced cartography know-how or a complex geographic information system (GIS). Once, that was true; however, with new map-making applications, anyone can create their own custom maps with just a few clicks.

For beginner mapmakers, I recommend Google My Maps. My Maps is a little known offshoot of Google Maps, which enables users to create their own simple maps on a desktop computer or Android device. Anyone with a Google account can use this free map creator. Using My Maps is very straightforward, even to a first-time map maker.

As your map-making skills develop, you may want to try other mapping software/applications. Each platform is unique in terms of its features and price, so there’s definitely something for everyone. Other mapping applications you may want to explore are: Visme, MapBox, Map Me, ZeeMaps, Scrible Maps, and One Place by UnEarth

Why Should I Create a Migration Map

An event-based genealogy migration map can help you: 

  • Share genealogy information with family members. 
  • Display information in a visual way that is easy for people to quickly grasp. 
  • Organize and sort snippets of key information you’ve discovered in various records.
  • Identify research problems, such as how could your great-great grandfather have been in the Civil War and held in the Vicksburg, Mississippi prison for two years and also be fathering children with birth dates during the same period. Either there was some hanky panky on the homefront, or you have some records or dates that warrant review.
  • Identify gaps. For instance, if you found the 1850 census and then none until 1900, there is a gap in your research yet to fill that could show significant migration movements. 
  • Think critically, like a criminal investigator. Who? What” When? Why? How? During your genealogy research, you come up with more questions about your family’s history than census data and other records can possibly answer. For example, if you compare your grandmother’s timeline to your grandfather’s timeline you may discover that they attended the same high school or arrived on the same ship, which provides a clue to where they may have met. 

Other Genealogy Mapping Tools

If you use Ancestry as your family research tool, it automatically creates a timeline, referred to as a “LifeStory.” On the timeline, you’ll discover a map (automatically created using MapBox) that pinpoints the migratory path of your ancestor, tracing the location of where that person’s parents lived to where your relative died, and all of the places they lived in between. 

In the following illustration, you can see that my second great-grandfather’s parents were from Maryland. He was born in Oxford, Ohio; then he moved to Vermillion, Illinois, where he was married; he then lived in Danville and Oakwood, Illinois; and finally migrated to Foster, Missouri, where several of his children were born and where he would later die. 

FamilySearch and MyHeritage also have some neat mapping tools if you use those sites for your genealogy research. MyHeritage has their PedigreeMap. RootsMapper has been around awhile and is an interactive mapping website that works with FamilySearch.

Using Google My Maps

While I like the maps these genealogy sites offer, there are clear advantages to creating and sharing your own custom maps using Google My Maps. Once you try My Maps for your genealogy research, you’ll start thinking about a dozen other ways to use the mapping technology, such as pinpointing all of your previous travel destinations, identifying places where you competed in sports, or even destinations in your bucket list. 

Share maps easily and collaborate with others, just as you would in other Google suite products (such as Sheets, Slides, or Docs). Integrate your map with image search or location services and store everything – maps and data – on Google drive.

With a simple user experience, familiar interface, and potential for some really creative applications My Maps is a great choice for casual cartographers or a first-time map maker.

Let’s Get Started

For this example of how to create a simple map, I used My Maps to trace my second great grandparents, Matthew and Mary, from their birthplaces to where significant events happened in their lives to the cemetery where they are buried.

What Google Maps allows you to do is add your own landmarks, routes, and locations. You can also draw your own shapes onto the existing map to add detail. While you can view a custom map in the Google Maps app for Android and iOS, you can only create it using the web version on your desktop. 

Creating a Map Step-by-Step Instructions

Starting your map and naming it

  1. To start, go to the Google Maps website and sign-in using your Google account. Once you’re signed in, press the menu icon (three stacked dashes) in the top left. 
  2. In the options menu, click the “Your Places” option. 
  3. In the “Your Places” menu that appears on the left, click the “Maps” tab. At the bottom of the menu, select the “Create Map” button. 
  4. In the “Edit map title and description” menu, add the name and description for your map and then click “Save” to save it. In my map, I have changed the title to the “Migration of Matthew Gray.”

Adding Map Layers

  1. Your custom map is made up of layers, with the “Base Map” layer (the main Google Maps view) at the bottom. You can customize the appearance of the “Base Map” layer by selecting the options arrow next to the “Base Map” and choosing a different map theme.
  2. When you create a new custom map, a new “Untitled Layer” is added by default. Title your first layer by selecting the three-dot menu icon next to the layer and then click “Rename Layer” in the drop-down menu. 
  3. You can add as many layers as you want to your custom map, allowing you to separate the different layers of your map from each other. To add a layer, click the “Add layer” button. 
  4. If you decide later you want to delete a layer, select “Delete Layer” using the layer drop-down menu. 

In my map, you can see that I wanted two distinct layers, one for my grandfather’s migration (using blue pins) and the other my grandmother (using gold pins) because they each have unique migration paths.

Adding Components to a Custom Map in Google Map

Your map can be customized with various components. You can add marker points, shapes or lines, as well as directions directly onto the map. 

Search bar. Below is the components icons, including pinpoints, shapes, directions, distance, and move.
  1. To start, make sure you’re in the My Maps map editor. 
  2. A custom marker point is a pinpoint that appears on your map. You can use this to point map users to a location or area that isn’t specified on the “Base Map” layer. 
  3. In this instance, we want to add my grandfather’s place of birth as the first pinpoint on the map. Based on my genealogy research, I know that Matthew Gray was born in Oxford, Butler county, Ohio. So I type that location into the search bar. Google automatically takes me to this location on the map and it displays a lime green pinpoint.
  4. Select the “Add Marker” button on the menu (located below the search bar) and a new pinpoint is added. I can drag it over the lime green pinpoint. 
  5. When I “right click” with my mouse on the new pinpoint, a display box appears allowing me to give it a title and add a description. I can title this one Matthew Gray’s birthplace and add a date in the description. I can also add a photo, video and directions. I can also change the color of the pinpoint using the “paint bucket” icon so that all of the pins for Matthew are the same color. 
  6. Simply continue adding points to your map tracing your ancestor’s known geographical steps. 
  7. Be sure to “Save” your new pinpoints to add it to your map. 

Adding Lines or Shapes

You can add lines and shapes to your custom map to emphasize certain areas.

  1. Click the “Draw a Line Option” in the menu (located below the search bar) and then select the “Add line or shape” option. 
  2. In a suitable area of the map, draw a line using your mouse. Use multiple lines to create a joined shape. 
  3. Add a custom name and description to your object in the pop-up menu before selecting “Save” to confirm. 
Utilizing the line tool component.

Creating Custom Directions

You can add route directions from points A to B by creating a directions layer. 

As you create your directions layers, remember that transportation routes that existed 100 years ago are not the same as they are today. While our state highways and county roads sometimes follow original travel routes or trails, the interstate highway routes don’t. Most interstate highways were constructed over land never used previously for transportation, but road designers considered these routes to be more direct and straighter. 

In the following example, I created a directions layer (or route) that traveled from Danville, Vermillion county, Illinois, the place where my grandparents were married, to Foster, Bates county, Missouri, where they died. When I first added the A and B locations, the software generated a route that included Interstate 35. But I know that I-35 between Iowa and Missouri traversed virgin ground and never followed a previous travel route. So I used the drag tool to move my route so it followed the state highways instead, a more reasonable route they may have taken in the 1870s. 

Utilizing the directions feature
  1. Click on the “Add Directions” option (direction arrow) in the menu below the search bar to create this layer. 
  2. The directions layer will appear in the menu on the left. Add your departure point to the “A” text box and the arrival point to the “B” text box. 
  3. Once both the “A” and “B” boxes are filled, the map will update showing the route between your specified locations.
  4. Since we know that it is more likely that our relatives traveled from city to city using a route other than the interstate highway, if your map shows a route that includes the interstate, you can alter the A to B route by dragging the line to roads other than the interstate.  
  5. If you are fortunate to have a diary that describes the route that was taken, you can drag the route through the towns that they traveled. Sometimes a biography or obituary will also offer clues regarding their travel route. 

Sharing Custom Maps

Once you’ve created your map, you’re free to access it yourself from within Google Maps (menu> Your Places >Maps) or from the Google My Maps website. 

Only you can view your custom map by default, but you can share it with others.

  1. Go to the Google My Maps website, sign-in, and then select the “Owned” tab where your custom map should be listed. 
  2. To share it with others, click the “Share Map” button. This will give you options to share your custom map on various social media platforms, through email, or by embedding it on your website. 
  3. Select one of these options to proceed. 
  4. This will bring up the “Link sharing” options menu. Under the “Who Has Access” section, select the “Change” button.
  5. In the “Link Sharing” options menu, select the level of access for your map. You can restrict access to specific Google account users, allow access to anyone who has the shared link or make your map public instead.
  6. Your shared settings will be saved, allowing you to invite specific users to view it by email invitation or by sharing the link to your custom map to a wider set of users. 

I hope you will give it a try. Keep it simple at first until you’re comfortable with the mapping technology and then…just have fun creating all types of maps to enjoy yourself or share with your family and friends.


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