A New Tool for Interpreting Central and Eastern European Maps

Main interface for Maps of the Past

Recently, the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, part of the Polish Academy of Sciences, unveiled a new interactive map feature on their website: Mapy z Przeszłością (Maps of the Past). The online tool superimposes historical maps over a modern map of Central and Eastern Europe, allowing researchers to visualize and compare shifting borders and place names over time. The turbulent nature of Poland’s history, with its boundaries expanding, contracting, and disappearing over several centuries, is reflected in the geographic range of the maps available as overlays. The new map tool is useful for users with ancestry from modern Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, or the historical territories of the German, Russian and Austrian Empires.

In Central and Eastern European genealogy, you will encounter placenames that changed depending on who controlled an area and when. This complicates research as we sort out and weigh the accuracy of the various placenames that are found in American sources. For example, researching a Lithuanian immigrant ancestor, you may find that their town of origin is reported in its Polish form in American sources, reflecting the official name from the early nineteenth century. The same town or village may be recorded in another record with an approximation of its Russian name, from when Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire. The town name may also appear in its Lithuanian form, which became official in the twentieth century. Researchers with Jewish ancestry may also find a distinct Yiddish form of their ancestral town or village recorded in American sources.

A historical map with Polish placenames overlayed on a modern map of Grodno, Belarus

With the new map overlays, a researcher can alternate between historical periods, translating placenames in the process. This is most effective for placenames with Polish and German variants. Pay attention to the names of nearby towns and villages. Those placenames may appear later in religious or civil records. Some maps also include symbols that mark the nearest religious community.

If you have been unable to find your ancestor’s birthplace in Europe, expand your research to their friends, associates and neighbors. A common point of origin may emerge. By examining historical maps, you may find a placename nearby that is a phonetic match for the indecipherable placename found on an American record.

Maps available as overlays (June 2023):

  • Mapy WIG (1918-1947): From the Polish Military Geographical Institute (Wojskowy Instytut Geograficzny), this map collection largely represents Poland’s borders between World War I and World War II.
  • Mapy polskie: Published in 1859, this map series covers the areas of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and neighboring countries.
  • Mapy austriackie: Published in 1855, this map covers the Galician territories of the Austrian Empire, modern-day southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.
  • Mapy pruskie i niemieckie: With maps dated from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, this collection is the most expansive option, covering an area from the German-Dutch border in the west, to the Russian border in the east, and south to the Black Sea.
  • Plany miast: Highly detailed plans of major towns and cities in modern Poland generated during World War II.

From the main webpage, use the search bar (“Szukaj…”) in the top right corner to locate a modern location. The interactive key on the left side allows you to select one or more of the map options. The (+) icon expands each map series to include all its component maps. A sliding bar below each map title controls the transparency so that it is possible to view both the modern and historical maps simultaneously.

Can you find your ancestral town or village? Try it out!

About James Heffernan

James earned his BA in history at Boston College. Before joining the NEHGS team, he worked in the conservation department of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College and the research library at Plimoth Plantation. Propelled by his interests in genealogy and history, James spent a semester abroad at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In addition to Slavic history, he is very interested in the history of Colonial America and 19th century Massachusetts.

8 thoughts on “A New Tool for Interpreting Central and Eastern European Maps

  1. Interesting, though the map conundrum I untangled several years ago doesn’t seem to be included (perhaps because it’s too far west or too early). My 2nd great grandfather Paul Wünschel (which gradually became Winchel in America) was listed in 19th century census returns as being from the Kingdom of Bavaria. That tripped me up for years, because there’s little to no evidence of a population of people in the modern State of Bavaria with that family name, and most of the emigres from Germany in the early 19th century seemed to come from the Rhine Valley. I finally stumbled on the fact that until the late 19th century the Kingdom of Bavaria actually encompassed essentially all of what is now Southern Germany, from the Czech border to the Rhine Valley, with borders that changed constantly. It now appears that he emigrated with his family from the area along the west bank of the Rhine near Neupotz and Jockgrim, which at the time (ca 1836) was indeed a part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. When I search for them they do come up, but there’s no indication that they’ve been part of many different political units over the past 250 years. I suspect something similar that covers the many, many changes in governance in the regions now contained in the modern state of Germany would be equally useful for future researchers.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Michael. I am glad you were able to untangle your “Bavarian” ancestor’s origins!

  2. Thanks for the tip! I will have to wait until I’m at work to try it out properly – loading very slowly on my rural internet connection. Very cool – I will certainly be looking for some of my ancestral villages.

  3. I have ancestors who came from a sparsely populated agricultural district then called Flatow in Prussia. When the train station in their village opened, my large family took just about the first train out of there. They went to the the port of Danzig and then farmed near Alexandria, Minnesota. Many people from the Flatow region settled in the same little Minnesota farming communities. Some, like my ancestors, were ethnic Germans and others were ethnic Poles. Looking at the native tongue questions in the 1920 census, I can discern which families were ethnic German and which were ethnic Poles. The Flatow region, now Zlotow, is in central Poland. Danzig is now Gdansk. After World War II, millions of ethnic Germans either fled west or were evicted from the region. It is a very different map today than it was in 1874.

    1. Thanks for sharing your family’s experience, Jeff! These maps are particularly helpful for differentiating between Prussian town names and their Polish equivalents.

      1. My cousins either hired genealogists or studied German in German and looked at Catholic parish records in the village church in Lanken, Flatow district, written in German of baptisms and marriages that still exist and go back to about 1600! I am not sure how else to define ethnic Germans other than by their language. My family lived in or near Lanken, population today of 500, from 1600 until emigrating to Minnesota in 1874. Germans moved east into the region beginning in the middle ages. They moved out mostly to the United States in the 1870’s. Those few who remained in what was a majority German Catholic community were expelled from Poland after World War II.

  4. I used the measuring tool to determine the distance between my great grandparents’ birthplaces – Orlovac and Mala Mlinska, Croatia – was 5.5 miles.

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