Around the early 1930s the USGS came up with a new grid system for the U.S.
based on maps covering 7.5 degrees Lat/Long. These maps are the ones
most of us are familiar with today. They also published 30x60 minute,
1:100,000 scale maps, and 1x2 degree, 1:500,000 maps and others, but
not be discussed here. The 7.5 degree maps are also called
1:24,000, meaning that one foot on the map represents 24,000 feet on
the ground. So they have over five times the resolution of the 30
minute maps, thus showing much greater detail, which is probably the
reason the USGS decided to go this route. These maps cover
approximately 10 miles east-west, and 13 miles north-south.
Grid maps showing maps covering each state in the U.S. are available,
although I've only seen the ones for Tennessee and Kentucky. They
cannot be shown here because of their size; e.g., it takes almost 1000
topo maps to completely cover Tennessee. But a PDF version is available
. As for the early maps, the names of the maps will
be needed if you want to download copies. A copy of the USGS brochure
is also available that explains what all the symbols, etc. on the maps
mean, "Topographic Map Symbols
I do have an index map for the Smoky Mountain area, shown below.
A PDF version is also
Obtain the USGS Maps
As mentioned earlier, the USGS has
scanned every topo map they have produced. These are available on-line
at the site below:
Loads of information is available on this site, but of most interest
here is downloading images of the topo maps. The one I normally
use is the text query application:
- On this page first select the State from the drop down list;
- If you want to see all the maps available for a given map name,
leave the Scale set to -All scales-.
- Enter a Map Name in the next box. This is where you will
either need the early index above or the 7.5 minute index. For example,
- For Map Type, leave it set on the default "All" to see all maps
- Then click on the Search button.
For the Knoxville example the list that comes up shows that the USGS published 1:24,000,
1:48,000, 1:125000, and 1:250,000 scale maps with the name Knoxville.
The ones of most interest to those doing genealogical research are the
early 30 minute (1:125,000) ones (1892-1901) and the early 7.5 minute (1:24,000) ones starting
in 1935. Perhaps obvious, but the early ones will show the area before
the dams were built.
To download an image of a map, click on the appropriate box in the
"Download GeoPDF". Warning: These
images are large; e.g., 30-40 MB.
So don't try to download them unless you have a high speed connection
or a lot of time. It is also faster if you do this at night and
weekends. They are zip files, so you would think they would be even
larger on your computer when you un-zip them, but they aren't.
An aside for the techie types: These
are georeferenced images, so they can be used with GIS software. They
can also be opened in software like Adobe Illustrator and all layers
will be there. Some of the later versions even have aerial photos as
background (so they can be a source for aerial photos), although the
USGS seems to have abandoned this in recent versions. I think the
photos made the maps hard to read, and sometimes masked features.
Feel free to explore. You might find it easier to use the National Map
Viewer on the first link above, but when I tried it just now (2/4/16), I got a note that they
were migrating to a new system. I'm not that familiar with this method,
but at first glance it would seem that you don't need to know the map
name(s) to download them.
So what to do with the images once you get them? You can
certainly look at them on your computer screen or handheld device. You
can also get them printed at places like FedEx Office (formerly
Kinko's). They are typically 22" wide by 27" high, but can be printed slightly smaller and are still readable; e.g., 16" x 20".
The USGS Geographical Information System (GNIS)
GNIS is a searchable database containing every feature named on all the USGS
topo maps. My first usage was to search for cemeteries and churches
when doing research on my family history. I still use it quite often.
It's also a good way to determine which maps you need to look at, since
it identifies the maps on which the features appear. The only downside
is that it only includes names that appear on current maps, although
the last time I checked, some labeled as "historical" were also listed,
frequently without locations (other than the county they were in).
Prior to learning about GNIS, my main source for this kind of information was a book produced in
1974 by the State of Tennessee, Department of Conservation, Geology
Division, "Place Names of Tennessee," by Ralph G. Fullerton. It lists
feature names for each county and the map they appear on. Each county
listing also includes a little map showing which topo maps cover the
county. As of this writing, I found three copies on abebooks
. I am not aware of such books for other states.
You access GNIS from this link: http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=gnispq
You normally start by entering the name of what you are looking for in
the Feature Name box. It is sometimes better if you don't enter the
entire name; e.g., if you're looking for "Homesick Mountain," just
enter "Homesick" (without the quotes). You will get a listing of everything with
Homesick in its name, which sometimes turns up some unexpected
But you don't have to enter anything into the Feature Name box. You can
instead pick something from the Feature Class list (although you
can certainly do both). More about this below.
Be sure to either enter something in the Feature Name box or pick from the Feature Class list.
Next pick a state from that pop-down list. You must select a state;
GNIS will not proceed without one. The reason is probably obvious. If
you don't, GNIS would have to search the entire U.S., which would
probably overload GNIS and shut it down.
Lastly, most often you will want to select a county from that pop-down list. You should always pick a county if you are searching by Feature Class with nothing in the Feature Name box.
To illustrate the Feature Class search: If you want to find all the
cemeteries shown on the topo
maps in a particular county, just leave the Feature Name box empty and
pick Cemetery from the Feature Class. But
be forewarned that these kinds of searches can take a few minutes. For
example, if you want to find all the cemeteries in Jackson County,
Tennessee, pick Cemetery, Jackson County, and Tennessee. You will get
you a list of 34 cemeteries that are named on the topo maps for Jackson
This illustrates a problem with the
GNIS search, since it only lists the cemeteries that have names. There
are a lot of un-named cemeteries shown on the topo maps. And for most,
if not all, counties, there are a lot of cemeteries that don't even
appear on the maps, such as small family cemeteries.
At this point you can click on "View & Print all" to see the entire
list, and/or click on "Save as pipe '|' delimited file. For the latter,
the file is saved as a .csv file with a "|" separating the fields. Any
text editor can open it, although programs like Microsoft Excel handle