Maps – A Researcher’s Hidden Treasure

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When I start researching a new project, or even when I’m in the middle of one and just need some quick directions, there is nothing quite so practical as a good, historic map. They are hard to find, but when I stumble across a site that has maps in a format that I can enlarge and use, I get a little giddy. One of my favorites is on the Library of Congress’s site called American Memory. The maps that I have found the most pertinent to my personal research are the Railroad Maps. Most of my books are set in the 1880s, the decade that saw the most growth in the Texas railroad system. It was critical for me to know which towns the railroad had reached by which years. This site, combined with the Handbook of Texas Online, answered those questions.

For example, here is a map of the railroads in Texas in 1883:

1883 Texas Railroad Map

Now, the beauty of using these maps online, is that I can enlarge them to the point that I can read all the little town names alone each of those tracks.

I used the map below to plot my setting for Stealing the Preacher. The Archer brothers lived on a ranch outside Palestine, and I needed my hero to travel to a town to interview for a preaching position. I opted for Brenham since it was a fast-growing town in the 1880’s. But Crockett never makes it there because he is abducted from his train just outside of Caldwell. The outlaws take him overland past the small town of Deanville and back to their ranch where he eventually meets the heroine, Joanna. I’ve circled the key cities in red.

Close up railroad map

Beyond railroad maps, historic city maps are priceless. Sometimes I use fictitious towns which gives me the freedom to put things wherever I want, but many times I set my stories in real places. In order to describe these places accurately and to give the reader a true feeling of steeping back in time, I need accurate maps.

This is a piece of the Sanborn Map for Ft. Worth back in 1885. These maps were collected for fire insurance purposes, and they are a wonderful resource. Not only do they show street names, but when you enlarge them, you can also see the name of local businesses that were in existence during that time frame. I gained access to the Texas maps through my local university library. I used this piece of the Fort Worth map when plotting the opening of Head in the Clouds.

Ft. Worth 1885

Adelaide Proctor traveled to Ft. Worth, chasing the traveling book salesman she thought was going to marry her. I needed to give her a place to stay while she was there, and this section of the map shows a section of town right next to the railroad depot. The blue arrow points to Clark House which was a fashionable hotel in the area. Adelaide ended up staying here, but she brought her beloved horse, Sheba, with her on the journey and needed a place to stable her. Thanks to this map, I found a handy livery stable just up the street and was able to have my hotel drummer point her in that direction. (Green arrow) Unfortunately for poor Adelaide, this lovely hotel did not prove to be the welcoming retreat she had hoped, for it was here that she discovered the scoundrel she had quit her job to follow was already married.

Click cover to pre-order.

Never fear for our intrepid heroine, however. I was able to use another portion of this map to lead her to a lawyer’s office on the corner of Houston and W. 13th Streets so that she might inquire about a governess position on a sheep ranch over in Menard County where a much more suitable hero waited.

My next release, Full Steam Ahead, is partially set in Galveston. And once again, I hit the goldmine in finding a map that fit my time frame. I found a 1859 Galveston map, only 8 years removed from the time period of my story. Combined with other resources, I was able to piece together where my heroine’s family house would be and the route she would take to escape to the docks in order to board a steamboat heading to Liberty, Texas. Here is the link to the Galveston map. You can enlarge as needed. Imagine Renard House (my heroine’s family residence) in Lot 61. I was able to verify the existence of other historical houses from the 1830s in the same neighborhood, so I felt safe placing her home there.

Are you a map person?

When you travel, do you use GPS or do you prefer the good old fashioned paper maps?

Do you get excited by looking at old maps that give a picture of what things used to be like, or is that pleasure saved for geeky researchers like me?

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

21 thoughts on “Maps – A Researcher’s Hidden Treasure”

  1. I am a map person. I love trying to find new routes. I prefer paper maps, but I also use Mapquest quite often. I do not like GPS. GPS also doesn’t like where we live. It often takes people to the wrong place. 😛

  2. Karen, I am so excited about your new book….have read all of your other books and loved them!
    We use GPS although I do like to have a printed MapQuest copy along, too!
    lol…like Faith B. said, GPS does not like where we live…moved to country 4 yrs. ago and it NEVER works for folks to find us…but we love it for getting us around in the nearest big city (which we knew nothing about) where we have to go to doctors, hospitals, more shopping!

  3. Oh I love those maps! I have found a few of where we live from many, many moons ago and have so much fun looking at what was around back then. I am a map person all the way. The GPS bugs me because it has errors – it also doesn’t like where we live either!

  4. Excellent blog about maps. I use them too in my writing about Kansas pioneer women. It was exciting for me to find a 1859 map with my ancestor’s names on the land they had filed on, when I was working on my Trail of Thread series. It proved they were there and I could drive right to the spot, the same as they did, but 160 years ago in 1854.

  5. Hi, Faith.

    I’ve learned to use GPS more and more since it is so handy on my phone, but you are right about it doing crazy things. One time it took my husband and I on a road through the DFW airport (for which we had to pay a toll to get out of the airport) just to get from one side of town to another. I wished I’d had a paper map then to reroute us, but we were stuck with the crazy computer.

  6. Hi, Jackie – So glad you’re excited about the new book. I think of it as my “mad scientist hero” book. Ha! He blows a lot of stuff up during his experiments on steam engine boilers. Good thing the heroine comes along with her own crazy troubles to distract him. 🙂

  7. Susan – I used to travel with a giant road atlas every time I took a trip. My hubby is too technology-oriented to both with things like that now. But when I’m by myself, I usually map things out on paper first so I can have a visual before I leave. That screen on my phone is just too small to let me see as far ahead as I would like.

  8. Linda – What a thrill to see your family name on the plot map you were studying! I would love that. I bet that really made it all come alive to you, didn’t it? Fabulous!

  9. Wow! I love this, Karen. I have yearned for a historic map many many times in order to capture accuracy. This is priceless! I’m a big map person. I don’t have GPS so I definitely need something to show me how to get someplace. Thank you for blogging about this,

    Congrats on the upcoming release. YAY! Great cover and excellent title. It should do very well.

  10. Hi Karen

    I wrote a western about cross country travel and needed to know which RR lines went where. I was lucky to have found a pull-out map of the united states about all the original RR lines from 1800’s. I used that for many books afterward too.

    I am NOT a map person, can’t read the tiny print, but if I use a GPS I need to print out an enlarged pic of where I’m going or at least have written directions as well. It’s just me, I need back up. Great blog!


  12. Your post was so interesting and congratulations to you. The GPS has been a valuable tool for us so a map is rarely touched. Old maps, especially cattle drives mapped out, are so interesting.

  13. I have always used maps. easier for me. The GPS talking drove me crazy in my daughter’s car on a trip we took. Seems that voice never went more than 10 min. without talking. And, repeated some things over and over. I don’t drive out of town anymore, so don’t need either. It’s not too far to Galveston from my house here in Pasadena, near Houston. Very popular place for people to go during good weather. Love that dress on your new book and the title interest me to read the book. Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

  14. Excellent post! I have a hard time finding what I need so I’m going to look up some of the sources you mention. I also need to change the name of my fictitious town from Liberty to something else. That could have been disastrous.
    Thanks Karen!

  15. Mary J – “I’ve got a map for that.” LOL That had me grinning ear to ear.

    Melanie – So glad I’m not the only geek that finds these old maps so interesting.

    Maxie – That computerized voice can definitely get annoying. So glad you like the new cover. My setting moved back several decades to 1851, so I got to go big with the dress. 🙂

    Janie – Hope you find some good resources through these links, Janie. And yes, Liberty, Texas is a real place. I nearly did a similar thing with my first fictional town. I named it Benison, TX not realizing that there was a real Denison, TX that was so similar, one of my critiquers thought I had simply misspelled it. Changed that name to Coventry.

  16. I too love maps. We travel whenever we can, and I usually plan our routes. We also tend to not stick to our plans, so the maps come in handy when we decide to change routes. Maps give you a good idea of what is in the area and different ways to get there.

    I have used GPS and it does have its uses. I am a Red Cross disaster volunteer and they do come in handy finding a house fire at 3 AM. I always check Mapquest before I leave though to get a general idea where I am headed. When we deployed for Hurricane Sandy, no one brought a map because the gal who was driving brought her GPS. 20 minutes from the Philly airport her GPS crashed (or the system was down, we never did find out). We couldn’t find a map, roads were closed, and what few places were open were full. We left the airport at 6PM and a 3 hour trip to White Plains, NY took 11 hours. I hate flying blind. I could have routed us further from the coast and we would have gotten there sooner. I will never deploy again without getting a map of the area.

    I have ancient maps of a few countries. It is interesting to see what was there before current development. It also gives you a hint about what to look for if you want to see older parts of town or remnants of past habitation. One series of books I read by Jennifer Blake, THE MASTERS AT ARMS, is set in 1840’s New Orleans. She researched well. On our first trip there, I was able to find many of the places she mentioned, follow the routes characters took, and find sites important to the story. That gives an authenticity to the story. It isn’t often you can read a historical story (or a contemporary one) and know exactly where the character is standing in a scene because you have been there or find it when you do visit the area.

    Thanks for an interesting post on maps.

  17. Hi, Patricia. You are so right about us becoming too dependent on technology. It is great when it works, but if it goes down, having the old-fashioned paper map as a back up is a must. Thanks for the reminder.

    And how cool that you were able to retraced some of those character’s steps after reading the novel. So fun!

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