This is similar to the earlier question How to index your own digitalized records? but with a twist.

One of my places of interest uses a lot and block survey system and has maps available for download from the city assessor's office (from their GIS system). These are PDF maps with the block and lot numbers, and often with the footprint of the buildings shown as an outline on the map. Property Record Cards associated with each tax parcel often note the approximate date of construction of the building on the parcel.

Via Michael John Neill's blog, I discovered that the microfilm of the US Federal Census from 1790-1930 can be downloaded from the Internet Archive for personal viewing on your own computer.

I would like to take an enumeration district and map the parcels on the property tax map against the heads of household on the census). My goal is to gain a better understanding of the neighborhood, and to locate some people known to have residences in the neighborhood who cannot be found by searching the index by name.

Do tools exist which would allow me to hyperlink the digital images to the PDF documents, or to leave 'sticky notes' on the census that would indicate I had located the street address on the map? For a one-place study, I might also want to add in City Directory images or other source material which included a street address.

I have tried making spreadsheets and tables to keep track of data sorted by street address, but once I included material from different years, it was too messy to follow. My ideal application would consist of a layered series of maps, with a different layer for each decade, or for each five-year period in states whose state censuses were taken in years ending in 5.

(For more information on using property records from the USA in your research, and images of maps which are similar to the PDFs I have downloaded, see the series of blog posts by James Tanner, including Understanding Real Property Legal Descriptions for Genealogy: Subdivision Survey, which inspired this question.)

  • I have an idea, but just so I am clear, are you wanting to build a map layer that links to specific place in a PDF document, or are you trying to take images and basically geoencode them? That is census page 237 for X county lists households 5-19 being located on Y street and you link that image to that location? Or are you trying to take one of the block maps and so when it is clickled on it brings up residents of that neighborhood? Or something else.. maybe a theoretical example?
    – CRSouser
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 23:45
  • Case 1: with the PDF map 'in focus' I could click on a parcel and get a list of links to heads of household in the census or a 'no households yet' exception message -- OR -- Case 2: with the census 'in focus' I could hotlink to the appropriate parcel on the tax map. They needn't be geo-encoded to Google street view or the current-day Google Map, just to each other (and other images on my own computer). Documents would be tagged by the appropriate date layer if the date layers were implemented.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 0:08
  • The answer will be Yes but there are various options. I plan to write an answer based on ArcGIS which is the software I know best but a key requirement for me to know is whether you are thinking about a desktop or online solution? Also, do you have a shapefile of polygons representing the parcel boundaries?
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 1:27
  • @PolyGeo -- Do I have a shapefile of polygons representing the parcel boundaries? No, I don't have any GIS software myself -- what I have are PDF maps which are the output of the MapGeo system that the city uses to supply this information to end-users. It may be more practical to use Scrivener's outline, binder, and index card features to keep track of the data, but I was looking for other options that were more visual and interactive. As a general rule I prefer desktop options but for collaborative projects online would be preferable.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 1:41
  • @JanMurphy Is that MapGeo something that you can provide a link to? I think I'll base my answer on ArcGIS Online and try to give you the steps to upload a shapefile of parcel boundaries and then create hyperlinks to PDF files, images, etc. I suspect that I can get the shapefile (that I would prefer to start with) from your city GIS team or an open data provider. I won't try to nail all of your requirements at the outset but just to focus on "how do I point at a parcel in a map, and see PDFs etc about it?" I'm very happy to come back to the other requirements in follow up Q&As.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 3:54

3 Answers 3


I think a map centric approach to visualizing the relationships between people, parcels and eras is the right way to go.

The requirements that you describe are all possible using a Desktop GIS (Geographic Information System) or an Online GIS. The GIS platform with which I am most familiar is ArcGIS from Esri and so I would approach implementing an application like this using:

Alternatives for the above could be QGIS on the desktop and/or the online MangoMap, but there are many others and each desktop has a steeper learning curve but much more functionality than the online offerings.

Whichever technology is chosen, I think the approach will be to decide whether to:

  1. use a raster image of the parcels as background picture onto which you effectively pin hyperlinks to documents
  2. use a vector layer (e.g. shapefile) of parcel polygons which have attribute fields containing pathnames/URLs to hyperlinked documents like PDF files, photos, videos, etc

I would recommend trying to meet the key requirement of hyperlinking documents to things you can see on a map by using a free Public Account at ArcGIS Online first and then progress from there.

For anyone new to GIS there is an excellent GIS Stack Exchange that may be useful although there are currently only a few questions tagged genealogy there.

  • For recent (2010) Census boundaries in the US, see: census.gov/geo/maps-data/data/tiger.html
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 18:04
  • Eureka! Historical data: nhgis.org also at aag.org -- a Research Guide at Dartmouth has information about the US and many other countries. See also guide at Texas A&M for ArcGIS extensions. For historical county maps see here
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 18:07
  • 1
    I've just had a quick look at those links but I cannot see anything that goes down to the parcel level. Modern censuses here in Australia, and I assume in the US, need to aggregate data for privacy so they can tell you how many people live in a census tract but not precisely where they live. Parcel data can go by some other names like cadastre/cadaster and DCDB (Digital Cadastral DataBase).
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 1:09

One software program that might be of help is called History Geo. I haven't used it myself but from my review of the software available, it appears to be closest to what you are looking for. They describe themselves as "a family history software service for linking old maps and land records to your genealogy research".

Their data is based on Landowner maps. They cover 22 states with Texas already being "completed", and 9 states are being mapped soon.

They say that you will be able to draw a layer of your own "subsequent" landowners in the public land states using their tools which will help you draw them in the right spot, AND also tools for drawing parcels in the former colonial states using metes and bound tools.

It is a subscription service. You can read their blog to see what they're up to.

  • +1 because a purpose-built application for well-defined requirements like these will be quicker and easier to work with than generic GIS
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 0:59
  • Interesting service -- and it might be worthwhile for people tracking landowners -- but the particular project I was thinking about is to keep track of renters.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 1:02

Google Earth has a lot of useful features and lots of third party applications. When I first started looking at land use history I converted PDF plats into transparent GIF overlays and pinned them into GE. Scale and orientation can be challenging, but if you have metes and bounds the Plat Plotter online application can create an overlay. Plat Plotter can store multiple Plats online in Google Maps. I attach photos using Panoramio as well but not the other data types you are looking to attach.

  • Hi, welcome to G&FH.SE! I don't have much in the way of metes and bounds -- I have 20th-century parcel IDs. Google Earth Pro apparently has parcel-level features but I haven't played with it yet (it only became free very recently).
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:02
  • Thanks. I followed the link, but can you maybe provide a screenshot example with maybe some explanation too?
    – CRSouser
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 18:44
  • 1
    @JanMurphy: In my area of WV we have good online records so when I come across a parcel id I can go back to the subdivision to find how it was carved out, then plot the plat from there. No idea if that is possible where you are. Also, while I have seen parcel overlays online, I have only seen them for 'current' (2 year old?) data, not history, real time or planned divisions. Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 0:18
  • @CRSouser: I have an explanation, screenshots and examples online about creating plat overlays and pictures: [platplotter.blogspot.com] (platplotter.blogspot.com/2014/02/…) I do not have an online example of the Google Earth overlay process, and it does not look like this comment process supports images. Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 0:26
  • When I wrote this question I was trying to correlate early-20th century census records from urban areas (that is, recent enough that the census lists the street address), so even though the parcel overlays don't have historical data, they are still useful.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 17:45

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