After years of looking you have finally found your Rhode Island link
living in a place called Biscuit City! You have never heard of Biscuit
City and you are unsuccessful finding any information on the place.
Congratulations, you have just discovered one of the reasons
genealogical research in Rhode Island is so challenging. Although Rhode
Island has only 37 cities and towns with geographical and political
divisions, it has more than one hundred villages, many of which native
Rhode Islanders still identify with. For instance, when you ask a
resident of Glocester where they are from they may say Chepachet (a
village). Many of these villages and post offices no longer exist except
in public records, family documents, and oral histories. So what can a
researcher do to find where an ancestor lived? A good map or gazetteer
will certainly help, and there are plenty of them available to Rhode
Seventeenth and even eighteenth-century maps
consisted of plat maps, boundary lines, or military campaign maps. One
early map of Providence shows a rough outline of houses drawn by Brown
University student John Fitch in 1790. Another early Providence map is
known as the Powder Horn map, so called because it was drawn on one.
Both of these items are in the collections of the Rhode Island
Historical Society. Like most maps prior to 1800 they are hand drawn
rather than printed. While interesting to look at, there is little
information contained in the maps. A few houses and a street in the
Fitch map make it identifiable as Providence, but for the genealogist
these two examples are not very useful.
According to David Cobb
in his essay "Windows to Our Past: Mapping in the Nineteenth Century" (Mapping
Boston, Muriel G. and Norman Levanthal Foundation, 1999), the
American map-making industry began in the mid-1800s when a growing
middle class created a demand for printed maps in major cities such as
Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. During this time,
new county and state maps were printed, including many genealogically
important maps of nineteenth century Rhode Island. These maps are
generally several feet in length and width and either varnished or
attached to a wooden rod for hanging. Some of these oversize maps also
feature a list of businesses and prominent citizens. One of the
earliest state maps useful for genealogists is James Stevens' A
Topographical Map of the State of RI and Providence Plantations
(1831). On this map, small dots appear to represent houses along the
major roads, but there are no names alongside the dots. For the Civil
War period consult Henry F. Walling's Map of the State of Rhode
Island and Providence Plantations (1862). Walling began his career
in Rhode Island, and became one of the nineteenth century's most
productive cartographers. His maps reveal names of the occupants of
houses that Stevens represented as unnamed dots on his earlier map.
Congested areas are shaded, but if your ancestor lived in a rural area
you might be able to find out approximately where their house stood.
This map includes insets of larger villages such as Slatersville
(Smithfield) and Greenville (Gloucester) along with a business
directory. There is a Rand McNally & Company map of Rhode Island (Atlas
of the World, 1895) showing many small villages that is viewable online.
AtlasesLate in the nineteenth century, atlases became
popular because they were able to accommodate larger and more detailed
maps. In addition to maps, these volumes often contain local history,
business directories, and even lithographic portraits of prominent
citizens. They frequently show property ownership. Another type of atlas
developed and used by the Sanborn Insurance Company assessed the fire
risk of urban areas. They generally just included the center city and
surrounding residential blocks of towns and cities with a population of
over 2,000. The information gathered about building composition (shown
in color coding) and function is valuable to present-day genealogistsand
environmental engineers. Sanborn maps from 1867 to 1970 can now be
viewed online by
subscription. Environmental Data Resources, Inc. (EDR) acquired the
Sanborn maps in 1996. For more information on these maps and details on
how to order them, contact EDR at 800-352-0050 or visit their website. Sanborn maps of
Rhode Island cover the period 1884 to 1984 depending on the town.
Rhode Island atlases extremely useful to genealogists are:
Panoramic Maps or
Bird's Eye ViewsWhile not a map in the traditional definition,
these "aerial" views show a three dimensional outlook of a particular
city including buildings and street patterns. Very popular in the
post-Civil War era, you can find panoramic maps for both small towns and
large cities. Local Chambers of Commerce regularly sold them to promote
civic pride. Consult the Library of Congress online catalog or Panoramic
Maps of Cities in the United States and Canada: A Checklist of Maps in
the Collections of the Library of Congress by John R. Hebert,
compiler (revised edition, Library of Congress, 1984).
To find background information and larger town locations for
villages and post offices consult a gazetteer. Gazetteer of the
States of Connecticut and Rhode Island (John C. Pease and John M.
Niles, Hartford: W.S. Marsh, 1819) is a good one. The Peabody Museum at
Yale University website allows you to search geographic features and
American Memory ProjectRailroad Maps, 1828-1900Features
two Rhode Island railroad maps.
Cyndi's ListFor a
comprehensive listing of map resources, consult her category "Maps,
Gazetteers, and Geographical Information."
State of Rhode
IslandProvides links and GPS information.
Rhode Island Digital Map LibraryWant to help put
more Rhode Island maps online? Find out how to become a volunteer
coordinator for this site.
of New Hampshire, Dimond LibrarySearch United States Geological
Survey Maps (USGS) for Rhode Island
To find out if a map
exists for a particular town call their local historical society, the
Rhode Island Historical Society, or the Rhode Island State Archives. See
my earlier article "A
Rhode Island Research Directory," for more information about the
various historical societies and libraries in Rhode Island.
unpublished typescript by Linda Cranston, Rhode Island in Maps: A
Cartobibliography up to 1920 (M.A. Thesis Geography, University of
Rhode Island, 1988) updates Howard M. Chapin's Check List of Maps of
Rhode Island (Preston & Rounds Co., 1918). A copy of Cranston's
typescript exists at the Rhode Island Historical Society and at the
University of Rhode Island.
Since multiple copies of these maps
exist, it is not always necessary to visit a Rhode Island library or
archive to view them. Consult David K. Carrington and Richard W.
Stephenson's Map Collections in the United States and Canada (New
York: Special Libraries Association, 1984) to find a collection near
you. Anyone interested in Rhode Island maps will definitely want to view
the large collection of published and manuscript maps at the Rhode Island Historical
Society in Providence. Due to limited space, an advance appointment
is required to view this collection and most of the maps cannot be
copied due to their fragile condition.
While maps are most useful
when locating place names, they can also lead you to new discoveries.
You can use them to track down an ancestral homestead, cemeteries, and
even follow migration routes. Whatever you do, don't forget to include
maps as part of your genealogical research. As for Biscuit City, it no
longer exists, but at one time it was a small village in North Kingstown
at the junction of two roads.