Finding historical place names

This is a page of maps and resources that have proven useful when following the narrative of historical travellers who use place names that, today, we don’t find on the popular online mapping services.

Paper Maps, Scanned

International Map of the World (IMW) (1:1,000,000)

The International Map of the World (IMW) series was conceived of in the 1890s. A series of 1:1,000,000 scale mapsheets, each covering four degrees of latitude and six degrees of longitude, it was never fully completed. Different versions were produced: on the web you can find Italian, American, British and German versions, with the primary source being the map collection of the Perry-Castañeda Library at the University of Texas.

The maps are numbered according to an international system in which every 6°-wide zone of longitude has a number. These numbers begin at 180° west in the Pacific and count eastward in jumps of 6° for a total of sixty zones. Hint: this number is the same as the local UTM zone.

Latitude zones, four degrees wide, are given letters from the equator outward.

Advantages of the IMW maps are that they include topography and contour lines. The labelling on them is distinctly dated, but sometimes this is what you need.

Another nice feature of the IMW maps is that they often contain a small glossary of local geographic terms at the bottom. For example on J-43 (“Su-Fu”) you get this list, which includes Turki, Russian and Chinese terms found on the map.

Soviet topographic maps (1:1,000,000, 1:500,000, 1:200,000, 1:100,000)

The Soviet topographic mapping of countries outside the USSR was extensive, and fortunately many of the sheets—at scales from 1:1,000,000 up to 1:50,000—were released when that country broke into the Russian Federation and the other former Soviet republics. They can be downloaded for free. They tend to be dated in the 1970s and 80s.

All you need to use them is the ability to read Cyrillic—you do not have to be able to read Russian. However, a list of the common abbreviations used on these maps, their full-word counterparts, and the meanings of these Russian words is hugely useful. (E.g., род. stands for родник [rodnik] which is a spring or well.) At Wayback Machine you can find a thorough list of these terms and abbreviations, and you can feed the ones that you are seeing into Google Translate.

The US Army also produced quite a good guide to the symbols found on these maps.

The Soviets produced full sheets of these quadrangles at 1:1,000,000, and they gave them the same letter-number combinations used for the IMW. However, they also subdivided them for larger scale mapping. Each 1:1,000,000 quadrangle was divided into four 1:500,000 quarter-sheets, numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4—or lettered, using the first four letters of the Cyrrillic alphabet, А, Б, В and Г.

US Army Map Service (AMS) topographic maps circa WW2 and later

These are some of the largest scale topographic mapping you can find in English, and date from anywhere in the past 75 years. They come at a variety of scales, but often at 1:250,000 or better. See the AMS page at Perry-Castaneda Library.

There have been many different series of these maps, so usually you need to find the local series and then examine its index map.

These AMS maps follow the IMW naming system, with a strange subdivision of each IMW sheet into 16 sheets, numbered from the top left in four rows.

Tactical Pilotage Charts (TPC) at 1:500,000

These large sheets at 1:500,000 were produced (and continue to be produced) by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) of the U.S.

These cover most of the world at 1:500,000, and some (not usually current) are available at the Perry-Castaneda Library.

Although they use old transliteration schemes and fail to name many places at all, they do show some topography and can be helpful.

They use their own unique numbering system, based on the ONCs.

Operational Navigation Charts (ONC) at 1:1,000,000

Similar to the TPCs, but at 1:1,000,000. from the US’s Defence Mapping Agency. They cover much of the world at are downloadable from the Perry-Castaneda Library.

US Army JOG Charts (1:250,000)

See the Aeronautical charts page at the Perry-Castaneda Library. JOG stands for Joint Operations Graphics.

JOG charts follow the same naming system as the Army Map Service topos discussed above. Unfortunately they don’t usually have the same level of detailed place naming as their topographic predecessors.

Map Collections online

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

This is very popular and rightly so. An extraordinary collection of old maps, beautifully scanned.

Old Maps Online

This is an interesting aggregator of online map scans. In effect, you zoom into the area you are interested in and in the right margin it shows thumbnails of all the online maps it has found which include this area. Sometimes it leads you to something you haven’t seen before.

PAHAR Mountains of Central Asia Digital Dataset

This is surely one of the most remarkable collections on the internet. It contains scans of maps, books and journal articles about travel in Central Asia, primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries. If you have found a scan of an old travel narrative, but somehow the map did not get scanned with it, the map may be here.

Online gazetteers

This superbly useful website combines a number of online gazetteers, and can often discover a historical name (or spelling) that is no longer on a map. Be sure to use Advanced Search and then check Fuzzy search, which can sometimes bridge the difference between how a place name used to be transliterated, and how we spell it now.

Geonames result icons are colour-coded according to feature type

When you click a result you are interested in, you get a non-map page like this:

As the instructions say, click the little marker icon at the right end of the bottom row, next to “.rdf”, to see it on a Google Hybrid map background.

At this point, clicking the Back button on your browser takes you back to the initial search results. Clicking on the Alternate names icon produces a list of alternate names for this place.

Remarkably, panning or zooming the map at this point causes Geonames to search for all other named features in the view. This is useful when you know your feature might be somewhere nearby and just want to see all named features. You now get a map that looks like this:

Notice at the top there is now a “Found xx items in this area.” If you click the small dropdown icon next to it you get a list of place names, with feature classes. You can sort this list by any field by clicking that field name.

Glossaries of geographical terms in other languages

Knox’s 1904 Glossary of Geographical and Topographical terms

This is a useful, though not always complete, compendium of geographical terms in other languages. You can download a scanned copy at It is at least nominally searchable, though of course how you spell the term you’re looking for is always the big question.