This is another example performed for a client. You may find this technique useful if you just want a better idea where your ancestor lived (a specific part of the county or in this case, a specific part of a township and range) when ownership records aren't available, such as with non-land owners. However, for this client the purpose was even more important. The ancestor of interest had not conclusively been identified in pre-1900 records and the surname was somewhat common. Everything used in this mapping example was available online, either through Ancestry.com or for free from other sites.
The potential for offline records in this example is great and they are probably fairly easy to identify. Yet, starting with what can be done from home, before entering a repository, can help focus a search. If the repository you need to visit isn't local to you, this is a great way to maximize your limited research time with additional specifics.
The ancestor of interest appeared in a 20th century questionnaire for Civil War veterans. This linked the correct man of that name (based on the 20th century details) to a 19th century location (where he enlisted). Unfortunately he wasn't identified in any other online Civil War records at the time which is why mapping became so important. He was identified in an 1866 state census record, in this case for Alabama. There are multiple schedules for this census and they give different amounts of information. One schedule is headed with the township and range but only gives general household details (no. of male and female children and no. of male and female adults, etc.).1 Another schedule gives more specific ages of the household members but no location beyond the county level.2 Below is the map for the 1866 location as created in Google Earth.
Atlas of Historic County Boundaries (if you can read the slider you'll see this is for April 1866). The township/range was located using data from Earth Point. I believe the option I used is no longer free but you can still locate a township and range in Google Earth via the National Atlas option on Earth Point's "Alternate Grid" page.
Even luckier for a genealogist, the ancestor being researched lived in Crenshaw County in the 20th century. Crenshaw County was formed on 24 November 1866 from portions of Butler, Coffee, Covington, Lowndes, and Pike County.3 Mapping the same location for June 1870, the official enumeration date, can help indicate if Crenshaw was formed around this residence.
This project ended for me at this point but with additional research it is probably possible to identify land owned by the ancestor of interest, plat the neighbors, and possibly identify relatives. It was lucky the location was continually narrowed down through mapping but this isn't unusual and it's not hard. With so many free resources available it's worth giving mapping and platting a try in case your problem is "lucky," too.
Both Satellite image sources: Alabama Historical Counties and annotations on "Lowndes, Montgomery, Butler, and Crenshaw counties, Alabama," 31°56'27.06"N and 86°27'26.30" W, Google Earth, 31 January 2008, accessed 11 August 2011.
1. 1866 Alabama state census, Lowndes County, “white population schedule no. 3,” Township No. 11, Range 16, p. 2, [withheld] household; digital image. “Alabama State Census, 1820–1866,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 August 2011).
2. 1866 Alabama state census, Lowndes County, “white population schedule no. 1,” [no location specified], p. 14, [withheld] household; digital image. “Alabama State Census, 1820–1866,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 August
3. “Alabama,” The Handybook for Genealogists: United States of America, 11th ed. (Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 2006), 23–36, particularly 30.