Cartography for Historians

(Updated 17 November 2012)

This page is intended to help the historian find their way around cartography/GIS systems in order to generate the maps they need to illustrate their research.

Why is such a page needed, when you have Google / Google Earth?

Well, if you search for “Cartography Software” on Google you get results for:

  1. RPG/Fantasy Mapping Software. These have gotten extremely detailed over time, in some instances; being able to use physics to simulate the actions that cause physical features to be created over millions of years. While this is great for a SF/Fantasy novelist; they’re not so great for historians, who need maps of our world as it actually exists.

  2. Really Expensive Professional Software. The stuff that ‘pros’ use to make printed maps. Great if you have upwards of $400> to spend on a license.

  3. People asking the same question years ago. Essentially “what kind of mapping software is out there, and what would work for me?”

Likewise, while Google Earth is useful for checking out areas from overhead at very high resolution, there’s no way to export the map outlines and such it generates.

As of the writing of this page; the best free/open source program I’ve found that fits a historian’s needs for Cartography is:

Tile Mill by MapBox (

Tile Mill comes with built in links to online Natural Earth ( version 1.4.0 GIS data at 1:10m / 1:10,000,000, so you won’t need to manually download anything else if you are just making somewhat high level maps.

If you need newer data and/or higher resolution than Tile Mill’s built in datalinks offer; then you can:

Tutorials for Tile Mill (To Be Done at a Future Date)