Showing posts from January, 2020

Which U.S. states have which levels of local government...and why should I care?

This topic is more complicated than it sounds, so I'll attempt to keep it high level.

Whether you're doing present-day or historical research about a place, it's important to know which levels of local government exist in the state you are researching (e.g. counties, cities, townships).  Why should you care?

  • It may determine which place houses the records you're looking for
  • The exact location often determines which local taxes are levied and which local laws are applicable 
  • It determines who has jurisdiction for a given location (e.g. police, sheriff, etc.)
In addition to providing some definitions, I'll also point you to the Google Map tools on this website that map each level of local government.

What is Township and Range?

I'll get this one out of the way first, as it's often a source of confusion. "Township and range" is NOT a form of local government (not to be confused with "civil townships", covered later).  Instead, "township and range (and section)" is used to establish boundaries for land ownership in many states.  "Township and range" may also be called a "survey township", and is part of the Public Land Survey System (also called the Rectangular Survey System).  Use the Section Township Range on Google Maps tool to explore "township and range."  

Shaded in red below are the states that use the "township and range" system (plus Alaska):
Map of U.S. states that use Township and Range
Map of the U.S. states that use Township and Range

What are counties?

OK, after that jumble of terms, let's move on to the easiest form of local government below the state level:  counties.  According to Wikipedia, a county is "an administrative or political subdivision of a state that consists of a geographic region with specific boundaries and usually some level of governmental authority."  Counties exist in all 50 U.S. states (except it can't be that simple:  rather than counties, Louisiana has parishes and Alaska has boroughs).  

Use the County Lines on Google Maps tool to see present-day counties or the Historical U.S. Counties on Google Maps tool to explore historical county boundaries for any historical date.  Use the What County Am I In Right Now tool to find out what county you're standing in.  

Here is a map showing all counties in the lower 48 states:
Map of U.S. showing county lines
Map of the U.S. showing county lines

What are townships?

"Townships" (also called "civil townships") are "a widely used unit of local government in the United States that is subordinate to a county. The term town is used in New England, New York, and Wisconsin to refer to the equivalent of the civil township in these states. Specific responsibilities and the degree of autonomy vary based on each state." (Michigan uses "charter townships" instead.)  "Civil townships" are not to be confused with "township and range," explained above.  

Several tools on this website show "civil townships" by checking the "show townships" checkbox in the lower left of these map toolsCity Limits on Google Maps, County Lines on Google Maps, ZIP Codes on Google Maps, and Elevation on Google Maps.  Use the What Township Am I In tool to see what township you're presently standing in.  Be sure and read about the "Class Codes" described below the city limits map tool for exceptions to what is shown when you view "townships".  

Shaded in green below are the states that have active "civil townships" (several other states, not shown here, have inactive townships, meaning they don't serve a local government purpose):
Map of U.S. showing active civil townships
Map of the U.S. showing active civil townships

What is a City and what are City Limits?

So as to not continue down a rabbit hole, this will be the last form of local government described. 

Cities typically refer to "incorporated places", which are "a type of governmental unit incorporated under state law as a city, town (except the New England states, New York, and Wisconsin), borough (except in Alaska and New York), or village, and having legally prescribed limits, powers, and functions. Requirements for incorporation vary widely among the states."

"City limits" refers to the defined boundary or border of a city.  When a city adds new land into the city limits, that is referred to as annexation.  Further quoting from Wikipedia, "property within a city limit is subject to city taxation and city regulation, and expects city services. Areas outside any city's limit are considered to be unincorporated, and in most U.S. states they are by default regulated and taxed by the county. In others, areas outside a city's limit fall within another type of local government, such as the civil township." 

The main tool to see city limits is City Limits on Google Maps, although several other tools have a checkbox in the lower left to show "city limits".  To check if you're currently standing in the city limits, use the Am I In City Limits tool.  

Shaded in blue below is a map of all "city limits" (aka "incorporated places" discussed here):
Map of U.S. showing city limits
Map of the U.S. showing city limits of incorporated places

Despite this article being over 800 words long, I've attempted to keep my promise of keeping this high level :)  But it can be a complicated topic:  For instance, as you can see from the above maps, there are many states that have both "township and range" and "civil townships", while there are other states that have neither.  

There are hundreds if not thousands of details and exceptions to the above definitions, and they vary from state to state.  At a minimum, hopefully this article helps explain which map tools to use on this website to view the various levels of local government (plus township and range).

Feel free to point out important exceptions to the above definitions in the comments section below.

So...what is Research Hub anyway?

"So what is your website all about?"  I increasingly get asked some form of this question about Research Hub.

A BRIEF BACKSTORY:  Back in 2006-2010, the website was a fairly small collection of blog posts about family history plus some of my photography.  Then, in 2011 I launched the AncestorSearch on Google Search and Historical U.S. Counties on Google Maps tools primarily aimed at genealogy and historical research.

FAST FORWARD TO 2018:  I decided to broaden the appeal of the mapping and search tools to a more general audience by launching the present-day County Lines on Google Maps tool.  I continued to get more traction with that tool and added more global coverage.  Then I released ZIP Codes on Google Maps.  Of course, I continue to write genealogy how-to/tips articles as well, and enhance the genealogy tools.

Finally, in 2019, I opened the floodgates and launched a whole slew of mapping and search tools including:
In 2019, I also launched the ability to:


In a word:  RESEARCH Research Hub

Hence the name Research Hub  

I created an About Research Hub page to attempt to state my mission and answer the questions I receive most often.  A few excerpts from that page:

The goal of this website is to make research easier by providing effortless access to publicly available data through familiar, straightforward tools.

The map tools are built on Google Maps and the search tools use Google Search.  Why?
They're the world's most popular mapping app and search engine, and so very familiar to nearly everyone.

Why not use Google Maps itself rather than the map tools on this website?  There are many topics not covered by Google Maps that lots of people would like to see included.  This website aims to fill many of those gaps, such as...

If the data used by the tools on this website is publicly available elsewhere, why use the tools on this website?  In a word, simplicity.  It shouldn't be so cumbersome to see the map you want and the answers you're looking for.  The tools on this website are built so you can get the answers you're looking for with as few clicks and steps as possible.  In most cases, literally one or two clicks.

No downloads, no installation, no importing/exporting required.  Just go to the tool you want to use based on your topic of interest (e.g. county lines, city limits, ZIP Codes), and either type a place you're interested in or zoom on the map, and you have your answer.
A special note to all of my long-time users doing genealogy, ancestry and historical research:  NO WORRIES. THIS RESEARCH FOCUS IS VERY MUCH INTENDED TO INCLUDE A FOCUS ON YOU!

Thanks for your supportive comments and excellent suggestions over the years.  And thank you for sharing the tools with your friends, colleagues and family!

Now you can get access to an AD-FREE version of AncestorSearch on Google Search too!

Back in December, I announced a way to get access to all of the map tools AD-FREE and FULL-SCREEN.

I'm pleased to announce an AD-FREE option is now available for AncestorSearch on Google Search as well!

The functionality is identical, but with no ads:

The ad-free versions of the map and search tools are formatted to work equally well on your smartphone or tablet too!

All the details are on this page:  NEW:  Enjoy ALL of the map and search tools AD-FREE and FULL-SCREEN!

GOOD NEWS:  If you have already signed up for access to the ad-free map tools, you now automatically have access to the ad-free search tools as well!  Just look for the "Login to Ad-Free Version" link in the lower-left corner of each map and search tool.

Use your smartphone to instantly know what City, Township and County you are currently in

Have you tried the What County Am I In? tool?  Using your smartphone, it quickly lets you know what county you are currently in where you are standing or sitting right now.

And now, the What County Am I In? tool has been enhanced to also let you know what city you are in (if you are inside incorporated city limits), and what township you are in (if you are in a township).

When you go to the tool's web page (, you'll see a map like the following, and the listing of the city, township and county you are presently in:
What County Am I In?

In the above, county lines are also shown, and if you check the options in the lower left, you can also see the township boundaries and city limits on the map:
What Township Am I In

What City Am I In?

When you first use the tool, you will likely get asked for permission to use your current location, like this:

For the tool to function, you must allow permission to know your location.  (Note, your location is not stored by this website, but only used once to determine your city, township and county.)

There are a number of reasons why knowing your current county (or city or township) may be useful, including:

  • determining if you're in your county-based sales territory (or city or township)
  • recording city, township and county information when conducting field research
  • performing volunteer/emergency work
  • determining jurisdiction
  • calculating the correct sales tax
  • noting the city, township and county when doing various hobbies such as geocaching

This is evidently a pretty popular question, as Google search console shows thousands of people seeing this website listed in their search results when they search for:

  • what/which county am i in
  • what township am in in
  • what county am i in now
  • am i in the city limits
  • am i within the city limits

Details:  The location is based on your smartphone's GPS location, and will typically be more accurate when you have both cellular service and WiFi turned on.  Of course, the tool should not be used for legal or land survey purposes, but it's a quick and easy way to check jurisdictions with reasonable accuracy.