Show Notes: Discover Sanborn Fire Insurance maps with Julie Stoner of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. Learn the best search strategies, how to download the Sanborn maps for free, and hidden online resources! Sanborn maps are an invaluable tool for family history because they provide an up-close look at the places where your ancestors lived.
(This interview has been minimally edited for clarity.)
Lisa: Today we’re talking about Sanborn fire insurance maps and how we can use them for genealogy. They’re available at the Library of Congress. Here to tell us more about that is Julie Stoner. She’s a reference specialist in the geography and map division of the Library of Congress.
Julie: Thanks so much, Lisa. Happy to be here.
I adore the Sanborn fire insurance maps because they give us such a unique perspective and view of our ancestors’ world.
What are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps?
Start us off and tell us exactly what are Sanborn fire insurance maps?
Julie: The Sanborn fire insurance maps are a uniform series of large scale maps. They date starting from about 1867, though, they mainly start in the 1880s, and they run mostly through the 1950s. There are some from later dates as well.
It was a company started by a man named D.A. Sanborn. He was drawing these maps at a building level to sell to fire insurance companies so that they could then assess how much to charge people for the fire risk of their building. We use them for a lot more things today than they were originally intended for because they show the building level details of a city.
We have over 12,000 cities and towns represented. Some smaller towns may only have a few sheets. But the larger cities may have multiple volumes. They would go back and create a new map every 10 or 15 years or so. Therefore, you can really see how a city changed over time and how the buildings changed over time, and how a neighborhood was built. These maps can be used for all sorts of things now.
Lisa: I love the fact that they have such detail and are really unique. There really aren’t any other maps quite like these, are there?
Julie: It’s true. We do have other maps, like real estate atlases, and things like that of maybe a few cities, here and there, like Washington D.C. or New York. We have land ownership maps, but nothing of quite this scale or detail.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Online Collection
Lisa: Let’s talk about the scale of the map collection. At the Library of Congress you have the physical map collection, and then there’s the collection that we can access online. Tell us a little bit about the scope of the collection? And does it vary whether we’re online or in person?
Julie: It does vary a bit because of copyright restrictions. As I said, we have about 12,000 different cities and towns represented, that equals over 700,000 map sheets. So, that’s a that’s a lot of sheets of maps. And a few years ago, the library, in conjunction with a third party, took on a project to scan all of the public domain Sanborn maps. Public domain means that there are no copyright restrictions on those maps. So that included anything published before 1922 at that point. Then anything published before 1964, in which the copyright wasn’t renewed. The library took on this project to scan all those, and those are completed and are all online on our website and can be downloaded.
That copyright date is now a rolling date. This means that there are now maps between 1923 and 1926 that are public domain that we haven’t scanned yet, and we are working to get those scan to get those online. And as soon as new maps come into the public domain, we hope to process them and upload those when that happens. So, a very large chunk of the Sanborn maps are online. But, if they are not, you can always come and see them in person as well, because we do have the physical copies.
Sanborn Map Resolution
Lisa: You mentioned that the part that the part of the collection that is in the public domain is available online. And they’re downloadable. Are those pretty high-resolution maps, so that we’ll be able to use those in our own genealogy projects?
Julie: For sure! They are definitely high resolution. The library scans them at the highest resolution that we can and so there’s actually a variety of files that you can download. We have JPEG images, which are a bit lower quality but are good for something like PowerPoints or computer screens. And then we have our TIFF files, which are the largest high-resolution files which have. These are a good size for printing.
Lisa: I know that the online collection, which I think most of our folks would be interested in accessing from home easily, is at the Library of Congress at the loc.gov website at https://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps. Tell us a little bit about what we’ll find there on the website.
Fire Insurance Map Research Guide at the Library of Congress
Julie: Sure, so that link that you said is a landing page for our digital images. Let’s start with the fire insurance map research guide that we have that is about our fire insurance maps in general, not just the Sandborn maps. There are a few other companies though Sanborn took those over in time. They became pretty much became the only one.
On the research guide page, there’s a large section on the left side of the page that says Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps. If you click on that, you will find a number of links to help you with your research of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps.
The Research Guide at the Library of Congress
How to Search for Sanborn Maps
I want to point out the easiest way to find the maps. Under the searching for Sanborn Maps tab you will see some information including a link to our Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Checklist. This is the easiest way to find the maps that you’re looking for. It will take you to our fire insurance map index. And this is the easiest way to search for maps.
It’s so large that it can be a little overwhelming. This checklist is taken from a 1981 publication produced by the library that lists all of the Sanborn maps that we have in our collection. While the library has the largest collection of Sanborn maps in the world, we do not claim to have every one ever made. We are missing some. For example, if you found a map at your historical society that is not on this list, it just means that we don’t have it in our physical collection. Not that it doesn’t exist.
You can search by state at the Map Index. If you click on U.S. from the drop-down menu, you’ll find all the states. Scroll through and pick your state. I live in Virginia and I was born here, so I will search for Virginia. I will then see a list of hyperlinks with all of the cities available with Sanborn maps in the collection. Scroll through here and click on the city of interest. For example, if you want to click on Richmond you will get the list of Richmond maps here at the library. It’s a table and on the far left side you will see the date of the volume. And then you will see the number of sheets in that volume. Other geographic areas included sometimes in larger cities. The Sanborn Map Company would pick some areas farther outside the city to include in that volume, perhaps a few sheets. You’ll see a column called Comments which is mostly about the physical binding of the maps your library. And then a column called Website. If you click on the website link it will take you to the digital images.
Why are there multiple dates on Sanborn maps?
And just one other note about the date. If you look at the date, sometimes it can look a little confusing because you’ll see two dates listed. For example, volume 1924 through April 1950. So what’s happening here is that starting in the mostly the 40s and 50s, the Sanborn Map Company, decided it was faster, instead of making an entirely new map to cut and paste over an old map. So, this 1924 date is the face of the map. The 1950 date is the last time that they updated it. So, it’s really showing a 1950 era Richmond, but they’re just using that base map of 1924.
Downloading Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
When you click through to these digital images, we can download them. Click on an image and you will see in the center of the screen the map that you can scroll in and out of, and then at the bottom underneath the image, you’ll see the download link. You’ll find that there are several options for JPEG images, a GIF file, and then the high resolution tiff file. It’s pretty great. We’re very happy that a lot of these are now online for researchers to use from outside of Washington, DC.
What do the colors and symbols mean on Sanborn maps?
Lisa: And when you look at these maps, there’s a lot of detail. There’s color coding, and all kinds of markings. Do you have resources on the website to help people interpret the map?
Julie: Sure we do. The best method first is to look at the first page of a volume. If you zoom in you will see that there is a map key. It’s a box usually at the top or the bottom of the sheet. That is going to show you what the colors and the symbols in each volume mean.
Different cities have different unique characteristics, and the Sanborn Map Company would map those. So, not every map is going to have every symbol. The key at the front is a really good way to see what specifically applies to that volume.
For example, pink typically means brick. Yellow typically means it was made out of frame, or wood. Green can change. I’ve seen it as cement, I’ve seen it as special, not exactly sure sometimes what that means. The colors indicate the type of building materials, and then you will see what the hash marks or the circles or the x’s mean, in various buildings. There are a lot of abbreviations that the Sanborn Map Company uses as well. D typically stands for dwelling, S for store.
If you want to see an entire list of the symbols, we have a great resource back on our research guides page. Go back to the research guide to the Interpreting Sanborn Maps section on the left. That’s going to tell you a lot more about the colors, the symbols, things like that.
If you go to the Internet Resources, under Websites, there’s a list called Sanborn Map Abbreviations and Legendcreated by Environmental Data Resources, who are the copyright holders of the Sanborn maps. They’ve created this great PDF that shows the most common abbreviations and symbols used to the Sanborn fire insurance maps. It’s pretty comprehensive.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Search Strategies
Lisa: That’s a fantastic resource! If we do the search and we don’t see the town that we have in mind in that list, is there another way or any other way to search to figure out if it is part of a bigger map? Perhaps it’s just too small of a town to have its own map?
Julie: That’s a great question. If it’s a really small town and you don’t see it on the list, the other thing you can do is search back on the index page. The main index page under the full text field. For example, there might be a few sheets of a smaller town on a bigger city. You can search for that in the all full text fields. That will search the other geographic location that we saw, like in Richmond. So say if we typed in Manchester, and we did a search for that. You would see that it’s here as well under Richmond, as well as its own city. So, you can see that maybe it had earlier sheets here in Richmond. If you don’t find it in the search, and you don’t find it in the search fields, and if you don’t find it in the list, then it’s likely that one was not made at that town. Unfortunately that does happen. A lot of small cities and towns just don’t have them sometimes.
Searching for counties and regions in Sanborn maps
Lisa: Well, that brings up another question. Are these always sorted by town or city? Or might we even see a county or even some other kind of regional area described in a map?
Julie: That’s a great question. You do sometimes see counties, I can think of an example off the top my head if you go to California, for example. If you scroll down to Los Angeles, you’re going to see that you have the city of Los Angeles, but then you also have Los Angeles County. That’s going to cover some of the county areas that are outside of the city itself. Typically they’re covering things like factories or industrial areas, or things of that nature, but you never quite know.
Another example would be in New Jersey. If you go to New Jersey, and scroll down to New Jersey coast which includes several different seaside towns. This would be an example of when you might want to do the full text search if you didn’t find it in the list. For example, New Jersey Coast includes Longbranch, and Monmouth Beach, etc. All of these volumes are kind of scattered down the coast.
I like to say that, for every rule for Sanborn maps, there’s an exception. It would be worth perusing that list just to see what other gems are out there are maybe very close by areas that would be worth taking a look at, even if we do find our cities listed or in a search.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Index
Lisa: I can imagine there was a lot of effort that went into the indexing part of this collection, just getting all these cities and counties and everything listed. Was that work that the Library of Congress had to do? Or was that given to you by the company who now owns the copyright on Sanborn? And does it include anything besides a geographic place such as for example, any map with a saloon or any map with a particular feature?
Julie: That would be pretty amazing! Unfortunately, no, we don’t have anything that would list every saloon ever found, though, if somebody wanted to do that project, we’d be happy to take that.
This list was created by the Library of Congress in 1981, and we’ve added to it as we gained new material. The library is always looking for Sanborn maps that we don’t have in our collection. And when we find them, we do try and acquire them and then add them to our index. So, this particular list was created by staff at the library in 1981.
Lisa: What made me think of that question was I know that the David Rumsey collection out at Stanford is now working with and experimenting with a special type of OCR to pull that kind of text off maps. It’s amazing to see what technology might be able to do for us in the future.
Sanborn Map GIS Project
Julie: It is amazing what technology could do. And you’re right, there is a great project going on right now called machine reading maps that is experimenting with pulling the text out of the Sanborn maps to then create new products out of that.
We also have a new GIS project. GIS is geographic, geographic information systems. It’s basically putting information on a map so that you can see it and comprehend it at a glance.
One of the problems that we were having with our Sanborn maps, especially for our very large cities, like New York, LA, Chicago, is that there are so many volumes covering that city, and people would want to know where their exact address was. Well, there are, let’s say, seven or eight volumes of New York City. Which volume includes that address, right? So, we’ve created what we’re calling the Sanborn Atlas Volume Finder. You can find the link on our resource guide page. Click the link and you will see a map of the country. It’s going to pinpoint our current volume blinders.
We are hopefully going to be making more as we go. But basically, the first map is an index of what we have. Tight now we just have Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. We’re working on getting Washington DC and New York City out.
But say, for example, you’re interested in a map of Detroit, or an address in Detroit. If you click on Detroit on the pink pin, you can then click on the Sanborn volume finder. That’s going to take you to the Detroit map. It’s going to show you exactly what areas are covered in Detroit. It’s going to show you the extent of the Sanborn maps for the different years that it was mapped in Detroit.
If you look on the left side of the screen you’ll see the legend. This is a range of years for each set of maps that was created. You might see 1884 to 1896 and then 1897 to 1899. You can click the years on and off. So, if you just wanted to know the earliest maps of Detroit, you can see where it was mapped. And you can enter your address in the upper right corner of the screen. That’s going to pinpoint for you the address. Then when you click on it, it’ll tell you the volume where you’ll find the map, and a link that’ll take you to the digital images. So you don’t have to guess which volume your address is in anymore. It will tell you whether the digital images are available, or if the map is not available online, you can contact us to learn more about it.
Lisa: What an amazing tool. It’s exciting to think that will continue to expand particularly for these really big cities where like you said it, it’s like a needle in a haystack with the addresses.
Julie: Yes, there are a lot of volumes for some of these cities. It can be really difficult without expert knowledge how to find your address. We feel like this is really going to help researchers in diving deeper into the Sanborn maps and really finding what they’re looking for.
Accessing Offline Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Lisa: You mentioned that sometimes you’re going to see that it is not available online. That might be a copyright issue or something else. Explain to us a little bit about what our options are for getting access to a map that might only be available in person the Library of Congress. How might we go about the in person visit, or making a request online to get a copy?
Julie: It’s the geography and map division policy that we will not scan or send items that are possibly under copyright protection. In the case of the Sanborn maps, if they were renewed or after 1964 then they are copyrighted, so we can’t send those electronically to you. You can make an in person visit to the Library of Congress reading room. We’re open Monday to Friday 8:30 to 5:00, and we will pull out anything you want to see.
Another option is that these volumes have all been scanned in black and white by ProQuest, a subscription database. Those are all scanned in black and white. A lot of universities and public libraries subscribe to the ProQuest database. Go to your public library and ask if they subscribe to the ProQuest database. If they do, you can see them there, and you can download them. However, those are black and white, so that’s a little bit not as helpful sometimes if you’re looking for building construction, and things like that.
There is also on our research guide page, under Internet Resources a link called the Union List of Sanborn Maps. This is a list compiled by the University of California at Berkeley of other institutions that have Sanborn maps other than the Library of Congress. So if, for example, you are in California, and you can’t make it to the library, you can see if other institutions also have those physical copies that you could go to that institution to see.
Lisa: I’m familiar with ProQuest. Do you happen to know, is there one place where you can look up and see which libraries subscribed to ProQuest? Or is that just too much to ask?
Julie: I think you would have to do that individually by library. I’ve never seen a master list. But I find that librarians are usually very helpful people. So, if you called your local library or university library, I’m sure librarians there could tell you help you track it down.
The Growth of the Sanborn Map Collection
Lisa: So it this indeed a growing database? And do you continue to get both stuff that can go online as well as maps that will just be available in person?
Julie: We are always looking for maps that we don’t have here in our collection. Usually, most of those are going to be more recent, like 1950s, 1960s and 1970s maps. The library gained most of our early collection from copyright deposit. It used to be that you had to send in a physical copy of something for to get it copyrighted and that’s how our collection was built. We are still always looking for new updated ones that we don’t have. It is a growing collection. I wouldn’t say that we’re receiving them every day or anything. But when we do find them, and we do like to acquire them.
Final Thoughts on Sanborn Maps
Lisa: Wonderful. Well, before I let you go, you are the guru when it comes to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps over at the Library of Congress. Anything else that we should really know about, or look for as we’re working with these Sanborn maps?
Julie: That’s a good question. First, I want to say that we always welcome questions to our division. On the left of the research guide, or on our main library of congress homepage, there’s a link that says Ask a Librarian, and you’re welcome to send us any questions that you have, that we haven’t answered on our research guide, or that you’re confused about. We’re always happy to answer questions.
The Sanborn maps are a fantastic resource for doing genealogy, for finding out more about the town you lived in, and the buildings that were there, and the types of buildings. A lot of the buildings will say what was in them, for example, a candy shop or a hat shop or whatnot. So, they’re a great resource to just find out more about the town. There’s always more to learn about them. I’m still learning about things that I didn’t know about Sanborn maps, years later.
Lisa: Julie, thank you so much for coming and sharing this terrific collection, and giving us such a unique view of the places where our ancestors may have lived. I’m sure you’ll be getting many inquiries through Ask the Librarian.
Julie: Yeah, dive in, reach out. We’re here to help.
Lisa: thank you so much for joining us here today.
Julie: My pleasure. Thank you.
Citing Sanborn Maps
Julie: The Library simply requests an attribution to the Library and the Geography and Map Division when publishing material from its collections, the format of the citation is up to you.
Has it been a while since you worked on your genealogy research? As passionate as we may be about genealogy, the reality is that a little thing called “Life” can get in the way!
Getting back into genealogy can actually be a bit daunting. Where did you leave off? Where should you start back up?
If it’s been months or even years since you had your hands in genealogy, you’re in the right place. In this video, we’re going to talk about how to pick up your genealogy after a hands-off spell so that you can quickly and efficiently get back on the trail of your ancestors.
Get your Genealogy Restart checklist in the Resources section.
And by the way, perhaps you haven’t taken a break, but you feel like you’ve gotten a little out of control and disorganized in what you’ve been doing so far. This process also works very nicely as a quick audit to help you get back on track.
How to Jump Back into Your Genealogy
Has it been a while since you worked on your genealogy research? As passionate as we may be about genealogy, the reality is that that little thing called life can get in the way.
In my case, my daughter got married earlier this year. There were plans to make, bridal shows to throw, and the wedding itself which meant planning a trip because it was a destination wedding. Needless to say, I didn’t work on family history for several months.
If it’s been months or even years since you had your hands in genealogy, you’re in the right place. In this article and companion video we’re going to talk about how to pick up your genealogy after a hands-off spell so that you can quickly and efficiently gets back on the trail of your ancestors.
Even if you haven’t taken a break, you might be feeling a little out of control and disorganized in what you’ve been doing so far. This quick genealogy audit can help you get back on track too!
Genealogy Restart Checklist
I love a good to-do list where I can have the satisfaction of checking things off and knowing that at the end of it I have accomplished something. Some of the things on this list may not apply depending on how long your genealogy hiatus has been. If that’s the case you get to check them off right away!
Step 1: Find Out Where You Left Off in Your Research
Do you remember where you left off the last time you were researching your family tree? If not, your search history is a great place to start. For example, if you used the popular genealogy website Ancestry.com you can pull up your past search history.
How to find your search history at Ancestry.com
At the Ancestry® home page you will see a box at the top that highlights the recently modified items in your family tree. According to one source at Ancestry.com, this “shows a list of last modified nodes in the tree. For a shared tree – any user who has access to the hint can modify the nodes and it will show up in that list. It (also) shows a hint leaf for the nodes that have at least one undecided hint.”
This could be a place to start, but I recommend reviewing Your Recent Searches if you want to pick up where you left off.
You’ll find your search history in the menu under Search. Click All Collections. Toward the top of the All Collections page you’ll see Your Recent Searches. It’s just above the map. You’ll see a few buttons listed for the most recent names you searched. Next, click the View All button to get a more comprehensive view of your activity history, starting with the most recent activity.
On the Recent Activity page, you’ll see the names you searched for and the details you included such as a place and time frame. Ancestry also tells you the date you ran the search.
Recent Search History page at Ancestry®
If you see searches in the list that you don’t need anymore, click the trash can button to delete them.
Notice over on the left that you are viewing Recent Searches, but you do have other options:
All Recent (activity)
Viewed Content (records you’ve viewed)
Viewed Collections (record collections you accessed)
All Recent provides the best overall picture of your past search history. This is a great tool for jogging your memory and helping you decide where to pick back up.
Review your activity history in your genealogy software.
You can also review your most recently activity in your genealogy database software.
In RootsMagic for example, in the menu go to Search > History or click the History tab at the top of the side bar on the left side of the screen.
Step 2: Identify Gaps that Need to be Filled
Many people enjoy focusing their research on their direct ancestors (grandparents, great grandparents, etc.) While you may have traced back many generations, you may have missed a few things along the way. This is a good time to start with yourself and work backwards through the direct ancestors in your family tree. Look for gaps in your timelines and information, and then start back up by researching to fill them in. Of course, you can also do with any relative that you want to learn more about.
Once you’ve identified the person you want to work on, create a research plan. If you’ve never created a research plan before, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be complicated. You create and track it on paper, a spreadsheet or any number of notetaking programs. The important thing is that you identify:
your specific research question,
the records you think you’ll need to answer it
the locations where you think those records may be housed.
Step 3: Prepare for Genealogy Research Success Going Forward:
Since you’re picking your genealogy back up, this is the perfect time to check to make sure you’re set up for success going forward. These remaining items will help ensure that your new discoveries will be well-documented, organized, and protected from loss.
Genealogy software database
If you already have genealogy database software, open it up and see if there’s a newer version available. Look for Check for Updates in the menu.
If you don’t have a genealogy database software program on your computer, go get one now! We’re talking about a software program that you install on your computer. It’s a database specifically designed to record all the information you find. It keeps it organized and searchable, allows for source citations, photos, links, and more. It also gives you tremendous flexibility in running reports. This is something with which an online tree can’t compete. And most importantly all your data resides on your computer hard drive. This means it’s completely within your control and not subject to a paid subscription, or problems with a website such as the site being closed or sold off. The tree you build can be synced to an online tree if you wish to do so. Back in the old days (early 2000s) a database on your computer was the only option, and it remains your best option today.
Genealogy software is typically very affordable. You can even download Family Tree Builder at MyHeritage for free. If you’re willing to invest a few dollars there are several excellent programs to choose from such as RootsMagic, Family Tree Maker, Legacy, etc. I use RootsMagic but all of these programs have been around a long time and are great. The one you pick really depends which user interface you like, and to what extent you may want to sync your tree online.
If you don’t have a cloud backup program running on your computer, now is the time to get one. What’s the point of restarting your genealogy research if you’re going to risk losing everything if your computer is damaged or stolen? I’ve used Backblaze for years because it’s reliable, affordable, has an app, and automatically backs up all my files including video. There are several out there to choose from. The important thing is to pick one and get it installed on your computer. It will run automatically in the background, giving you peace of mind that your files are backed up offsite on the cloud in a secure location.
Status of Genealogy Website Subscriptions
Now that you have the tools you need to restart your genealogy research, it’s time to check genealogy websites. Did you have subscriptions to some of the popular genealogy websites like MyHeritage or Ancestry? Log in and go to your account to see if they are still active, and if they are, when they are set to renew. This will help you decide where to spend your time first. Start with the subscription that is up for renewal first. Then you can determine if you want to allow it to renew or cancel and try another genealogy website subscription to round out your research.
If you don’t have any current subscriptions, consider focusing first on familysearch, the largest free genealogy website. Then, depending on your research goals, you can select the paid subscription(s) that will support your research plan.
A Paper Filing System
While we don’t generate as much paper these days as we used to, some paper is inevitable. Don’t add to the paper clutter. If you don’t have a paper filing system in place, take a moment and set one up. Pick a filing system and stick to it. Then as you start your genealogy research you’ll always have a place to put things.
Filing Digital Content
The same goes for digital files as goes for paper files. Don’t jump back into your research without a filing system in place. It’s important to download the digital records you find so that you have access to them even when your subscriptions run out. Avoid a messy computer and commit to a digital filing system and filing name convention.
Were you citing your sources consistently when you last worked on your family history research? If not, STOP EVERYTHING and watch my video Source Citations for Genealogy. Citing your sources will save you headache down the road. You may discover that a previous conclusion was incorrect, and you’ll want to review the source where you got that information. A downloaded record usually doesn’t include specific details as to where you go it. Going forward, as you download records and add the details into your database be sure to also add the source citation.
With this in mind, familiarize yourself with the source citation tool in your genealogy program. If it looks daunting, don’t panic. Head to the menu and click Help, and then search for source citation. There you’ll find the instructions you need to once and for all get a handle on how to cite sources in your software.
Now’s the Time to Restart Your Genealogy
Don’t let the passing of time stop you from getting back into your favorite hobby. By following this checklist you will quickly get back into goal-oriented research and exciting discoveries about your family.
Federal court records are wonderful because they are so packed with genealogical information. But knowing which records are available and where to find them can sound daunting, and that stops many genealogists from ever tapping into them. In this episode our aim is to fix all that. Professional forensic genealogist Michael Strauss is here to pull back the curtain and introduce you to these valuable records.
You know Michael from our Military Minutes segments here on Genealogy Gems. He also recently introduced us to descendancy research on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcastepisode 174. The response to that episode was terrific. Many of you wrote in to say that it opened up a new avenue of research for you. This episode promises to do the same.
The Federal Court System of the United States was established under the Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 76) on September 24, 1789. Click here to read more about the role and structure of the federal courts at the United States Courts website.
Trial Courts of the United States. Their jurisdiction include:
These courts began at different times dependent on the geographic area and when the states were created.
Originally established in 1789 as three courts and later expanded to nine courts by 1866. Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over all matters (especially criminal) covered by Federal Law. Abolished in 1911 and taken over by District Courts.
Circuit Courts of Appeals:
Established under the Federal Court System by an Act of Congress on March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 826), by acquiring the appellate jurisdiction of the U.S. Circuit Courts and later the U.S. District Courts. They have different geographic jurisdictions than the regular federal courts.
It is recognized as the highest court in the United States operating as an appeals court. Although a criminal case may have first been heard at the local level, it may have escalated to a federal court. Therefore, there could be federal records on that case.
Application for the Genealogist:
Michael has found that some of the richest records in the federal court system have come from the criminal court records. Our ancestors did get into trouble upon occasion. Michael’s grandfather was arrested in the 1940s and he was able to obtain those records.
Searching for Federal Records
Is it worthwhile to head to the National Archives and generally search to see if an ancestor has records? Or is it best to identify a case first, perhaps through a newspaper article, and then go to the National Archives location that would have the records for those identified cases?
No one is wasting their time going and searching the records. It’s a great way to get familiar with them. However, identifying a case through other records first can lead you quickly to the federal records. (Michael first found his grandfather’s case in a newspaper article.)
Types of Federal Court Records:
Dockets: Lists of cases heard by the court. Sometime referred to as court calendars.
Brief daily accounts of all actions taken by the court.
The specific judgments or orders of the court. An example would be an order granting citizenship.
Legal document arguing why one Party should prevail on a case.
When a Defendant obligates themselves to engage in activities in exchange for suspension of sentence. Frequently seen in Criminal Court.
All the loose documents relating to the case bundled together.
How to Find Records at the Archives:
Review the finding aid
Request the Index and find the name and corresponding file information
Request the record
An appointment is not required. They will pull the records as you request them. Record groups are pulled at different times. For the most part you will have the opportunity to view the original documents.
The National Archives is set up by record groups, such as:
Records of the U.S. Court of Claims – RG 123 (Claims against the US. Individual citizens could actually file claims against the US)
Request the individual record groups separately.
Bankruptcy Acts were passed by Congress usually after business disturbances or financial recessions.
Bankruptcy Act of 1800
This act followed the business disturbances of 1797.
The first national bankruptcy act was approved on April 4, 1800 (2 Stat, 19.) It provided for an effective period beginning June 2, 1800 and continuing for 5 years.
It applied only to merchants or other related parties. The act provided for compulsory or involuntary bankruptcy, but not for voluntary bankruptcy. Because of its limited applicability the act was repealed on December 19, 1803, just months before its expiration date.
Bankruptcy Act of 1841
This act followed the business panic of 1837.
The second national bankruptcy act was passed on August 19, 1841 and was to take effect on February 1, 1842.
The law allowed voluntary bankruptcy to all debtors, but limited involuntary bankruptcy to merchants, bankers, factors (an agent or commissioned merchant), brokers, and traders.
It eliminated the requirement of the consent of the creditor for a discharge. The bankrupt filer, however, could obtain his discharge through a jury trial if the jury found that he had surrendered all his property and had fully complied with the orders of the court.
Bankruptcy Act of 1867
This act followed the post-Civil War recession of 1866-1867.
On March 2, 1867, Congress approved the Nation’s third bankruptcy act to assist the judges in the administration of the law, the act provided for the appointment by the court of registers in bankruptcy.
The registers were authorized to make adjudications of bankruptcy, to hold and preside at meetings of creditors, to take proofs of debts, to make computations of dividends, and otherwise to dispatch the administrative business of the court in bankruptcy matters when there was no opposing interest.
In cases where opposition to an adjudication or a discharge arose, the controversy was to be submitted to the court.
Bankruptcy Act of 1898
This act followed the business panic of 1893 and the depression that followed. We are currently under the umbrella of this fourth act.
In 1889 The National Convention of Representatives of Commercial Bodies was formed to lobby for bankruptcy legislation. The president of the Convention, Jay L. Torrey, drafted a new Bankruptcy Bill otherwise known as the “Torrey Bill.”
In 1898 Congress passed a bankruptcy bill based on the previous Torrey bill. This Act also called the “Nelson Act” was passed July 1, 1898, (Ch. 541, 30 Stat. 544.) It was the first United States Act of Congress involving Bankruptcy that gave companies an option of being protected from creditors. Previous attempts at bankruptcy law had lasted at most a few years. Its popular name is a homage to the role of Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota.
Bankruptcy files are in the custody of the National Archives and now stored offsite at the National Archives branch in Kansas City, MO. Researchers should contact the Archives directly to conduct searches. Some indexes are still maintained at the regional archives.
Bankruptcy Records Examples
1) Two pages from the Bankruptcy File of Percival L. Strauss of Bethel Twp. Berks Co. PA. 1 Page is the petition and the second page is a page from “Schedule A” which lists the debt owed by the bankrupt.
Petition by Debtor: Percival L. Strauss
Schedule A – No. 3: Creditors Whose Claims are Unsecured (Percival L. Strauss)
2) Tintype of Percival L. Strauss-circa 1872 within a few years of filing Bankruptcy.
Percival L. Strauss. (Courtesy of Michael’s cousin Harry B. Strauss of Myerstown, PA)
Percival Long Strauss (Son of Benjamin Strauss & Rebecca Long)
Born: December 16, 1830-Upper Bern Township, Berks Co. PA
Died: Mohnton, Berks Co. PA
Married: April 9, 1855-Bethel Township, Berks Co. PA to Malinda Smith (12 Children)
May 18, 1867 (Page 3, Column 6), in the Berks & Schuylkill Journal newspaper the entry reads: “P.L. Strauss of Bethel Twp. Berks County, PA Class #13 License paid $10.00 to conduct store (merchant).”
This is the business he had at the time of his bankruptcy filing on May 27, 1867 in Philadelphia, PA in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Types of Information Found in Bankruptcy Records:
Lists of creditors (name, address)
Amount of money owed (the debt)
Specific information about the items for which the debt was incurred
Total dollar amounts
Follow the Federal Record Trail:
Information found could lead you to additional records. For example, if your ancestor filed for bankruptcy due to debts associated with his business, you could go back to the local level to look for records such as a business license, newspaper articles, etc.
Lisa suggests searching Google Books for digitized items such as county histories, almanacs, catalogs, merchant association books, etc. Here’s an example of a bankruptcy notice found in Google Books (which is free) for Michael’s ancestor Percival L. Strauss
Searching for Percival L. Strauss bankruptcy notice in Google Books
Bankruptcy notice (Oct. 9, 1868) found in Google Books
Bankruptcy Act of 1841 – Edgar Allen Poe filed bankruptcy in 1841.
Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Act – Dean Martin in New York
Amendments to the most recent bankruptcy act include:
1933: The “1898 Bankruptcy Act”
Amended to include railroad reorganization, corporate reorganization, and individual debtor arrangements.
1938: The “Chandler Act”
Amended the earlier 1898 Bankruptcy Act, creating a menu of options for both business and non-business debtors. Named for Walter Chandler.
1978: The 1898 Bankruptcy Act
Replaced by The Bankruptcy Reform Act. This Act is still used today.
Writs of Habeas Corpus:
Habeas corpus is a court order from a judge instructing a person who is detaining another to bring the detainee before the court for a specific purpose.
It was often used during the Civil War for soldiers under the age of 18 years and in reference to runaway slaves.
Writs can be found in most case files. They usually involves a petition, transcript, order, and the writ when ordered by the Judge. Contact the National Archives regarding RG19 for records pertaining to this set of documents and indexes.
Fugitive Slave Act:
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. It was one of the controversial acts passed down by law. Runaway slaves could be returned with the help of the Federal Government.
Records can include:
Documentation of ownership
Records are typically found in the court of original petition and the court with jurisdiction over the area where the slave escaped. Search under the slave holder’s name.
The Confiscation Act of 1862:
Passed by an act of Congress on July 17, 1862, the full title is “An Act to Suppress Insurrection, to Punish Treason and Rebellion, to Seize and Confiscate the Property of Rebels, and for Other Purposes.”
This Act gave the power to take the land and businesses of persons who served the Confederacy. Records include case files include; petitions, orders of the court, proofs of public notice, and notices of seizure
Example: General Robert E. Lee. The act covered land under Union Control. Lee lived in Northern Virginia, and his home was confiscated. The file has a complete inventory of his house. The location is now the Arlington National Cemetery.
Federal Criminal Records
Criminal records could include cases covering:
Assault and Battery on the high seas
Conspiracy to over through our government
Carrying on a business without a license
Not paying taxes
Records were created:
at the federal level
at the local level – local court at the county level
1790: The first national act created a two-step process:
Declare your intention to become a citizen
File your petition for citizenship
Your ancestors may not have finished the process, and they may have filed both at local and federal levels.
Petition for Naturaliztion
Resource: The Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast
Episodes focusing on the Naturalization process include:
This episode begins a 3-part series on U.S. immigration and naturalization records. Learn about passenger arrival lists in the U.S., little-known certificates of arrival and naturalization records: how to find them and what’s in them.
Thank you to Michael Strauss for contributing to these notes and sharing his expertise!
This free podcast is sponsored by:
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Visit www.MyHeritage.com
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. Visit www.RootsMagic.com
Learn German Handwriting
Katherine Schober of SK Translations, professional German script expert, translator, and author has created Reading the Old German Handwriting Online Course – so you can be reading those old German letters in just a matter of months. Complete with videos, flash cards, games, and more, this do-it-yourself course has students raving. Learn more here.
Elevenses with Lisa is our little slice of heaven where friends get together for tea and talk about the thing that never fails to put a smile on our face: Genealogy!
Are you ready for a year of successful genealogy? Learn how to develop an effective research plan, and preserve and protect your genealogy. Keep reading for the show notes that accompany this video.
10 Questions to Rate Your Readiness for Genealogy Success
1. Have you selected a place to start?
I started learning how to play the guitar in 2020. I began with an online course to learn the basics, and I picked one song that I really wanted to learn how to play.
For three months I worked my way through the course and played that song over and over every day. This resulted in two things: I learned how to play the song, and my husband took a blow torch to my guitar! (Just kidding.)
At the end of those three months I had several weeks where I just didn’t feel I was making any progress at all. I practiced every day, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.
It turns out that I had reached my initial goals – I knew the most popular chords, had memorized the Pentatonic Scale and could play the song Crazy On You for a captive audience in my home. However, I had not stopped to identify my next set of goals. Therefore, stagnation set in.
In an effort to restart my learning and success trajectory, I spent an evening looking through my record collection and I made a list of 6 of my favorite songs. Then I put them in the order I wanted to learn to play them. Most importantly, I identified which one was my top priority to learn. Once I did that, I knew exactly how I was going to spend my practice time.
It sounds simple, but finding and deciding on the place to start (or restart) is really easy to miss. When it comes to genealogy there’s always a bright shiny object online ready to gobble up a few precious minutes, or hours, or days! Having a predetermined project goal in mind will help you get down to business faster and keep you from wandering aimlessly.
2. Have you developed a project research question?
Once you know what your project will be, it is time to formulate the general question. In other words, what is the question you are trying to answer?
In this episode I shared the family story that had been handed down the McClelland family about their ancestor Washington McClelland. The story went like this: “He immigrated to the U.S. from England. He was working on the railroad when he met a girl in Idaho. She became pregnant. They married. He converted to the LDS church. They raised a family together.”
The general research question was “is this story true?” That’s a big question, and one that we’ll break down further in question #3.
Genealogy Gems Premium Members can learn more about formulating research questions by watching the segment HowAlice the Genealogist Avoids the Rabbit Hole Part 1 in Elevenses with Lisa Episode 2. It’s available in the Premium Videos area of the Genealogy Gems website. Don’t miss the downloadable handout! You’ll find the link under the video. (Learn more about becoming a Premium Member here.)
3. Do you have a Research Plan for your genealogy project?
The general project question can usually be broken down into several bite-sized actionable questions. In the example of “Is the story about Washington McClelland true?” we can break that question down into several questions:
Where exactly was Washington from in England?
When did he come to the United States?
Why/how did he end up out West?
Did he work on the railroad?
When and where did he marry?
When was their oldest child born?
Did he join the LDS church?
And many of these questions can likely be broken down further. These more focused question help provide the framework for the project’s research plan. They can then be re-sorted so that they follow a logical progression of answers.
The next step will then be to identify and prioritize the sources (records) that are likely to provide the necessary relevant evidence. Then determine the order in which you will locate each identified record. Finally, add where you think you can find the records to the plan.
4. Do you have the research forms you need?
There are many different types of genealogy research forms: research logs, blank record forms, checklists, just to name a few.
Research logs are great for keeping track of your research plan progress. Blank record forms (such a blank 1900 U.S. Federal Census form) are very handy for transcribing the pertinent information for analysis. And checklists (such as a list of all types of death records) help ensure that you don’t miss and records, and you don’t look for the same record twice!
Having an organizational system in place takes the guesswork out of where things should be filed, making it much more likely they will actually get filed. It also ensures that you’ll be able to put your hands on your records whenever you need them.
Here’s a secret: There is no one perfect filing system. The most important thing is that it makes sense to you and that you are consistent in how you use it.
In Elevenses with LisaEpisode 6 (available to Premium Members) I cover step-by-step the system I developed and have used for over 15 years. I’m happy to report I’ve never lost an item. (Whew, what a relief!)
As you work on your genealogy research you’ll find there are two important tasks you will be doing often:
Storing items that you have not had a chance to work on yet (I refer to these pending items as “to be processed.”)
Storing items that need to be filed. (Let’s face it, we rarely want to stop in the middle of an exciting search to file a document.)
Not having a way to store these two types of items leads to clutter and piles on your desk. Here’s my simple solution:
Place a “to be filed” basket next to your desk.
Create a “Pending” tab in each surname 3-ring notebook (if you use my system.) The beauty of the surname notebook Pending section is you have a place to put documents (out of sight) that are associated with a specific family. When you’re ready to work on that family line, grab the notebook and jump to the Pending section to start processing and analyzing the previously found records.
7. Do you have the supplies you need on hand?
Make sure that you have a small quantity of all of the supplies you need for the filing and organization system you are using.
Here’s what my shopping list looks like:
3” 3-Ring View Binders
(allow you to customize covers & spines)
1” 3-Ring View Binder
1 box of Acid-Free Sheet Protectors
3-Ring Binder Tab Dividers
8. Have you settled on a file naming scheme?
How to name digital genealogy files is something we all struggle with. Good intentions don’t make the job any easier. Take a few moments to nail down the basic naming scheme you will commit to follow. I say basic, because there will be times when you’ll need to modify it to suit the file. That’s OK. But always start with the basic format.
Here’s what my basic file naming format looks like:
Year (will force chronological order)
First Name (filed in surname folder)
Notice in my format I don’t usually include the surname. That’s because I file in surname folders. Notice that I said “usually.” That’s because we are always free to add on additional information like a surname if we think it will prove helpful. For example, if I anticipate that I will have a need to share individual files with other researchers or family members (rather than the entire folder) then I will add the surname so that the person receiving the file has the pertinent information.
8. Are you prepared to make copies?
Protecting and preserving our genealogy for generations to come is a top priority for most genealogists. All of us at some time have worried about what would happen if a website that we upload our content to goes out of business or sells out to another company. Now there is a new reason to take a few extra steps to ensure you don’t lose access to your genealogy data.
Recently, According to Buzz Feed, on Jan. 9 the largest cloud-hosting service notified a large social media network with millions of users that it would be cutting it off from its cloud hosting service. According to the Wall Street Journal, “other tech partners also acted, crippling operators.”
Now we must add to the list of concerns the possibility that a genealogy website we use might be cut off from web hosting. How might this type of action impact our personal family history that we share on websites? Many companies that provide access to millions of historical records and likely house a copy of your family tree and your DNA test results use the same cloud hosting service. In fact, it’s hard to find a company out there that isn’t tethered to it in some way.
My research showed that both Ancestry and FamilySearch have been featured on their website in case studies and blog articles:
The bottom line is that our family history is our responsibility to preserve and protect. While we can benefit from sharing copies of it online, putting all our genealogy eggs in only the online basket puts it at risk because we don’t have control.
While I love the idea of going paperless and I’ve been striving to do that in recent years, I’m changing my tune on this. For several years I’ve been strongly recommending that you get your own genealogy software on your own computer and use it as your master database. All online family trees are simply copies. Many people, particularly those who rely solely on FamilySearch often wondered why I was so concerned. The events of this week make my point and put an exclamation point on the end of it.
Making digital and paper copies of your data is a simple strategy you can put in place today. This means regular print outs of your tree, family group sheets, and the most important genealogical documents. I keep mine in a portable fireproof safe.
We can also make digital copies as well. For example, last year I had all my old home movies transferred to digital and they are stored on my computer. I went the extra step to get copies on DVD and I also copied the digital files onto a terabyte hard drive that is in the fireproof safe.
Remember, your computer is connected to the Internet. If you’ve ever woken up to a Windows update, then you know that tech companies can make changes to your computer. Having your own paper and digital copies are just extra insurance that certainly can’t hurt.
Here’s a checklist of things you can put in place today:
a good printer
a stock of paper
a portable terabyte hard drive
Ideas for saving paper and ink:
Print only the most important documents that might be more difficult to replace.
Focus your printing on direct ancestors.
Print in draft mode (depending on the document) and / or black and white to save ink.
Make double-sided copies.
When possible, add two documents to each side of the paper so that one piece of paper holds 4 documents.
9. Is your computer backed up to the Cloud?
I use and recommend Backblazefor computer cloud backup. They have their own storage facility. Here’s what their storage pods look like:
Use a free service like Blogtrottr.com to receive email notification reminders. Simply paste the Genealogy Gems channel URL into the first field, https://www.youtube.com/GenealogyGems enter your email address and select from the drop-down menu how often you would like to receive notifications. Then click the orange “Feed Me” button. When I post a new video or schedule an Elevenses with Lisa episode you’ll receive an email notification.
Recap:10 Questions to Rate Your Readiness for Genealogy Success
Have you selected a place to start?
Have you developed a project research question?
Do you have a Research Plan for your genealogy project?