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.
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(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.
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 Legend created 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.
The Genealogy Gems Podcast
with Lisa Louise Cooke
This episode features a special interview with renowned Canadian expert Dave Obee. He shares his favorite tips on researching the Canadian census?his insights are fascinating whether you have Canadian ancestors or not!
Also in this episode: an inspiring adoption discovery, DNA testing news at 23andMe, a tip for incorporating family history into a wedding, and a brand-new resource that can finally help you solve one of genealogy’s most perplexing questions.
NEWS: ATLAS OF HISTORICAL COUNTY BOUNDARIES UPDATE
NEWS: 23andME DNA TEST UPDATES
Click here for the full news and Diahan’s comments
MORE recent DNA news:
Family Tree DNA enhancements:Click here for the full story, with comments and step-by-step instructions on updated myOrigins tool
Get help with DNA testing at both these sites with these quick reference guides by Diahan Southard:
NEW! GENEALOGY GIANTS GUIDE
by Genealogy Gems Editor Sunny Morton
Click here to watch the presentation that inspired this guide: a popular RootsTech 2017 lecture comparing the four major genealogy records websites: Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com.
This comprehensive quick reference guide explains:
How knowing about all four websites can improve your family history research
How the sites stack up when it comes to the numbers of historical records, names in trees, DNA profiles, site users, site languages and subscription costs
Unique strengths of each website and cautions for using each
What to keep in mind as you evaluate record content between sites
Geographic record strengths: A unique table has an at-a-glance comparison for 30+ countries
How to see what kinds of records are on each site without subscribing
How family trees are structured differently at these websites?and why it matters
Privacy, collaboration and security options at each site
How DNA testing features differ at the two websites that offer it
What you can do with free guest accounts at each website
Subscription and free access options
MAILBOX: LIZ ON FINDING CHUCK’S BIRTH FAMILY
Click here to learn more about Diahan Southard’s genetic genealogy video tutorials?and a special discount price for Genealogy Gems fans.
LINK TO: https://www.yourdnaguide.com/genealogy-gems-dna-tutorial
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. In the works: soon RootsMagic will be fully integrated with Ancestry.com, too: you’ll be able to sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.
Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at http://www.backblaze.com/Lisa
MAILBOX: THANKS FOR 1940 CENSUS TIPS
MAILBOX: WEDDING TIP
Before a wedding: start an online family tree and invite each family member to add what they know!
Our sponsor for this episode: StoryWorth
Give Mom the gift of StoryWorth this Mother’s Day
Visit www.StoryWorth.com/Lisa to get $20 off
INTERVIEW: DAVE OBEE
Continuing our celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday!
Dave Obee is an internationally-renowned Canadian journalist, historian and genealogist. Dave is a columnist for Internet Genealogy and Your Genealogy Today (formerly Family Chronicle). Dave has also written about family history for Canada’s History and Your Family Tree in the United Kingdom.
Put Dave’s books on your shelf:
Canadian census tips from Dave Obee:
The 1901 census is his favorite because it says for the first time where people had come from
He starts his searches on Ancestry.ca but census databases are free to search on Library and Archives Canada website
Marital status may not have been totally accurate. They only captured single or married or windowed. Divorced was not captured.
There are two different types of enumerations: de facto and de jure, and the rules were different.
This means your ancestor could be enumerated in multiple locations
Lisa Louise Cooke Googled the Canadian Census Enumerator Instructions for 1901:
More on Canada genealogy research:
Claire Banton in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #199
Start creating fabulous, irresistible videos about your family history with Animoto.com. You don’t need special video-editing skills: just drag and drop your photos and videos, pick a layout and music, add a little text and voila! You’ve got an awesome video! Try this out for yourself at Animoto.com.
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.
BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users
If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is EXTRA special! It’s an exclusive conversation between Your DNA Guide and Cece Moore of DNA Detectives on researching adoption or unknown parentage. Don’t miss it! The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.
GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB
Our featured genealogy book club author this month is Miss Fannie Flagg!
The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg
Read more tips on discovering the historical context of your ancestor’s lives:
Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager
Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer
Check out this new episode!
Welcome to a book club just for those who love family history! Here we share our top picks for fiction and nonfiction from authors around the world. These books all have something for us to love: stories about the search for family and identity, stories about family relationships, stories about fascinating periods in history. These books inspire us to keep discovering and writing our own family stories. Follow our Book Club blog posts and hear from the authors on The Genealogy Gems Podcast. Join in the conversation on our Facebook page (#genealogybookclub). Looking for how-to books? Check out our companion list of how-to genealogy titles.
We thank you in advance for purchasing our book recommendations through the links on our site. When you do, you help support the FREE Genealogy Gems Book Club and podcast.
Nathan writes a genealogical crime mystery series starring forensic genealogist Morton Farrier. We originally featured his book The Lost Ancestor, in which Morton is hired to find out what happened to his client’s great-aunt Mary, who disappeared without a trace a century ago while working as a maid at a grand English estate (gotta love the Downtown Abbey-style drama!). The author has joined us on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 180 and in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episodes 124 and 159. Other titles in the series: Hiding the Past, The Orange Lilies: A Morton Farrier novella, The Spyglass File (reviewed briefly in the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #196) and the two-in-one publication, “The Suffragette’s Secret” short story with his newest book, The Wicked Trade.
Grappling with Legacy by Sylvia Brown. A descendant of the prominent Brown family, connected to Brown University, traces her family’s involvement in philanthropy, Rhode Island history and the institution of slavery hundreds of years. Her purpose, she writes, was to come to terms with “two seminal events which may seem diametrically opposed: my father’s decision to give his inheritance (and mine) to Brown University, and the transformation of the Brown family into the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.” She also hoped to bring her living Brown descendants closer to each other. A Kirkus review of this book calls it “an often riveting history of a family that left an indelible impact on the nation.” Lisa Louise Cooke interviews Sylvia in the upcoming Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 155 (available to subscribers in late January 2018). Hear a short clip of that conversation in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 213. Her story is included in a New York Times article on inherited wealth, “Keeping the Family Tree Alive.”
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. “You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.” So says the Prologue to a new novel by best-selling novelist Christina Baker Kline, whose novel Orphan Train has been loved by millions around the world (and a lot of Genealogy Gems Book Club fans–we featured it in 2014). A Piece of the World is a unique and irresistible story about a woman whose physical disabilities and family’s demands keep her adventure-loving spirit firmly homebound. Granted, her home is a fascinating place: a 1700s-era home on the coast of Maine that has been passed down for several generations. But the noble legacy of the home instills a sense of obligation in those who live there now: do they stay on the family land at all costs, even the cost of their happiness and health? What happens when a family’s heritage becomes a burden, not a blessing?
Those who love American art will love that the main character, Christina, was inspired by the subject of the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. (You can see an image of the painting here.) Christina was a real person who lived in this home. Andrew visited her and her brother and painted them many times. So the characters and setting are real, and the house is actually a National Historic Landmark now. Christina Baker Kline’s “fictional memoir” gives this historical Christina a powerful, honest, and insightful voice: the voice of a person who sees and tells it like it is–except the parts she just can’t see for herself.
It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs. You could say A.J. Jacobs is famous for asking questions that seem both important and inane, and then pursuing the answers and writing about it. That’s what he did with his best-selling book The Year of Living Biblically, a chronicle of the time he tried to obey every rule in the Bible. Now he’s done it again in his new book. The questions A.J. set out to answer here were, “Who is really my family? And what would happen if I tried to host the world’s biggest family reunion?”
A.J.’s voice is witty with lots of digressions, pop culture references, and a definite urban beat (NYC, specifically). He meditates on what genealogical connections mean to him and the larger story the world’s family tree tells us. Like, we’re all related, and therefore shouldn’t we get along better? But with the quick disclaimer that he’s not inviting us all over for New Year’s brunch. He did that already at the Global Family Reunion–which he reports on in detail.In the appendix, he recommends all kinds of genealogy how-to resources, including Genealogy Gems. If you yourself are somewhat relaxed and perhaps even a little irreverent about your genealogy hobby, you’ll likely really enjoy this book. What about the more earnest family historians? It’s still worth a glimpse into how others see us. A.J. comes peeking into the world of genealogy ready to crack jokes. And he does plenty of that. But he also comes away with a great deal of respect for the stories and relationships that can–and should, he says–bring us closer together.
Shannon by Frank Delaney is a stunning tale: Father Shannon, an American Catholic priest of Irish descent, has serious “shell-shock” trauma after serving in the trenches of World War I. His archbishop sends him on a respite trip to Ireland to travel up the Shannon River looking for his family roots. He lands in the middle of an Irish Civil War—but also encounters person after person who helps him rediscover his faith in humanity and the restorative balm of daily life. Meanwhile, intrigue is afoot within his home archdiocese. A killer, who has his own traumatic backstory in Ireland, is dispatched to make sure Father Shannon never returns home. Their stories converge in a place of love, but also far too close to a place of pain. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about it.
I only recently discovered Frank Delaney’s books and can’t recommend them more enthusiastically! Frank Delaney is a MASTER storyteller. He crafts every sentence, every image. You can practically see the story lines unfold, hear every action, smell it. I listened to the audiobook version, which the author narrates himself with great skill. As I listened, I gasped, I cried, I laughed–all out loud in the car. So read or listen–and then clear a spot on your reading list for his epic novel, Ireland, which I read immediately after this one and also loved.
Murder in Matera: A true story of passion, family, and forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helene Stapinski. The subtitle to this family history murder mystery promises a LOT–and it delivers! As a child, Helene Stapinski heard about her great-great-grandmother who fled Italy–with young children in tow–after being involved in a murder. Parts of the story were vague: who was killed? Why? When? How? Nobody knew. But other details were startlingly precise and consistent. She had to leave her husband behind. A man named Grieco helped her escape. A child was lost on the way to America. Years later, Helene embarked on a 10-year quest to learn the truth behind this family legend. Her journey took her to Matera, Italy, and eventually to a 600-page criminal court file from 1872.
There was a murder. But it wasn’t exactly as the family had said. Helene gradually leaned that her family was not who she thought they were. And that meant Helene herself was not who she thought she was. The rest, you can read for yourself in Helene’s new memoir, Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. The noted journalist continues to unravel a past that she explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History. This new book is part history, part re-imagined family story. It’s a story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap to a new life across the ocean.
Watch below as Helene introduces us to her genealogical journey:
In The Whole Town’s Talking by internationally best-selling novelist Fannie Flagg, you’ll read about several generations of a small Midwestern town settled by Swedish immigrants–and its cemetery, gradually populated by the town’s residents as they die. The dead continue to take a healthy interest in their descendants and comment on their lives. Fannie Flagg first thrilled us with her storytelling power in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. We also highly recommend The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, in which a lively, lovable leading Southern lady searches for her biological roots and uncovers a fascinating story about the World War II female pilots, the WASPs. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear our conversation with Fannie Flagg in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, episode #148. Everyone else can catch an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, episode #204.
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows. It’s the summer of 1938, and wealthy young socialite Miss Layla Beck is now on the dole as a WPA worker, assigned to write a history of the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. As she starts asking questions about the town’s past, she is drawn into the secrets of the family she’s staying with—and to a certain handsome member of that family. She and two of those family members take turns narrating the story from different points of view, exploring the theme that historical truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear our conversation with Annie Barrows in the March 2017 Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast (episode #145). Everyone else can catch an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #201. Annie Barrows is the co-author of the popular novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the beloved children’s book series Ivy and Bean.
Books by Sarah A. Chrisman. This fascinating author is a living icon of the Victorian age. She and her husband Gabriel live like it’s about 1889. They wear Victorian-style clothing and use a wood-burning stove and antique ice box. Sarah wears a corset day and night; Gabriel wears 19th century glasses. No TV, no cell phones—and Sarah isn’t even a licensed driver. Take your pick of Sarah’s books to read! Catch Lisa’s conversation with Sarah about her memoirs in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode # 142. Holiday bonus: everyone can hear Lisa Louise Cooke’s conversation with her about Victorian holidays in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #198.
- This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion and Technologies, a memoir of setting up housekeeping in Victorian fashion and Sarah’s everyday life.
- Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present and Myself;
- True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen: Victorian Etiquette for Modern Day Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, Boys and Girls, Teachers and Students, and More;
- First Wheel in Town and Love Will Find A Wheel: These are Victorian Cycling Club Romances, from Sarah’s series of light-hearted historical fiction set in an era Sarah knows well!
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by British novelist Chris Cleave begins in London in 1939. War is declared. Wealthy young Mary North “leaves finishing school unfinished” and signs on for the war effort without telling her parents. What ensues is war beyond her naive imagination. A love triangle, a long-distance romance, the London Blitz and the bombardment of Malta. It’s intense, eye-opening and compassionate about living and loving in a war zone and its aftermath. The book is inspired by love letters exchanged between the author’s grandparents during World War II. Author Chris Cleave joined us on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 139; catch an audio excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 195 and a short video narrative here).
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. Beatrice Nash has grown up traveling the world with her father. Now he’s gone, and she’s in East Sussex, England, fighting to keep her new job as a Latin teacher, meeting the locals (both gentry and gypsy) and trying not to fall for handsome Hugh. Then the Great War breaks out, and Beatrice joins the village in the war effort, hosting refugees and sending the men off to fight (including Hugh). This novel follows Helen’s NYT-bestselling debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear our exclusive interview in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 136; others can catch an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 192.
Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow by Tara Austin Weaver, author of the internationally-acclaimed blog Tea & Cookies. This memoir is one part food, one part gardening and two parts family drama, liberally seasoned with humor and introspection. Tara’s mother moves to Seattle to be near her. Together they purchase a home with a wild garden. The challenge of reinvigorating the garden is nothing compared to the challenge of renewing their troubled relationship. It’s an honest (and mouthwatering) story of planting, cultivating and harvesting the fruits of family and garden. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can access the full interview in Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 133. (Click here to hear a free excerpt.)
Citizens Creek, a new novel by New York Times best-selling author Lalita Tademy. Some of you have probably read her previous novels, Cane River and the sequel Red River. Cane River was an Oprah Book Club selection. Citizens Creek is a novel based on the lives of “a once-enslaved man who buys his freedom after serving as a translator during the American Indian Wars, and his granddaughter, who sustains his legacy of courage.” This book is all about family, relationships and legacy. Click here to hear a clip from our interview with Lalita; Genealogy Gems Premium website members can click here to listen to the entire exclusive conversation.
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, is the “grown-up” version of the Little House children’s books. This never-before-published autobiography Laura wrote in the 1930s is packed with detailed recollections of pioneering in an American West that was fading away. Her stories will intrigue–and sometimes stun–any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. Tons of background research is impeccably cited in source notes. Hear our exclusive interview with Pamela Smith Hill in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 127 (Premium membership required to access) or hear an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 183.
The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer. This book–the basis for a PBS documentary–tells the story of a handpicked group of young GIs who landed in France to conduct a secret mission in 1944. These 1100 men had one goal: to fool the German army into believing they were an American army thousands strong, and draw their attention away from the actual fighting troops. Hear the interview with the author and filmmaker in the free Genealogy Gems podcast episode 182.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline spent five weeks at the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestselling list and made the top of The Bestsellers List in Canada. The novel intertwines the stories of Vivian and Molly. Vivian is an Irish girl who lost her family in New York City and was forced to ride the ‘orphan train’ to find a new home. Decades later, the aged Vivian meets a teenager, Molly, who is struggling to find identity and happiness in the modern foster care system. Click here to catch highlights of our interview with Chistina Baker Kline on the Genealogy Gems podcast. Genealogy Gems Premium members can click here to listen to the full-length interview.
Update: Christina Baker Kline has released a young reader’s version of Orphan Train. Orphan Train Girl tells the story of a young foster girl who forms an unlikely bond with a ninety-one-year-old woman, who had been an “orphan train” rider as a young girl. Adapted and condensed for a young audience, it includes an author’s note and archival photos from the orphan train era. It’s written for ages 8-12, or grades 3-7.
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes. An award-winning journalist tells the story of her discovery of her mother’s tragic childhood in South Africa. This is a genealogical journey, complete with trips to archives, poring over old court cases and dramatic reveals. But it’s so much more than that! It’s also about learning the past from living relatives. This is the ultimate how-to book for exploring and sharing sensitive family stories because she shows you how it’s done. Listen a meaty excerpt of our interview with Emma Brockes on the Genealogy Gems podcast episode 174 and the full-length interview in Premium episode 118.
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. One of Lisa’s all-time favorite interviews was with Steve about this book. Based on listener feedback, this was an audience favorite, too! “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading Annie’s Ghosts,” says Lisa. “This book inspired me, gave me concrete ideas for pursuing my own family history research, AND kept me on the edge of my chair. What could be better? Steve is such a riveting writer and speaker, and it’s fascinating to hear how someone who is not a genealogist–but rather a journalist–approached his family history search in an effort to find the answers to mysteries in his families.” Listen to the interviews in Genealogy Gems podcast episodes 120 and 121. This book and interview planted the seed for this genealogy book club!
The Journey Takers by Leslie Albrecht Huber. Here’s another book Lisa profiled on the podcast awhile back. Leslie is a professional genealogist who spent thousands of hours researching the stories she tells about ancestors who left homes in Germany, England and Sweden for new lives in the United States. She writes about their experiences but also her feelings about it, in a book about both a family’s history and the effect it has on the present. Check out Lisa’s interview with Leslie in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 98.
Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters by Jennifer Wilson. “In this book, Jennifer takes us on a once-in-a-lifetime genealogical journey,” Lisa says. “She walked in her ancestors’ shoes and lived among their descendants.” Lisa profiled this book in Episode 129 of the Genealogy Gems podcast and was so inspired by the story that she created this YouTube video on the book.
More Titles We’ve Talked About
The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans by Julienne Osborne-McKnight. Recommended by a Gems fan. Begins in deep history with the Celts and Vikings, explains events that led up to the great potato famines and follows the Irish exodus to the U.S., where she then explores Irish-American life.
Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem, a memoir by Paula Williams Madison about the author’s journey into her family history, which resulted in a documentary by the same name. “Spanning four generations and moving between New York, Jamaica, and China, [this] is a universal story of one woman’s search for her maternal grandfather and the key to her self-identity.” Suggested by a Gems fan.
The Forgotten Garden, a novel by Kate Morton. Recommended by a Gems fan. The premise was apparently inspired by Kate’s own family history: “A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book—a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, ‘Nell’ sets out to trace her real identity.”
The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. Recommended by a Gems fan. The story of the only midwife in a small Colorado mining town on the Rocky Mountain frontier. A baby is found dead and Gracy is accused as murderer. She’s kept lots of people’s dark secrets over the years–and a few of her–and as the trial looms, she has to decide which of those secrets to give up in order to clear her name.
These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden by Nancy Turner. This series of novels is based on the life of Sarah Agnes Prine, a relative of the author who lived on the Arizona frontier. The frontier isn’t so violent anymore, but Sarah’s struggles with men, raising children, drought and natural disasters (the San Francisco earthquake shows up in the second book) are still relevant today. Sarah’s tough-and-tender voice is so perfect for recounting the life she lives.
The Homesman: A Novel by Glendon Swarthout. The most startling book I’ve read in recent years. I’m not going to tell you every reason it was so startling or it will give away the plot. I will say that this is a sweaty and intense and gritty and face-paced story. You get the dark side of braving the frontier. A more mature read.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, another novel of a couple’s lives on the frontier. Because it’s such a powerful treatise on marriage, it made me wonder: when you are a couple with no modern distractions and survival depends on your cooperation, does the relationship really does become as wide and consuming as that wide horizon?
Family by Ian Frazier. In this tale of a genealogical journey, the best-selling author explores his small-town, middle-class roots in the U.S. He explains a purpose that arose from loss: “I wanted my parents’ lives to have meant something. I hunted all over for meanings of any kind–not, I think, simply out of grief of anger at their deaths, but also because the stuff they saved implied that there must have been a reason for saving it….I believed bigger meanings hid behind little ones, that maybe I could follow them to a source back tens or hundreds of years ago. I didn’t care if the meanings were far-flung or vague or even trivial. I wanted to pursue them. I hoped maybe I would find a meaning that would defeat death.”
Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History by Helene Stapinski. An unforgettable personal narrative! The author tells her family history within the criminal and blighted culture of Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A. She interweaves the stories of more infamous personalities from her hometown with those of her grandfather and other relatives. She seamlessly weaves her own memories with her research and shares how she has come to terms (or not) with her “crooked family history.”
The Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux. This novel opens with a scenario we sympathize understand: Peter, a genealogy buff, buys a marriage certificate he sees on display at an antiques gallery. He begins researching the couple with an idea of returning the certificate to them. Eventually he uncovers several secrets, one with some money attached to it, but others are also chasing this money. Surprise twists bring the story into the present day and Peter becomes a genealogical research hero.
Mordecai: An Early American Family by Emily Bingham. A beautifully-written history of several generations of a Jewish family in the United States. Draws on an astounding 10,000 original documents and letters. It’s a fascinating story on faith, religious and culture identity and assimilation, family dynamics and intergenerational identity. Also an inspiring read for anyone wishing to write a strictly factual, third-person account of their family history.
My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours by Melissa Gilbert. “Little House on the Prairie” is coming back to life in the form of a cookbook by the actress who played young Laura Ingalls in the NBC television series (1974-1983). Melissa dishes up prairie breakfasts, picnic lunches and treats inspired by Nellie’s restaurant (from the Little House series). The book is garnished with memories and memorabilia from the television show. Click here to read a full post about the cookbook and Lisa’s “Little House” family history tour on Google Earth.
Nick Herald Genealogical Mystery series: Deadly Pedigree, Jackpot Blood and Lineage and Lies by Jimmy Fox. Recommended by a Gems fan. The hero is an American genealogist who lives and works in New Orleans, one of the most colorful and historical parts of the U.S. Give it a try and let us know what you think!
Out of the Shoebox: An Autobiographical Mystery by Yaron Reshef. In this memoir, Yaron gets a phone call about property his father purchased in Israel years ago. He and his sister can inherit it, but only if they can prove that man was their father. He goes on an international paper chase into the era of World War II, the Holocaust and the making of Israel. A forgotten bank account surfaces and more surprises happen during Yaron’s two-year quest to understand the tragedies of his family’s past and recover some of its treasures.
Three Slovak Women, Second Edition by Lisa Alzo. You may know Lisa as a popular speaker on Eastern European genealogy at national conferences. This is her nonfiction account of three generations of Slovak women in the steel-producing town of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, and the love and sense of family binding them together. It will inspire your own family history writing projects! Click here to hear Lisa in the free Family History Made Easy podcast talk about her reasons for researching her family history and what she’s learned along the way, including in her travels in Eastern Europe.
When the Cypress Whispers: A Novel by Yvette Manessis Corporon. We haven’t read this novel by Greek-American family historian and Emmy award-winner; we just noticed it in the news. It’s based on true stories gathered from her grandmother. Read here about the true decades-old secret she uncovered and helped share with descendants of another family who survived the Holocaust on the island.
The Worst Country in the World: The true story of an Australian pioneer family by Patsy Trench. This memoir-style account tells of a researcher’s efforts to
document and re-imagine the life of her ancestor, Mary Pitt, a widow who migrated to New South Wales in 1801 with five children. It’s a less-formal way of writing family history that we recommended in a podcast episode talking about different styles of writing.
Looking for how-to genealogy books? Check out our companion list of great titles on how to research! We’ve featured many of the authors on the podcast or in blog posts, and we include links to these.