June 28, 2017

How to Use Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Family History

Sanborn fire insurance maps help genealogists map out their ancestors’ neighborhoods and everyday lives. Nearly 25,000 digitized Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are now on the Library of Congress website–and more are coming. Here’s what they are and how to use them for family history.

sanborn fire insurance maps

What are Sanborn fire insurance maps?

Sanborn fire insurance maps are a gem of a resource for those researching their roots in the U.S. (and parts of Canada and Mexico). These were detailed maps of city neighborhoods published periodically by the Sanborn Map Company beginning in 1867. They became available for a large number of cities by the 1880s and for many, were updated periodically for many decades. Today, the entire Sanborn fire insurance map publication series covers over 12,000 cities and includes over 700,000 maps.

Sanborn maps are valuable for “anyone with a personal connection to a community, street, or building,” explains a recent article from the Library of Congress. “They show the size, shape, and construction materials of dwellings, commercial buildings, factories, and other structures. They indicate both the names and width of streets, and show property boundaries and how individual buildings were used. House and block numbers are identified. They also show the location of water mains, fire alarm boxes, and fire hydrants.”

Here’s a sample map clipping from Elroy, Wisconsin:

sanborn fire insurance maps elroy WI

 

How to use Sanborn fire insurance maps for your family history

The information in Sanborn fire insurance maps served the needs of urban planners, developers, and insurers, and now it can serve your genealogy research, too. A series of Sanborn maps is almost like stop-action aerial photography of your ancestor’s home and surroundings, with clues that can lead you to new documents and insights about their lives. Here’s a summary of how to use them:

1. Learn where exactly your ancestor lived. Look for a street name and house number in documents relating to your ancestors, such as city directories, deeds, WWI or WWII draft registrations, or passport applications. U.S. censuses have columns for house numbers and street names beginning in 1880, but are more likely to be filled in starting in 1900.

2. Find maps for that city. (See below for top places to find them online.) Find volumes published before, during, and even after your ancestors lived there.

3. Locate the map sheet with your family’s neighborhood using the map index in the front pages of the map volume. (Look for a street index.) Go to the correct map sheet.

4. Find the address. Look closely at the individual lot that belonged to your family, if you can identify it from the house or lot number (deeds may have lot numbers on them). You’ll likely be able to see the property boundary lines with measurements, along with the dimensions and footprint of buildings on the lot. Some details, such as as the building use, construction or whether it had asbestos or fire escapes, may be explained in Sanborn’s colorful map keys, like the one shown here from the Library of Congress website.

5. Check out the neighborhood. What kinds of buildings or features surrounded your family’s home? What schools, churches, factories, and other local institutions may have served your ancestors, and how far away were they? If you know where a relative worked, do you see the workplace nearby?

6. Compare maps from year to year. During the time your family lived there, the neighborhood likely evolved. There may have been new housing, business, road layouts, street names and numbering, and property use. You may see over time that an outbuilding was built, then transformed from a stable to a garage.

7. Use these details to create a description of your family’s everyday surroundings. Did they live in a brownstone duplex, frame home, or tall apartment building? Did their five-story walk-up have fire escapes? How close was their home to their neighbors’ home? How large was the lot, and what kinds of outbuildings were there? What kinds of buildings or features surrounded the property? How far away were the amenities they needed for daily life?

8. Note additional records to check. Do you see a nearby church, school, funeral home, cemetery or another institution that may have created records about your family? Follow up by looking for their records. (Click here to read my favorite online search strategies for finding records.)

Where to find Sanborn fire insurance maps online

Now we come to some excellent news. The Library of Congress now has over 25,000 digitized Sanborn fire insurance map sheets online! The collection description says these sheets come “from over 3,000 city sets online in the following states: AK, AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, GA, ID, IL, IN, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MO, MS, NC, ND, NE, NH, NJ, NV, OH, OK, PA, SD, TX, VA, VT, WY and Canada, Mexico, Cuba sugar warehouses, and U.S. whiskey warehouses.”

That’s fantastic, and the Library of Congress says more are coming. Recently they announced that over the next three years,  they will be adding new map sheets every month until all 50 states are covered from the 1880s through the 1960s! By the end of the project, half a million Sanborn fire insurance map sheets will be online. So it will be worth checking back periodically to see if the maps you want are there.

Other digitized collections of Sanborn maps are online, too, and published collections exist at major libraries. Use the search strategies mentioned in this article to find them.

genealogy video premium buttonDid you learn something in this article? You can learn even more by becoming a Genealogy Gems Premium website member. Members of my site get access to more than 35 exclusive genealogy video tutorials. I have an entire video class just on using Sanborn maps! You’ll get to explore what these maps look like and how to use them. Click here to see a current list of Genealogy Gems Premium website videos: which ones would help your research most right now?

Sanborn Maps and Other U.S. Resources: New Genealogy Records Online

Thousands of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps and a national Civil War burial database are among new genealogy records online. Also: newspapers in Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania; vital records for Idaho, Utah, and Washington; Catholic parish records for the Archdiocese of Boston; Maine cemetery plans; New Hampshire Civil War records and New York passenger arrivals.

Breaking news! The Library of Congress has put online nearly 25,000 additional Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps–and more are coming! Over the next three years, more will be added monthly until all 50 states are covered from the 1880s through the 1960s.

Sanborn maps show detailed information about neighborhoods, buildings, roads and more for thousands of towns in the U.S. and beyond. A sizable collection of pre-1900 Sanborn maps are already online at the Library of Congress (use the above link). Watch the short video below to learn more about them. The full length class is available to Genealogy Gems Premium Members. 

 

Civil War burials. Ancestry.com’s new database, U.S., Civil War Roll of Honor, 1861-1865, lists over 203,000 deceased Civil War soldiers interred in U.S. cemeteries. “Records in this database are organized first by volume and then by burial place,” says the collection description. Entries “may contain the name of soldier, age, death date, burial place, cemetery, rank and regiment.”

Newspapers. We’ve noticed the following new digital newspaper content online recently:

  • Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania: Newspapers.com recently added or updated newspaper content for the following newspapers (with coverage shown): Chicago Tribune (1849-2016), Fort Lauderdale News (1911-1991), South Florida Sun Sentinel (1981-2017) and the Morning Call [Allentown, PA] (1895-2017). (With a Newspapers.com Basic subscription, you can see issues through 1922; a Publisher Extra subscription is required to access issues from 1923 onward.)
  • Hawaii: Newspaper content has been recently added to the Papakilo Database, an online archive of The Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The collection currently contains nearly 12,000 issues from 48 different publications, with a total of 379,918 articles. Coverage spans from 1834 to 1980.
  • Louisiana: A New Orleans feminist newspaper is now available online at Tulane University’s digital library. An online description says: “Distaff was the first and only feminist newspaper published in New Orleans….Distaff served as a forum for women’s voices in politics, activism, and the arts….A preview issue was published in 1973 and the newspaper continued to be published until 1982. There was a hiatus in publication from 1976-1978.”

State by state:

Idaho vital records. New for Ancestry.com users are two Idaho vital records databases, Idaho, Death Records, 1890-1966 and an Idaho, Divorce Index, 1947-1966. A companion Ancestry.com database, Idaho, Birth Index, 1861-1916, Stillbirth Index, 1905-1966, was recently updated.

Maine cemetery plans. “Many Maine cemeteries have plans originally created courtesy of the Works Progress Administration, which reside at the Maine State Archives,” states a recent post at Emily’s Genealogy Blog at the Bangor Daily News website. The post advises us that all of them–nearly 550–are now viewable online at DigitalMaine.com (search for WPA cemetery plans). “These plans are great for locating veterans; some graves are coded by the war of service,” advises the post. “With such an item in hand one could also visit the appropriate town clerk and locate a civilian’s burial as well, I should think.” Thanks for that tip, Emily!

Massachusetts Catholic church records. The New England Historic Genealogical Society (AmericanAncestors.org) has added 13 new volumes to its browse-only collection, Massachusetts Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston Records, 1789-1900. “This addition, drawn from the collections of St. James the Greater in modern-day Chinatown, includes the largest volume we’ve scanned yet–1,035 pages,” says an NEHGS announcement. The collection description states that an index is being created and will be available to site members in the future.

New Hampshire Civil War records. The free site FamilySearch.org has added about 25,000 indexed names to its collection of New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866. The collection contains an “index and images of Civil War enlistment papers, muster in and out rolls of New Hampshire Regiments and pension records acquired from the New Hampshire state archives.”

New York passenger lists. FamilySearch.org has added nearly 1.2 million indexed names to the database, New York Book Indexes to Passenger Lists, 1906-1942. According to the collection description, names are taken from “books of indexes to passenger manifests for the port of New York. The indexes are grouped by shipping line and arranged chronologically by date of arrival.”

Utah birth certificates. Nearly 33,000 names have been added to an existing FamilySearch database, Utah, Birth Certificates, 1903-1914. “This collection consists of an index and images to birth certificates acquired from the Utah State Archives,” says the site. “The records are arranged by year, county, and month within a numerical arrangement by box and folder number. Many of these volumes have indexes at the beginning or end.”

Washington vital records. Ancestry.com subscribers with relatively recent roots in Washington can check out two new databases relating to marriage: Washington, State Marriage Indexes, 1969-2014 and Washington, Divorce Index, 1969-2014.

Sanborn maps are a rich resource for genealogy–but they’re just one kind of map that can lead to genealogical gems! Lisa Louise Cooke teaches tons of strategies for using maps to chart your family history in her Genealogy Gems Premium video series. Discover these for yourself with a Genealogy Gems Premium website membership.

Thanks for sharing this great news on Sanborn maps and more with your genealogy friends!

 

Best Websites for Historical Maps: A New Premium Video!

Best websites for finding historical maps Genealogy Gems premium videoLooking for a pre-1700 map of the Americas as the Europeans found it? Yearning to survey the plot of land your ancestors tilled in Cobb County, Georgia? Historic maps can point you in the direction of your ancestors. But navigating your way to an original map can be a costly and time-consuming trek. Before you venture down that road, navigate your way to the treasury of digitized maps available online!

A new video class can help Genealogy Gems Premium members do just that: Best Websites for Finding Historical Maps. Literally hundreds of thousands of historical maps are available for free online in high-resolution digital format that you can download right to your computer without ever leaving home. The websites I show you offer some of the largest map collections available on the Internet today. I demonstrate strategies for searching the best websites for historical maps that will help YOUR research. You’ll see what’s out there, how to find the right maps and how to download and use them.

Historic_Maps_VideoGenealogy Gems Premium members also have access to my popular online video class, 5 Ways to Enhance Your Genealogy Research with Old Maps. Not a Premium member? Get a taste of these classes for free on the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel! Check out this free excerpt: “Using Sanborn Fire Maps for Family History and Genealogy.”