11    Nov 20096 comments

Digitized Maps: Another source of family details

title pageAs family history researchers, we are usually fascinated by maps - at least I am. These visual interpretations help us understand our family's origins in other countries and provide information on how our immigrant ancestors traveled to ports to board their ships, in addition to understanding historical events.

Those maps can be found in gazetteers and online. There are also local maps that can help us locate relatives who lived in towns and cities. Some local maps are for tax purposes, and others were developed for fire insurance liability.

In the US, the Sanborn Company published more than 660,000 maps from 1867-1970. These maps were drawn to help insurance underwriters understand the risks of insuring buildings in cities and towns.

For more than a century, over 660,000 Sanborn maps have demonstrated the growth and development of more than 12,000 American towns and cities. New digitalization projects, such as the one at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Ohio), preserve the original colors in the two volumes scanned so far. Volume 1 runs 1904-1917, while Volume 2 runs 1904-1930.

The originals were colored according to construction key and other details. Some libraries have microfilmed copies of the maps which are only in black and white, but digitization preserves the original colors (see below)

Let's take a look at what the Cincinnati maps hold for illustration purposes. At this library, there's a separate PDF document online for each index page and map sheet.

All the sheets are on a map index (see below). Each sheet shows about four to six blocks. The scale of 50:1 means that each inch of the map covers 50 feet, allowing for considerable detail. Major public buildings include houses of worship, companies, public schools and more.

sheet indexViewers can see foundation lines of buildings, windows and doors, the use and names of most public buildings, property lines, address (including house number, street name, real estate block number), and other important details, such as construction materials used, widths of streets and sidewalks and many more details that would impact how an insurance company would write a fire policy, according to the risk involved.

Insurers learned whether the building was wood construction, had steel beams or reinforced walls, if a property had outbuildings and for what purpose it was used. Sometimes, in large commercial buildings, even individual rooms and their uses are shown. At left see a portion of the construction key.chart key

With the advent of digitization technology, the maps are much more valuable than the microfilmed maps, and viewers can magnify or zoom on specific sections and even overlay maps from different years to understand changes in development.

Sanborn maps are not only for family history researchers and genealogists. They are the most frequently consulted maps in both public and academic libraries and are historical tools used by urban specialists, social historians, architects, geographers, local historians, planners and environmentalists.

street index

The title page of each volume shows the year and has a street and address index (see left ), as well as a business index (see below right).


Search by looking up the address or name of a public building to find the proper sheet number for the map. Also see the index map - kind of a bird's-eye view of the town - of the complete mapped area which has the sheet numbers for each large map in the book.

If you know the neighborhood you are looking for - the general area - you can estimate which sheet you need.

Sanborn maps can be found in many public and university libraries. Some are the actual volumes, some have been microfilmed and some are in digital format.

A major Sanborn collection is found at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Check to see if your local public or university library has access to ProQuest's digitized Sanborn maps database.

Use Sanborn maps in conjunction with census records, passenger arrival records, voting records and city directories to gather even more data on your family.

And, if you have a family page on MyHeritage.com, make sure to include the appropriate information to make your family's history even more complete.

Search for your ancestors:

Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Great article. Maps and location is the future for data!
    Using maps and location offers the opportunity to link with others, not just through heritage but through shared events. The future is a mash up between current "two dimensional" data bases and spatial search engines so that you can find out all there is to know about a place from a myriad of data bases (both the people and the history) that are all linked to that location. Check out how much Google are investing in GIS.
    Ancestral Atlas is a spatial search engine that encourages people to map their past and create their own "Ancestral Atlas".
    The one thing that links all life events is that they took place somewhere. By the way, what is about the third question you ask of anybody you meet? ....So where are you from?
  2. You are absolutely right Schelly. Maps mean a lot of things to me. I remember that I saw some portion of Ohio villages have been constructed in the map for proper allocation of the land system. That was very interesting too. But it is necessary to preserve of these valuable maps. You do wonderfully well. Thanks a lot.

  3. in the "link builders bible 2010".
  4. I wanted to say thanks
  5. Hi, Boris,
    Thanks for writing. Our new blog format makes it so much easier for readers to comment and for me to reply. I love maps!
  6. Hi, Nick.
    Thank you for writing for the information on Ancestral Atlas.
    Every tool that helps locate information about our families is helpful.

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