4    May 20104 comments

Maps: Learning about your community

What do breweries and a local Chinatown have to do with family history?

Students in a free genealogy class at a Sacramento, California library used historic fire insurance maps to walk through their community's 19th-century history without leaving the classroom, according to this story in the Sacramento Bee.

Instructor Melinda Kashuba said these maps are "obscure resource that can let a person's mind wander down the streets of their forebears," and that researchers can learn a lot about the lives of their ancestors.

Here's an example, above left; for the larger image, see below.

These maps indicate schools, churches, businesses and more. All provide additional leads for researchers, according to Kashuba.

An 1898 map of North Bloomfield shows that the area between Main Street and a nearby creek was where Chinese workers lived.

A map of Truckee from the late 19th century said the area between a hillside and West Main Street was lined with "female boarding houses," or brothels, Kashuba said.

Mapmakers had noted that a brewery in Mokelumne Hill was lit by candles and had no night watchman, making it a poor insurance risk, she said.

What makes me even happier - in addition to teaching beginners how to use these maps - is that the class was part of the library's free genealogy program. Future classes will focus on finding New England ancestors and researching church records

The fire insurance maps - a main publisher was the Sanborn Map Co. (Pelham, New York) - were printed 1860-1940, and provided insurance companies data to determine fire risks of  buildings and neighborhoods, without having to send an underwriter on a personal visit. The maps were the equivalent of today's Google views.

Here's a sample Sanborn map of San Diego, California, showing the a detail as well as a larger view. Click on it to enlarge the image.

While family names were not often recorded on properties, business names are common.

Printed and bound in large volumes, the color-coded maps give a detailed view of each block in some 12,000 cities.  Many libraries have the original books although many have now been digitized and some are available online. Today's technology makes these important maps easier to handle, more accessible and therefore more practical as a resource for family historians.

To learn more about these collections, click on the Sanborn site.

Many city and university libraries have both original bound copies and digitized versions of the maps.

The maps' details reveal a building's construction materials (wood, brick, stone), roof materials, construction date, dimensions and building foundation as well as outbuildings. As maps progressed, one can see information on electricity, water lines and much more. A nearby water source would have obviously been an important consideration in assessing the risk of fire to a building. 

The instructor demonstrated combining these maps with census data, and showed how an area Victorian-era home was constructed for a wealthy merchant with separate servants' quarters. She was also able to show who next owned the property, that the servants' quarters were demolished and the house enlarged. The property was later divided into apartments by the 1930s.

When I utilized Sanborn maps for my great-grandparents' home, in Newark, New Jersey, it was easy to see how their children walked to school, where they would have bought milk and bread, and other everyday details.

Read more on the Sanborn maps in this previous MyHeritage Genealogy Blog.

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Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "Back to the Homeplace"
    and "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"
  2. Hi, Bill,
    Thank you for your warm welcome. Geneabloggers is a great group. Thanks for writing!
  3. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed the fact that incorporating maps, especially the Sanborn Maps, for historical references. So much can be gained from this source.
  4. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed the fact that incorporating maps, especially the Sanborn Maps, for historical references. So much can be gained from this source.

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