Research Services
First Friday Genealogy
With Sassy Jane

The Monthly Genealogy Newsletter
Vol. 10 No. 05

May 2021 Issue


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Yes, this issue is a week early because I thought today was the first of May. So let's get on with it, as the late Prince Philip would say.

This issue of First Friday Genealogy with Sassy Jane features information about using fire insurance maps. June's issue will show you where to find these maps online for US and international locations.

Now insurance maps may sound rather prosaic, or even downright dull. But if you just nodded off, wake up, please!  

Fire insurance maps are goldmines for genealogists. They can add to our understanding of exactly where our ancestors lived. 

In the days before digitizing, these insurance maps were one of the most expensive items in library budgets. And now most of them are online for free. If they seem intimidating at first, let's dive in right now and see how insurance maps are great for research. 

Special Survey on the First Friday Genealogy Newsletter. I want to hear from you!

About Fire Insurance Maps

Insurance companies created these maps for urban areas to determine how many buildings they had insured in a specific area.

At a time when whole neighborhoods or towns could go up in flames, these maps helped underwriters protect insurances companies by spreading risk and assessing liability.

(Almost insanely) detailed information on properties and individual buildings was complied for approximately 12,000 U.S. cities and towns were recorded. You can even find out prevailing wind patterns (which probably helped that courthouse burned down that had your family records inside). 

Often referred to as Sanborn maps, after the publishing company that monopolized the field, most fire insurance maps date to the 19th and 20th centuries.

What's Included in Fire Insurance Maps

An enormous amount of information about the built environment is included on these maps, lithographed at a scale of 50 feet to one inch (1:600). The maps for each particular location usually included:

  • Decorative title page
  • Index of streets and addresses
  • Key for colors and symbols
  • "Specials" index with the names of businesses, churches, schools
  • Master index for the entire mapped area with sheet numbers
  • Large-scale maps (usually depicting four to six blocks)
  • Birds-eye view of the town
And the detail doesn't stop there. Outlines of each building and outbuilding; street names; property boundaries; natural features (rivers, canals, etc.); building use (sometimes even particular room uses); house and block number.

The names of most public buildings, churches, and businesses are often records, along with homes of community leaders. Brothels often appear in towns with mining and heavy industry. And more ephemeral buildings, such as outhouses and stables, are often included.

The first image at the top of this newsletter is detail from birds-eye view of Cripple Creek, Colorado. The image below is the title page and street plan from the same set of maps.
Don't forget: the next newsletter issue will have links to online insurance maps for US and international locations.
Upcoming NGS Presentation Streaming in June
The National Genealogical Society conference is coming in May (live speakers) and June (on-demand speakers. I'm presenting an on-demand session called European Immigrant Ancestors: Why They Left and How They Got Here, 1865-1920.

Download the conference program and register at this link.

Can't make the presentation? The related ebook is available here
Life seems to be speeding up lately, doesn't it?

So be sure to make time for your research and I'll see you in June with links to Sanborn maps online for US and international locations. And answer that survey email you'll receive, please.

Stay safe! Stay healthy!
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