The Best U.S. Maps You’ve Never Heard Of

sanborn fire insurance maps

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps were created beginning in the 19th century and provide genealogy researchers with a true treasure trove of information about a particular locality. The maps, which are color-coded (example below), show a city’s growth over time as well as capturing for genealogists a moment in time. What a thrill to see the town as your ancestor would have seen it.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Until recently, the Sanborn Maps have not been widely available. However, thanks to the Library of Congress, 25,000 of the valuable maps are now online in a  searchable database.

The Importance of Sanborn Maps

Even if your ancestor didn’t live in a city or town – like mine, who lived on  a – there would have been times when your family came into town. The maps show us how the town looked when ancestors would have walked the streets.

For example, my Knox family lived in Putnam County, Missouri, close to the town of Unionville. I know they would have been quite familiar with Unionville, particularly because my great-great-great- grandfather and his three sons all joined the Union Army in 1862 in Unionville. My sister and I traveled there a few years ago and enjoyed time going through probate records in the courthouse, which dominates the town square.

You may also be interested in the Family Tree Historical Atlas of American CIties

Imagine my surprise when I saw the Sanborn map of 1893 Unionville with a town square missing a courthouse! As you can see from the Sanborn map, there were public wells on two corners of the Public Square and a music stand in the center. When, I wondered, did the courthouse appear?

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

I stopped my Sanborn search for a moment and found this: “There were two earlier courthouses built in Unionville, one a temporary one used from 1854 to 1858. The next courthouse was a two-story, red brick structure, built on the square, began in May 1857 and ended during December 1858. By the 1880’s the second floor courtroom had been condemned and not used. The courthouse was removed in 1890.” It seems that the courthouse I saw wasn’t built until 1924. That means my Civil War ancestors would have seen both an earlier courthouse as well as the empty Public Square.

During my visit to Unionville, Vicki and I stopped at a charming coffee house and bookstore, so it was fun to look at the Sanborn map to see what kind of store was originally in that space. (Next image). Being able to finally access the Sanborn maps has been a  true research bonanza. I hope your search is just as fruitful. Now, let me show you how to use the site.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Block -

How to Search the Sanborn Maps

First, go over to this About page. At the top of the page you’ll see a search box. Make sure the search parameter is set to “This Collection”; this means your search will be limited only to the Sanborn collection.

Sanborn Search

I decided to search for Putnam County because I wasn’t sure what towns might have been included in the maps. The search returned three sets of Unionville maps, dating from 1893 to 1909. It will be interesting to see what changes might have occurred over those three mapping periods.

Once you find a set of maps you want to explore, click the name of the map set. On the next page you’ll see a thumbnail of the map along with a notation of how many pages are in the set (in this case, two).

Sanborn Map Sets

You’ll next click the thumbnail to bring up the two images. Click on either image to view and/or download. You’ll find the download link in the lower left corner below the image.

Sanborn Map Download


Below the map you’ll find a description of it, along with sections on Rights and Access. (LOC says they are not aware of any copyright protection for the maps – but be sure to read the Rights section).

Use Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to Bring Your Ancestor’s Town to Life

When Vicki and I were in Unionville, I loved walking the streets around the square and found myself wondering what it must have been like there for my Civil War era ancestors. Based on the architecture, I decided many of the buildings were original to the Civil War timespan. When I was able to pour over the Unionville Sanborn maps I saw that the town looks a heck-of-a-lot today like it did then, minus that courthouse.

If you can find a map of a locale where your family lived, definitely download it and add it to your software; what a thrill it is to be able to virtually walk the streets that would have known so well.

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