Historical Maps Can Help

Historical Maps Can Help By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Originally published in Everton's Genealogical Helper January/February 2007, page 16.

Historical maps are a great resource to help learn about a place at a particular point in time. They can be used to locate exactly where someone's ancestors lived and to learn quite a bit about the neighborhood or surrounding area. Using maps in conjunction with other sources such as census records, city, telephone and business directories, tax lists, and land records can help to see the information in a different light. It might even help to locate some of those "missing people."

Viewing historical maps has become much easier with an ever-increasing array of maps that are now available on the Internet. Collections contain maps showing everything from boundary changes to transportation growth, military activity, land ownership, topography, town or city layouts, and just about anything else that was important to the area at the time.

Historical maps can show what an area was like in the past. Was it woods, rock outcroppings, prairie, meadow, swamp, farmland, or all of them? Farmers on the edge of civilization have always been selling land to or becoming land developers. Some of them helped to organize a new town or city. Many of the streets and the original subdivisions were often named after the founders, the landowners, or the early settlers. Look at the old maps to see where they lived.

People doing research about rural and even now-suburban areas can usually find an old county atlas or a reproduction with plat maps that show the property owners at that time. County land records can be used to trace ownership back to the person that obtained the land patent. A copy of it can be printed out or downloaded at the Bureau of Land Management's website at http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/.

  • Even though they do not provide linkage between generations, Historical Maps are a great resource to help learn about a place at a particular point in time. They can be used to locate exactly where someone's ancestors lived and to learn quite a bit about the neighborhood or surrounding area. Using maps in conjunction with other sources such as census records, city, telephone and business directories, tax lists, and land records can help to see the information in a different light. It might even help to locate some of those "missing people."

Jeff's lecture Using Maps in Genealogical Research expands upon this article. For information on this and his other lectures, please see www.JeffBockman.com and then select Lectures.

An audio CD of the lecture, that was given at the 2008 Ohio State Genealogy Conference, can be purchased at

JAMB Tapes, Inc - Select S-10.

[BLM Land Patent Image]

Finding out how an ancestor possibly traveled from Chicago to Colorado and back in 1860 or headed off to Oregon can be found in the wide variety of transportation maps that are available. Transportation maps show the development and growth of our country as new towns and population growth followed the roads, canals and railroads as they expanded westward. A large collection of historic railroad maps can be found online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/rrhtml/rrhome.html. A number of transportation maps are also available in the Map section of the Everton's Handybook for Genealogists.

[Everton's Handybook 1860 Railroad Map]

Finding Rural Folks

Plat Maps & Historical Atlases are great tools to identify the landowners in rural areas. Seeing the exact location of the property where an ancestor lived and grew up along with the schools, stores, towns, and cemeteries all on a single map gives a researcher a real picture of their community. Seeing all of their neighbors is beneficial since some might be related, a business partner, a participant in a lawsuit, or even a future in-law.

(2009: Many plat maps are now available online at Historic MapWorks. Their collection is also available at Ancestry.com. Links to these are other maps sites can be found at Maps and Maps Historic at www.JeffBockman.com/links)

Plat maps show the name of the property's owner but that may not be the person that was living there. When these maps are used with Census records it is often possible to plot out the path that the census taker took as he went from house to house and see who actually lived on a piece of property. Some later census records show if a person owned or rented while the earlier ones listed the value of owned real estate. If someone is missing from a census index then it might be possible to locate him or her by looking up and finding their neighbors and then seeing if they were actually in the record but that their name was misspelled or indexed incorrectly.

With the 1875 plat map for Selby Township Bureau County, IL and the 1870 Census the route that the census taker took can be plotted out. Due to the five-year difference any names that don't agree would need to be looked up in the local land and probate records to see if the property had been sold or passed down.

[1870 Follow the Census Taker]

One of my grandmothers was born in Grundy County Iowa in 1885. The family lived there for a less than ten years. I easily located the 1880 land record that was created when her father purchased a 240-acre piece of property from his father in Section 23 of Washington Township but it didn't state whether or not there was a house. With the land description and a new map it was easy to locate the property that is now a large cornfield except for a new home in the northwest corner. A copy of the 1884 plat map showed that their house was located in the same area. It also showed that each of his parents owned a parcel of land across the street to the north, but there were no houses.

[Grundy County Iowa - Washington Township]

Comparing plat maps from different time periods will show the changes in an area such as the size of towns increasing, additional railroad tracks or new lines, new roads and bridges, schools, dams and lakes, along with the changes in land ownership. Another bonus often-found in old atlases are drawings of homes and farms along with portraits of the more famous people.

Unfortunately there are not historical atlases or plat maps for every area. It may be possible to find another type of map for the area that includes landowners. The online Civil War map collection at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/collections/civil_war_maps/cwmap.html provided an alternative for Campbell County, Virginia. A map produced by the Confederate Army Engineers showed many of the landowners and various physical features. Fortunately some of the families had not moved between the 1820 and 1840 censuses and the civil war so that they could be used as reference points.

City Dwellers

Researchers with city roots have been able to find addresses where their ancestors lived by using city and telephone directories as well as the 1880 and later census records. Changes in street names and numbering systems can hamper locating the exact location for an address. Historical maps can help since they show the street names and sometimes even the numbering systems that were in effect at that time.

Little is probably known about a building where an ancestor lived unless it is still standing or there were photographs that have been handed down or can be found in a historical photo collection. Sanborn Maps and panoramic maps are two resources that can help to learn more about a city dweller's home or business.

Sanborn Maps

Starting in 1867 the Sanborn Map Company of Pelham, New York began producing a series of maps that are a wonderful resource when researching within the about 12,000 cities and town in the US that they mapped. These historical maps provide a lot of information about the buildings where people lived or worked. Besides showing exactly where a building was located, these maps also show the shape of the building and its construction, the occupancy, as well as the surrounding buildings and businesses.

When I first showed up for work at the Illinois Inspection and Rating Bureau in Chicago, IL, after earning a BS degree in Fire Protection Engineering, I was a little surprised to be presented with a pair of scissors and a jar of glue. One of my first tasks was to "cut & paste" the official updates into the Sanborn Maps for the Chicago area. I guess the one benefit of being a recent college graduate was that they allowed me to use metal scissors with pointed tips! The update for the Sears' Tower replaced an entire city block. One of my duties as an inspector was to update the maps whenever I found changes. Little did I realize that 35 years later that experience would come in handy when the Sanborn maps became one of the new tools for genealogical research! Unfortunately my job back then was to destroy the historical value of the maps and keep them as current as possible. Fortunately there were others that were saving copies of the historic versions.

As with any resource, knowing a little bit about why they were created and how they were used will allow you to have a better understanding of the information. The Sanborn maps were created to help fire insurance company underwriters understand some of the risks that they were assuming if they insured a particular building or piece of property.

[Sanborn map for Elmhurst, IL 1932]

They showed what buildings existed, the type of construction, the number of floors and basements, any protective design features and systems, and in some cases even the occupancy. They also showed details on the city or private water supply including the size of the water mains and the location of fire hydrants along with information about any fire sprinkler systems.

A major concern of the underwriter when insuring a building is its relationship to the surrounding buildings and their potential risk. An entire city block of wooden buildings or even brick buildings that were inter-connected can burn down if a fire starts in one of them. Remember Mrs. O'Leary's cow? The buildings on the maps were color coded by the type of construction to let an underwriter quickly visualize the conflagration and exposure hazards in a particular area.

The maps would be updated periodically. New buildings, additions, or changes in construction or protection would be the main reasons for an update. Buildings that were torn down would also be noted. Changes to the name or type of business would not be the reason for an update unless there was also a major change in hazard, for example: a stable was converted into a store or a bowling alley. There is an interesting history of the company, their maps, and other competing companies at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EART/snb-intr.html.

The official maps were 21 by 25 inches and bound in books similar to those used for land records and courthouse indexes. The maps use a scale of fifty feet to the inch, so that even a small garage or shed can be shown with some detail.

Building Features

The Type of Construction for an entire building or for a section of a building was shown with color codes. The most common were:

    • Brown: Fire Proof - Reinforced concrete floors, roof, and supports.

    • Gray: Fire Resistive - Steel frame with metal or glass walls, concrete on metal floors.

    • Red: Masonry - Brick supporting walls with wood joisted floors and roof.

    • Blue: Masonry - Stone or Hollow Concrete Block walls with wood joisted floors and roof.

    • Yellow: Frame - Wooden walls supporting wood floors and roof.

[Key to the Sanborn Maps]

The "Key to the Sanborn Maps" lists the various colors, abbreviations, and symbols used on the maps. A color-coded version can be found online at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EART/images/sandkey.jpg.

Larger apartment buildings in a city were usually of masonry construction. Older individual homes were either masonry or frame. One variation that occurred fairly often was when a frame building was covered on one or more sides by a single layer of brick. This was called brick veneer. The maps would show these as a yellow building with a red line along the wall or walls that had the brick veneer.

A number in the corner indicated the Number of Floors. If a "B" followed then that indicated that there was a basement. Basements on homes were not always shown. If part of an attic was usable space then it was counted as a half floor.

Approved Roofing was indicated by a dot in the corner. For a home this was usually composition shingles that had been fire tested. An X indicated that there was an un-approved roofing such as wood shingles, untested composition shingles, or tarpaper over wood.

Overhangs and porches

were indicated by a dashed line where there was no exterior wall.

Codes and/or descriptions were used to show the Occupancy: Dwellings were indicated by a "D", Stores with an "S", and Auto storage by an "A." Stables or Livery had diagonal lines across the building like an X. Many buildings had the business name or type shown such as Schools, Theater, or Bowling Alley while some were abbreviated like the P.O. for Post Office. Those occupancies that presented a severe fire threat were more likely to be indicated like: feed mills, wood working or furniture manufacturers, wagon and then auto repair shops or any other business where paints and flammable liquids were stored or used.

The maps also included construction features that helped to prevent the building from catching fire if a neighboring property had a fire. The portion of a solid brick firewall that extends above the roof is called a parapet. It is shown on the map with a small hash mark for every six inches in height. The higher it is the better since a fire next door would not easily start the roof on fire. This was very important, especially when two buildings shared a common wall. Skylights were shown because if there was a fire in a shorter building next door then the flames would be coming out of a skylight faster than it would take to burn through the roof. This could spread the fire to neighboring buildings faster. WG stands for wired-glass; it was often used in skylights and windows because it will withstand a fire or prevent a break-in better than regular glass.

Besides just learning about the building where someone lived, these maps provide a lot of information about their neighborhood. Look at the surrounding pages and locate the church or schools that they attended. Locate the stores and businesses where they shopped. Find the Movie Theater, bowling alley, YMCA, YWCA, or other recreational establishments that they frequented, possibly even the local "Houses of ill fame."

One thing to remember is that these flat maps are trying to represent a real three-dimensional building. While the old family home may now be a parking lot or a huge new mansion you might still be able to get an idea of what it looked liked. Try to draw or visualize a real three-dimensional building. Look at the shape and the height and with some experience the buildings can jump-up right out of the page. Don't forget that with basements they can even go below it.

Identifing Photographs of Buildings

It might be possible to identify the building in an old photograph by comparing it to the maps for several possible buildings.

Hinsdale, Illinois is a town where many of the older homes have been torn down and replaced with very large expensive homes. My grandparents lived there before World War I. The 1919 Sanborn map for the location shows a two-story building with a small overhang across the front. A photograph, that was taken much later, shows that the building now has a front porch but it also shows the two anchor points for the old overhang on the left side of the front of the building. Other than the porch the shape of the building in the photo is the same as that on the map.

[Residence in Hinsdale, Illinois]

By 1920 the family had moved to 241 N. Lake Street in Aurora, IL. They were there for the 1920 Census and lived there until 1923 when my mother's father and grandfather both died within three weeks of each other. There are no known photographs of the building that was torn down sometime after 1950.

[1907 Sanborn Map for North Lake St. Aurora, Illinois]

The 1920 census record listed households on Williams Street just prior to our family so it was not a surprise that the 1907 Sanborn map showed the house to be directly across the street from where Williams St. dead-ended. The map shows that 241 N. Lake was two stories and had a curved front porch with a roof over the front steps. The porch is probably similar to the one on the building at 263. A colored version of the map would tell if the walls were brick or frame. It shows that it was a good sized home. My mother said that it wasn't a brick building.

[photos of north Lake Street with map]

A current photograph of the area shows that the two buildings to the north are still standing but that another building now stands between them. The "new" building was listed in the 1923 city directory and was shown in the 1907-1950 update of the Sanborn maps that also lists both the old and new street addresses. The bay window on the building at 253 N. is visible in the photo and is shown on the map. The photograph shows that a two-story addition had been added at the rear.

[Elmhurst Historical Museum]

The 2 1/2-story building with the curved wall in the lower right corner of the Elmhurst, IL map was colored blue and the overhangs were yellow. The photograph of the old stone building, that is now the Elmhurst Historical Museum, shows the curved stone wall, the front and side porches, as well as the attic window (the 1/2 floor). After comparing diagrams to real buildings or photographs and knowing a little bit about the architecture in the area one can start to visualize many features of a building from the maps.

Locating Sanborn Maps

Black and white versions of the Sanborn maps are available to libraries by subscription from Proquest, the provider for Heritage Quest Online. Unfortunately, not every library that subscribes to HQ Online also subscribes to the Sanborn Maps. Many libraries only subscribe to the maps for their own state. Access to the maps from home via the Internet is often available to those people with library cards.

There are free online color-coded versions of the maps available for three states:

The largest collection of Sanborn maps and atlases is preserved in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. There are an estimated 700,000 Sanborn maps in bound and unbound editions.

Search the online and physical catalogs of local and research libraries to see if they have maps or copies on microfilm available for a wider variety of locations. Check with libraries, historical societies, or county offices to see if they have portions of or a full set of the original maps. A list of the libraries that obtained the duplicate maps from the Library of Congress is listed at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EART/snb-intr.html.

Panoramic Maps

An image of the old family home or business might be available if it was on the correct side of the street in one of the towns or cities where one of the 1,500 or so panoramic maps was produced.

A lady that was interested in locating the site of her ancestor's business contacted me. I found the 1886 Holland's Business Directory of Naperville and there on page 157 was an advertisement for "Norman Lent, horse-shoer and General Blacksmith - cor. of High & Webster Sts." Unfortunately it didn't say which corner and the Sanborn maps of the town stopped one block away.

[1886 Advertisement]

(2009: An online version is now available at the Illinois Digital Archives

Holland's Business Directory of Naperville See online page 155.)

Fortunately there was a Bird's eye view of Naperville, DuPage County, Illinois 1869 produced by the Merchant's Lithographing Co.

[Naperville, DuPage County, Illinois 1869 ]

The panoramic maps were fairly large detailed drawings so the online images are very large but that is what allows you to zoom in and see the details for a particular building. The image showed that there were buildings only on the Northwest corner of High & Webster streets.

[The Corner of High & Webster streets]

These maps used numbers to identify important buildings or businesses and then included a list at the bottom of the page to identify them.

[North Lake Street, Aurora, Illinois 1882]

In 1882 the Excelsior Brewery, #45, was located behind a few homes on North Lake Street. It later became the Aurora Brewery Company that was shown on the Aurora Sanborn map.

Unfortunately the family home at 241 N. Lake St. had not yet been built.

Panoramic maps were also known also as bird's-eye views, or perspective maps and they were a popular method of showing U.S. and Canadian cities and towns during the late nineteenth century and up until the 1920s. They were not photographs but drawn in such a way that cities were portrayed as if viewed from above. Although they were not drawn to an exact scale, they showed street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features in perspective.

The Library of Congress has a collection of over 1,500 panoramic maps which are available online at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/pmhtml/panhome.html. The maps can be found by a Keyword search or from a list by state. There is a detailed history of panoramic maps that tells about the various artists and companies that produced them along with a description of the process used to create them at: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/pmhtml/panintro.html. No, they were not drawn or done from photographs taken while in a balloon.

Unlike the plat maps, the Sanborn and panoramic maps only show the names of a few property or business owners. However, by using them along with city or telephone directories, newspaper and business advertisements, census records, and other sources it might be possible to identify the buildings where an ancestors lived or worked.

Use Maps

Maps by themselves usually provide little genealogical data. Using historical maps in conjunction with a variety of other records can help to visualize various activities and learn about the community. They can also help to locate some of those missing records or people. It is impossible to list every type of map that has ever been produced or to state how they could be used. I received copies of the records from the church in Stari Trg ob Kolbe in what is now Slovenia. They list the occupants of every house in each of the surrounding villages. The only source where I was able to locate several of the very small settlements was the "Atlas Reke Kolpe - The topographical atlas of the Kolpa and the Cabranka River for Canoeists and Tourists" that my cousins had given to me while I was there on a visit. I found the topographical maps for the area around Aspen, Colorado, that helped me to locate a cemetery, covering an entire wall in a hiking supply store. The panoramic map of Aspen that helped me locate several old businesses was found on the mantle of the fireplace at the hotel. Any map of an area can be helpful, especially if you don't know the territory. Even maps from a different time period can be helpful especially if there is nothing else available.

With the wide selection of maps that are now available on the Internet, including even a combination of a map superimposed upon a satellite image, don't forget to also search library catalogs (2009: WorldCat.com) to find printed maps and history books that contain maps of the desired area or time period. Historical maps can help with your research.

Links to all of the websites that were mentioned in the article along with many others can be found at

Jeff's Genealogy & Travel Links

Then select Maps and Maps-Historic.

(2009: See the article Search High, Low, Above & Below under Cemeteries about how historical and modern maps can be used to help locate Cemeteries.)

A few helpful books are :

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann. The Anchor Atlas of World History, Volumes 1 and II, New York: Doubleday Anchor Press, 1964 & 1974.

William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses 1790-1920, Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1987.

The Handybook for Genealogists, Logan, UT, The Everton Publishers, Inc., various editions. The Map section includes: State boundaries, Migration, & Transportation

Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide, New York, NY, Rand McNally & Company, Annual

West Point. Dept of Military Art and U.S. Military Academy, West Point Atlas of American Wars Volume 1 1689-1900, West Point, NY, Praeger Publishers, 1978