Why We Map

Issue #12 - Maps

Maps are not always what they seem. You can see what got included, but not what got left out. Few mapmakers have ever been as honest with his clients as Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), the famed Flemish geographer who, in his 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), wrote: "in some places, at our discretion, where we thought good, we have altered some things, some things we have put out, and other where, if it seemed to be necessary, we have put in." Keep that in mind next time you open a map.


A worn, etched clay tablet from Babylonia ca. 600 B.C. is the oldest known map of the world. On display in the British Museum in London, it is known as Imago Mundi: Image of the World. Even if you can’t read cuneiform script you can learn a few things just by looking at it. That’s one of the ways a map can be useful to the family history researcher, in addition to providing geographic information.

The Imago Mundi, better known as the Babylonian Map of the World, found on display at the British Museum in London, includes cuneiform inscriptions and a map of the Mesopotamian world and is considered to be the oldest surviving world map, dating back to around 700 to 500 BC.

The Imago Mundi is about the size of a deck of cards and the central image on its face is a star, itself a faint echo of the future compass rose. In the middle is the city of Babylon. The Euphrates River flows through the city and out to the ocean (called “bitter river” by the Babylonians). Like most future maps, this one made some of the same assumptions later cartographers would. In this case, the legendary city of Babylon sits in the middle, presented here as a sun, its rays flooding out to the rest of the benighted world. Just by looking at the Imago Mundi the viewer can tell who created it (the Babylonians) and understand that they had a sophisticated sense not only of themselves but of their place in the world. They were, of course, at the center of it. Want to know who commissioned the map? Look who’s in the middle.

Call it cartographic selectivity. Maps are no different than any other human-made creation: they reflect the interests of the maker. Ptolemy (100 - 170 CE), the ancient Greek architect of modern cartography, created maps with an interesting new feature: accuracy. Ptolemy was the first to apply mathematics to the mapmaking process, in addition to interviewing travelers who’d been to distant lands and recording nearly 10,000 place names for his book, Geography (150 CE). The title sounds boring until you learn that he coined the word. 

Ptolemy’s Geography changed the course of history, but not until about a thousand years later, because it was lost until Byzantine scholars rediscovered it in the 13th century. Geography then became the bedrock text for the subsequent European Age of Exploration. It was a map of the Americas, based on Ptolemy’s map, that persuaded Christopher Columbus to make the voyage to America in 1492. In the end, it took Columbus 30 percent longer to get to the Americas than Ptolemy’s map indicated. Hundreds of years later scholars realized Ptolemy estimated the size of the globe to be about 30 percent smaller than it is. Had the map been more accurate, some speculate, Columbus may never have made the trip at all. 

The development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1978 has revolutionized the field of cartography, as anyone who’s followed turn-by-turn navigation can attest. Created and still operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, all GPS information in the world is processed through 24 American-owned satellites (other countries have also developed proprietary satellite navigation systems). It is this free data that forms the foundation of the biggest news in maps since the Mercator Projection: Google Maps and Google Earth.  

The launch of Google’s mapping applications in 2005 made the entire globe easily accessible, anywhere. And now, after spending thousands of years staring at maps, the maps are staring back. These 21st-century maps keep a record of our movements, creating a digital map of the users’ lives that they then sell to advertisers. 

Maps are made for a reason. Ptolemy was an astrologer; he created his maps to provide more accurate horoscopes for his clients. Google makes maps because it’s part of their business model. In 2012 Google Maps announced its goal not only of mapping “the entire world” but actually “rebuilding the world in 3D… like a mirror world.” Create a brand-new Earth, no big deal for Google. Just as long as they keep those maps coming.


Weekly Discoveries 🔎

  1. Genealogy Tips: Sifting through facts and ‘true’ stories in family research.

  2. The Veteran’s History Project works to preserve the personal recollections of our military veterans for modern wars,beginning with World War I.  The digitized collections include audio and video interviews.

  3. Learn more about researching Jewish ancestors in Poland with this free virtual presentation, JRI-Poland Update and More.

  4. The new index to Mississippi deaths from 1912-1943 may prove useful to those with roots in The Magnolia State.

  5. For those of Norwegian ancestry, new collections are available for both the 1870 and 1875 Norway Censuses, which are searchable by index, or manually by county and municipality.


Using Maps to Enhance Genealogical Research

Maps are an often underutilized source of information in genealogical research. Studying the jurisdictional boundary changes for states and territories of the United States with the Lincoln Mullen interactive map or delving deeper to the county-level with these state-by-state interactive maps depicting county boundary changes can help break down brick walls, as they reveal where records may be held in today. 

The David Rumsey Map Collection encompasses over 100,000 digitized maps from around the world that can also be viewed in non-traditional ways, heping the viewer to visualize the revolution of a geographic area. Many of our ancestors were farmers and as they migrated westward, they searched for similar soil in order to grow the crops they were experienced in, making Topographic maps a wonderful resource for ancestors who “disappeared” from one area and identifying potential topographically similar locations in which to search for those ancestors.  The U.S. Geological Survey also provides a tool called TopoView, which allows users to easily visualize changes to an area over time. There are myriad types of maps and each have their own place in genealogical research, but one of the most underutilized are the fire insurance maps and their value to family history research.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

The richly detailed Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are large-scale maps which have been created by the Sanborn Map Company since the 19th Century and can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of a family historian.

The History of Sanborn Maps

Fire insurance maps originated in London in the latter part of the 18th century, sparking the practice in other areas of the world, including the United States. Though there were multiple predecessors and competitors over the years, Sanborn Maps eventually became the most widely known and commonly utilized insurance map company in post-Civil War America, through World War II. Sanborn Maps documented urban areas in the United States to assist insurance companies with assessing liability and, therefore, calculating premiums for the coverage of structures. 

Civil engineer and surveyor Daniel Sanborn first began drafting the maps in 1866, first mapping locations in Tennessee and then Boston in 1867. The company continued to add locations to their offerings, printing their final catalog in the 1950s and their final update in the 1970s. During that active time period, they captured the history of more than 12,000 American cities and towns. To date, their archives include over 1.2 million Sanborn Maps. 

At its height, the Sanborn Map Company employed over 300 surveyors working in the field, with another 400 employees located in their offices across the United States to create the drawings from the data supplied by the surveyors. The maps were colored by hand, being completely redrawn to reflect any subsequent changes. As the growth of cities outpaced the technology available at the time, they began selectively updating only the areas of the cities affected by change, pasting the updated drawing over those sections of the maps only. Representatives, called “pasters” actually visited the offices of the subscribers to “update” the maps. This leaves some maps to appear quite eclectic with the pasted-on pieces.

Genealogical Value

There are myriad types of historic maps available to the genealogist, so one may wonder what makes the Sanborn Maps different. These maps included not only the names of streets, but also included details on the city and populations, as well as community infrastructure and detailing of all of the building locations in an urban area. The maps provide very specific information, including the building footprint, height, number of stories, construction materials and what the building was used for, as well as street widths, lot lines, water-pipe systems and fire hydrants. These details can prove to be very valuable to genealogists and historians alike. The maps depicted all structures within a given area, including businesses, homes, barns, corrals, outhouses, wells, etc. One should be mindful of the key provided on the maps to ensure that all of the information can be correctly interpreted. 

The location of an ancestral residence identified in a draft registration, census or city directory can be referenced in the Sanborn Map created nearest the year of the record. It can reveal the type of home and neighborhood in which the family resided. Reviewing the location over the years can identify how the neighborhood changed, if the home received an addition or burned down, livery stables being replaced by railroad depots, and the like. As transportation was more restricted, people of the 19th and early 20th Centuries normally worked, shopped and worshipped near their homes. These maps help identify likely churches they may have been baptized or married in, leading you to previously unknown religious records detailing the lives of ancestors. 

One should keep in mind that not all portions of a city were always depicted in the historic Sanborn Maps. However, those missing areas can also tell a story. Sometimes areas that were not heavily developed are not found on the maps, but oftentimes the structures not included were those in the African-American communities, likely due to their inability to garner insurance coverage.

Key Elements

Title Page

The colorful title pages of a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map volumes included the title in artistic typography, a special glimpse into the era in which they were created, with an overview of the layout of the city, infrastructure, street and special indexes, as well as a map key.

Section Page

The color-coded sections depicted on the title page indicate which sheet in the volume provides a detailed view of the streets and structures within that section.

In addition to the structures (homes, businesses, churches, government buildings, etc.) which existed at the time of the creation of this map, the section pages include waterways, railroad tracks and streets. A closer look at the structures will tell the story of where our ancestors likely purchased dry goods, worshipped, attended school and other aspects of their day-to-day lives.

In the left image, one can see where individuals who resided in the area could have purchased medications, attended church and possibly where they may have worked and even where a fire hydrant was located. Referencing the map key (shown below) provides even greater detail, including that the single-story Startup Candy Co. was constructed of brick, indicated by the “red” color, with the exception of the shed, which was frame and iron construction, as depicted by the yellow and grey colors. There were seven windows across the front of the building and the roof was made of slate or tin. Additionally the location and sizes of the rooms/areas within the building, as well as chimneys and equipment and the stables behind the main building were detailed.

The same type of information can be identified about the construction and size of the homes of our ancestors. Combined with the overall community details shown in Sanborn Maps, these extra elements help to paint a clearer picture of what the lives of our ancestors may have been like.

Adding Context to Narratives

Utilize the information identified in the Sanborn Maps to conduct additional research and provide historical context to the family history narratives you create. Refer to newspaper archives or holdings of local libraries or historical societies for photos of the buildings during the era that correspond with the map.

Photo on left:  Photo shows the brick structure drawn on the 1900 Sanborn Map, as well as the frame “shed.” A more modern photo, showing that the building is extant, can further enrichen the client experience.  Photo on right:  Shows a modern-day photo of the startup building, following numerous additions and changes..

Where to Access Sanborn Maps

Digital versions of Sanborn Maps that are in the public domain can be found at numerous repositories, including the libraries of universities and states. In addition, the large-scale originals can be viewed onsite at many repositories, including local libraries and historical societies. The largest collection of originals, including those protected by copyright, are held by the Library of Congress, where they are organized by state, then city and year of publication. Copies of all of the million-plus Sanborn Maps, including those under copyright protection, may also be purchased directly from the current owners, Environmental Data Resources, Inc.


To learn more about utilizing maps in the research of your ancestors, read our blog post Finding Clues within Historic and Topographical Maps.


Bonus Tips

De-mystifying Ancestral Locations and Addresses

So, you’ve found your ancestor’s address or location on an old letter, in a city directory or other historic document, but what to do with this newfound information?  Addresses have evolved and those that we find in old documents are much different than the modern-day addresses.  Did you know that Zip codes were not even in use until the 1960s?  There is also the issue of duplicate names in regards to towns and counties, or reiterations of counties in different geographic locations within a state over time. With all of this in mind, it is not always easy to identify where an ancestor resided based on those old addresses, while using modern-day maps.

Enter the United States Board on Geographic Names, commonly referred to as BGN, is a Federal entity created in 1890 to maintain uniformity in geographic name usage.  It originated after the surge of westward expansion following the Civil War in an effort to alleviate the inconsistencies in names and spellings, as they presented a serious problem for surveyors, cartographers, and the like.  BGN maintains multiple databases, but the one most commonly used for those studying their family histories in America is the Domestic Names database.

To use, simply enter the details known about the ancestral location within the United States into the pertinent fields in the query form.  In addition to the [feature] name, the query can be restricted to geographic jurisdictions of state and county, or the type of location [feature class] and even elevation. A list of locations matching the specified will be returned and will include the class, county, state, latitude and longitude, elevation, and name of a map the location can be found on, among other details.  By clicking on a location name in the list, further information is detailed, including the Federal census code, as well as alternative or variant names for that location.

The BGN is an incredible (and free!) resource for anyone studying family history in the U.S. Good luck deciphering those ancestral locations!


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Sources….Duh!!

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Babylonian_map_of_the_world,_from_Sippar,_Mesopotamia..JPG : 16 December 2020), 2010 photo of “The Babylonian map of the world, from Sippar, Mesopotamia..JPG;” photograph by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg).

Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “Where to See Some of the World’s Oldest and Most Interesting Maps.”

U.S. Board on Geographic Names, (https://www.usgs.gov/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “Domestic Names.”

Library of Congress, “Geography and Maps Division: Sanborn Maps,” digital images, American Memory (https://loc.gov : accessed 16 December 2020), map image, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Austin, Travis County, Texas, January 1894, digital ID g4034am_g084151894. 

Walter W. Ristow, The Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 16 December 2020), “Geography & Map Reading Room: Introduction to the Sanborn Map Collection;” also, Sanborn (https://sanborn.com : accessed 16 December 2016), “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.”

Library of Congress, “Geography and Maps Division: Sanborn Maps,” digital images, American Memory (https://loc.gov : accessed 16 December 2020), map image, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Provo, Utah County, Utah, August 1900, digital ID g4344pm.g088851900, p. 1 and 12. 

Startup Candy Factory, ca. 1898, digital image, original held by Provo City Library, Provo, Utah.

Uri Friedman, The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “12 Maps That Changed the World.”

Google Maps (https://maps.googleblog.com/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “The Never-ending Quest for the Perfect Map.”

 Philip Sutton, New York Public Library, (https://www.nypl.org/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “Using Maps for Genealogy Research, Part 1: Finding Records.”

Frederick Wertz, New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, (https://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “Google Earth for Genealogy, Part 1: Putting Your Ancestors on the Map.”

National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “Maps at NARA of interest to Genealogists.”

Martin Dodge, Society and Space (https://www.societyandspace.org/ : accessed on 16 December 2020), “A History Of The World In Twelve Maps By Jerry Brotton.”

Tim Walker, Independent (https://www.independent.co.uk/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “How Google Earth Changed the World.”

Google, “Google Maps: The many dimensions of a modern map,” video, uploaded 2012;

Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 16 December 2020), “Ortelius Atlas.”


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