Using Insurance Records in Genealogical Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Methods to reduce the risk of commercial loss were practiced as early as the Chinese and Babylonian traders and merchants who traveled at least two or three millennia B.C. The process of insuring against health issues, accidents, loss of life, accidents, and disasters such as fire and flood developed throughout the following centuries.

Benjamin Franklin helped to popularize the purchase of property insurance, particularly insurance against loss from fire. His Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, founded in 1752, not only offered such insurance, but also proved instrumental in defining strategies to make structures safer, thus reducing overall risk.

Life insurance can be traced to 1759 when the Presbyterian Synods of Philadelphia and New York founded the Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers. By 1837 more than two dozen life insurance companies had been established, although their survival rate proved poor. Accident insurance was first offered by the Franklin Health Assurance Company of Massachusetts in 1850, and focused specifically on injuries from railroad and steamboat accidents. (In indexing Massachusetts death records for FamilySearch, I learned just how prevalent deaths from railroad accidents were in the mid to late 1800s.) Health insurance became more common in the late nineteenth century, and hospital and medical expense policies became available during the first half of the twentieth century.

Insurance company records, particularly those dealing with fire insurance, are very useful in placing our ancestors’ feet on the ground in a specific place at a specific time. The Sanborn Map Company’s historic collection of maps covers 12,000 American towns and cities between 1867 and 1970 (as well as some maps for Canada and Mexico). These maps were created for fire insurance companies whose agents needed to determine the degree of risk associated with specific properties. The maps have also proved useful to social historians, architects, and local historians. More to the point, the content of these maps offers the genealogical researcher a wealth of detail.

Sanborn maps illustrate the physical footprint of a property, as well as note its method of construction, height, number of stories, function, location of doors and windows, street name and number, street and sidewalk widths, and property boundaries. Symbols denote generic buildings such as stables, garages and warehouses. For example, “A” denotes “Auto, house or private garage;” “D” indicates “Dwelling;” and “Loft” identifies a “Tenant building occupied by various manufacturing or occupancies.” In some cases the names of factory owners and details on manufactures are included. This latter information is important when used in combination with available manufacturing non-population censuses. A black and white Sanborn Map Legend and a color Key to the various symbols, as well as Sanborn Map Abbreviations with definitions, are available online. Researching a specific address and its surroundings through all available maps available can illustrate aspects of the individual’s life-style, the development of the property over time, the socio-economic level of its neighborhood, and the growth of a town or city.

The original print Sanborn fire insurance maps can often be found in local and state libraries as well as in historical societies. Despite its age, R. Phillip Hoehn’s Union List of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Held by Institutions in the United States and Canada (Western Association of Map Libraries, 1976-77) is a good source to use to begin locating these maps. The Library of Congress holds a collection of Sanborn maps from copyright deposits and, in addition, has a set that was transferred from the Bureau of the Census. These latter maps may differ from the originals as the Bureau pasted corrections issued by the Sanborn Company over the original map sheets. When possible, both versions should be consulted. The Library of Congress collection is detailed in Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress: Plans of North American Cities and Towns Produced by the Sanborn Map Company (Library of Congress, 1981). This information is also available online. This online information is convenient as you can choose a state and locality and identify the date and number of sheets that are available, in addition to other geographical names that might be included, comments about the maps, and a URL if available. For example, when searching for Springfield, Massachusetts, I found that the Library of Congress has Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for 1886, 1896, 1911, and 1931-1950.

Sanborn maps may be available on microfilm in a variety of research institutions and you will want to check the holdings of major research institutions and of the state library in your area of interest. For example, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has the Sanborn fire insurance maps for St. Louis, Missouri, while the Boston Public Library holds maps for Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

ProQuest has created an electronic database, Digital Sanborn Maps 1867-1970, that includes images of 660,000 large-scale maps for over 12,000 American towns and cities, reproduced from the Library of Congress’s collection. This collection is available only through academic and public libraries. As the collection is expensive, the scope of access may vary among institutions. Checking locally, I found that the Library of Virginia (LVA) in Richmond, Virginia, provides electronic access to maps pertaining to Virginia localities only (to users visiting the library or, remotely, to those with LVA library cards), while the Virginia Beach Public Library provides access to the full database (I was able to access the database from home without a library card number although it took me some trial and error before I could find the database on the web site). ProQuest indicates that the online version offers “flexibility of use and improved viewing possibilities with images that can be easily manipulated and printed.”

A recent attempt to locate maps for a specific address, however, convinced me that using this resource is not for the uninitiated.

Initial steps were not difficult. I selected “Browse Maps” and the database prompted me to choose a state from a drop-down menu. I then chose a city (counties are also listed as choices). In my search, I chose Virginia and then Norfolk. A drop-down menu showed the years of available maps. I chose the earliest year, April 1887. I already had a specific street address (31 James Street) found in the 1880 census for the individual I was researching. I looked in the index to the 1887 map set and found that only James Street properties listed were located at numbers 140-161. The index referred me to map sheet 18 on which I easily located the buildings at 140 through 161 James Street. However, the end of the street that would have included 31 James Street was not on sheet 18. I checked the bird’s-eye view map showing the entire city and illustrating where the various numbered map sheets were located. I could see the section of James Street that would include No. 31, but could not locate a relevant map sheet for that portion of the street. Luckily, I know Norfolk fairly well and could browse through the other available sheets with some sense of “too far west” or “too far south,” but could not (nor could staff who assisted me) locate a map for this particular street address. Cutting my losses, I chose a different year (1898) and was able to locate the appropriate map. Feeling a bit more successful, I selected “print current view.” Unfortunately, only the portion of the map image shown printed, and the quality of the print was not the best. I would recommend using this print option only for a zoomed-in section of a map. Instead (and your ability to do this version may depend on the library’s rules about using thumb-drives), select “download map.” This choice will create a pdf map, in a new browser window, that you can then save or print.

My search experience illustrated that mapping is not necessarily complete for some years and that it is very important to devote time to learning the various capabilities of the database. This exercise illustrates, once again, that due diligence in planning a research trip is essential and well-worth your time beforehand.

A good user/training guide to the database is provided online at the Proquest site. Today, the Sanborn Map Company is based in Colorado. Its historical fire insurance maps, however, are available from Environmental Data Resources Inc., from whom individual maps may be ordered. If you may wish to read more about these fascinating maps, an extensive article is available online from the University of Maryland and from the UC Berkeley Library, and several links exist on Cyndi’s List. Diane L. Oswald’s Fire Insurance Maps: Their History and Applications (Lacewing Press, 1997) provides an in-depth discussion of not only the Sanborn maps, but the entire history and application of fire insurance maps.

If you are interested in further insurance-related research, check to see if insurance companies in your area of interest have made their records available either as original documents in a research institution, on microfilm, or online. A good example of the latter can be found in the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia records available online at the Library of Virginia (LVA). This searchable database includes images of policies issued for Richmond and Henrico County between 1796 and 1867. Policies include “the name of the insured, the location of the property, the name of the occupant, a description and estimated value of each structure, and, in most instances, a sketch of the property.” When I searched for “Barclay” as a subject, I identified twenty-three entries spanning a period from 1816 to 1858. (Please note that to view the images effectively, you need a tiff viewer.) My desktop would have required some technical adjustment (that I didn’t want to deal with), but I was able to view the images easily and clearly using my iPad. Such local records can provide a wealth of information, including the names of neighbors. I found the sketches particularly interesting.

Fire insurance maps are an often overlooked resource for genealogists, and are worth adding to your check-list of sources for research.

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