Urban Research Using Maps

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Urban Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Urban Research
Urban Research Using Census Records
Urban Research Using Vital Records
Urban Research Using Newspapers
Urban Research Using Religious Sources
Urban Research Using Land Records
Urban Research Using Maps
Urban Research Using Naturalization Records
Urban Research Using Court Records
Urban Research Using Business Records
Sources for Urban Research
List of Useful Urban Research Referencs

This article originally appeared in "Urban Research" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and John M. Scroggins, MA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


A solid knowledge of the city’s layout as it existed in an ancestor’s time is also important. Carol Mehr Schiffmen discusses and illustrates various types of maps and other geographic sources useful for urban research in her chapter, “Geographic Tools: Maps, Atlases, and Gazetteers,” in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records.

Jonathan Sheppard Books (P.O. Box 2020, Plaza Station, Albany, NY 12220) offers a packet of maps reproduced from Fannin’s Atlas of 1853, which includes maps for the cities of Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Charleston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Write to the company for prices.

Many American city maps are described and can be viewed and downloaded from the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress (“Cities and Towns”). Paper copies are available for purchase from the library’s photoduplication section.

Among the maps most used for urban research are ward maps, fire insurance maps, and panoramic or “bird’s-eye-view” maps.

Ward Maps

The attached image is part of a map that shows wards for New York City in 1850. Ward maps are especially important when used in conjunction with city directories in cases when a census index does not exist or when a suspected resident does not appear in an index. By defining the ward boundaries, it is often possible to eliminate hours of wasted search time. Ward boundaries changed frequently from one census enumeration to the next, so it is necessary to coordinate the ward map with the census year. For a good description of early maps, see Michael H. Shelley’s Ward Maps of United States Cities: A Selective Checklist of Pre-1900 Maps in the Library of Congress.[1] The Olin Library at Cornell University has microfiche copies of the maps listed by Shelley; see “19th Century Ward Maps of U.S. Cities: A Guide to Olin Library Holdings." Some libraries have maps that are designed to facilitate searching cities in federal census years 1790 to 1930.

Fire Insurance Maps

The Sanborn Map Company produced somes seven hundred thousand sheets of detailed maps for twelve thousand cities and towns in North America from 1867 to the present. (Other companies began producing maps as early as 1846.) These maps were used by insurance agents to determine hazards and risk in underwriting specific buildings. They were produced on oversize sheets in pastel colors: olive drab for adobe, pink for stone, blue for brick, yellow for wood, gray for iron. Size, shape, and construction of homes, businesses, and farm buildings; locations of windows, doors, and firewalls; roof types; widths and names of streets; property boundaries; ditches, water mains, and sprinkling systems; and other details are clearly indicated. Individual residents do not appear on the maps by name, although specific addresses are shown. Businesses appear by name. Once you have found your ancestor in census, directory, or utility files, you can determine precisely what house or business the family lived and worked in. It is possible to combine city directories and census entries with fire insurance maps and to locate each resident on the map.

“Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress,” prepared by the Geography and Map Section of the Library of Congress, lists the maps available for each town and city. Copies will be supplied upon request from the Library of Congress, Photoduplication Services, Washington, DC 20540. Because map sizes vary, it is wise to write ahead and ask for a cost estimate for each copy. (The pastel colors do not reproduce distinctly in black and white.)

Duplicate and microfilm copies of the maps are also available at selected libraries across the country and in state historical societies and local public libraries. For example, the maps for Tacoma, Washington, are in the Tacoma Public Library in their original, multicolored form. Those for Utah cities are found at the Utah State Historical Society, and digital copies of the Utah maps may be viewed at the website of the University of Utah. ProQuest Information and Learning has more than 660,000 scanned images of the Sanborn maps and makes them available only to authorized users through subscribing academic and public libraries. The easiest way to locate other copies of the maps is to start with a Google search for “sanborn insurance maps.”

Panoramic/Bird’s-Eye Maps

When they exist for an ancestor’s hometown, panoramic or “bird’s-eye-view” maps can add an attractive dimension to a family history. Drawn in perspective, streets and buildings are depicted in them as if from the air. Still prized for their artistic beauty, the commercially motivated drawings were commissioned by chambers of commerce, real estate companies, and businessmen whose establishments were frequently advertised on the borders. The panoramics were especially popular during the Civil War era and will be found in a number of county and municipal histories. A useful guide to these romantic maps is the Library of Congress’s Panoramic Maps of Cities in the United States and Canada: A Checklist of Maps in the Collections of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.[2] The library has placed a number of panoramic maps online at </memory.loc.gov/ammem/pmhtml/panhome.html>.

Metropolitan historical societies may also maintain separate guides to their map collections. Maps may be cataloged by date, enabling the searcher to pinpoint a particular time period to coordinate the city directory–census study. Maps may also be listed by subject. School district and cemetery maps may help to locate records from those agencies. The New York Public Library has one of the largest city map collections in the United States.

Most libraries do not have special equipment for the reproduction of large maps, nor do they allow photocopying because of potential damage to the maps. You may improvise a makeshift map by superimposing wards or old street locations on a current map.

Changing Boundaries and Jurisdictions

Over the years, as cities grew, most of them expanded by annexing the small towns at their fringes. Wards assumed different configurations, streets were frequently renamed or they disappeared entirely when a building project came along, some cities changed their numbering systems entirely, and annexations extended city limits on a regular basis. For anyone attempting Philadelphia research, this type of environment is clarified in Genealogy of Philadelphia County Subdivisions, by John Daly and Allen Weinberg.[3] Though not always found in published form, it is to the researcher’s great advantage to inquire at the state or local level for guides to get through the complexities of metropolitan changes—and there were many! For example, the following towns became part of Boston in the years indicated: East Boston, 1637; South Boston, 1804; Roxbury, 1868; Dorchester, 1870; Brighton, 1874; Charlestown, 1874; West Roxbury, 1874; and Hyde Park, 1912.[4] Information about some city boundary changes may found by simply searching the Internet for the words “city boundary changes.”

In an article titled “American Cities Are (Mostly) Better Than Ever,” Richard C. Wade explains:

Municipal boundaries were wide and continually enlarging. In 1876 St. Louis reached out into neighboring farm land and incorporated all the area now within its city limits. In one swift move, in 1889 Chicago added over 125 square miles to its territory. And in 1898 New York absorbed the four surrounding counties—including Brooklyn, the nation’s fourth largest city—making it the Empire City.
As populations grew, there were always fresh areas to build up. This meant that all the wealth, all the commerce, all the industry, and all the talent lay within the city.
More prosperous than either the state or federal governments, the cities needed no outside help; indeed they met any interference with the demand for home rule.[5]

Wade touches on two important points that consistently give researchers problems in urban situations if they have not familiarized themselves with the history of the area. Imagine an individual who believes his ancestors were from Chicago but cannot find them in directories before 1890, though he is sure they were city residents as early as 1880. Had he checked the history against maps of the area where they lived, he would have discovered that they indeed lived in what is now Chicago but was then Austin, Illinois. The town of Austin had its own city directories until the larger city brought it under its wing in 1889. Likewise, a woman searching for a Brooklyn address in the 1920 census was frustrated for some time trying to determine why the numbers she took from the census catalog would not lead her to the right place in the microfilm. Had she known a little bit about Brooklyn, she would have known that while Brooklyn has been part of New York City since 1898, it is in Kings County and not in New York County, where she had been searching.

Home rule can complicate the process of finding urban records. Just when you think you know what kind of records a state keeps and where they are kept, you may find that the city of your interest had an entirely different procedure. For example, Illinois counties have required brides and grooms to answer a number of questions on marriage applications that make them especially valuable for family historians. Cook County, however, under its home rule, did not require that applications be retained by the clerk for many years. Additionally, in other Illinois counties, vital record indexes are open for inspection to any member of a state genealogical society, but because the Chicago office processes an average of one thousand requests per day, a different set of rules prevents researchers from personally searching Cook County indexes. Policies are also subject to sudden changes, so it is wise to call in advance.

There are yet other distinctions that the urban researcher will need to make. For example, areas legally designated as city-county include San Francisco, Denver, and Honolulu. An area designated as metropolitan is Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee. Areas subject to some county jurisdiction but operating as cities are Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida; Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana; New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana; Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Nantucket, Nantucket County, Massachusetts; Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts; New York City Borough/County, New York: Bronx, Kings (Brooklyn), New York (Manhattan), Queens, and Richmond; and Philadelphia County, Philadelphia. Areas designated as independent cities, not subject to the county: Washington, D.C.; Baltimore City, Maryland; St. Louis, Missouri; and Carson City, Nevada.

Independent Virginia city records are detailed in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources for the following burgs of Virginia: Alexandria, Bedford, Bristol, Buena Vista, Charlottesville, Chesapeake, Clifton Forge, Colonial Heights, Covington, Danville, Emporia, Fairfax, Falls Church, Franklin, Fredericksburg, Galax, Hampton, Harrisonburg, Hopewell, Lexington, Lynchburg, Manassas, Manassas Park, Manchester, Martinsville, Nansemond, Newport News, Norfolk, Norton, Petersburg, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Radford, Richmond, Roanoke, Salem, South Boston, South Norfolk, Staunton, Suffolk, Virginia Beach, Warwick, Waynesboro, Williamsburg, and Winchester.


  1. Michael H. Shelley, Ward Maps of United States Cities: A Selective Checklist of Pre-1900 Maps in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1975).
  2. Library of Congress, Panoramic Maps of Cities in the United States and Canada: A Checklist of Maps in the Collections of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1984).
  3. John Daly and Allen Weinberg, Genealogy of Philadelphia County Subdivisions, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Department of Records, 1966).
  4. Eichholz, Red Book, 349-68.
  5. Richard C. Wade, "American Cities Are (Mostly) Better Than Ever," American Heritage 30, no. 2 (February-March 1979). The first page of this article is available online http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1979/2.

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