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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Did your ancestors have insurance?

I suggest that most genealogists have never considered the question in the title to this post. But if you think about the question for even a few minutes, you will realize that insurance papers and applications are potentially valuable genealogical data sources. Insurance policies and applications fall into the category of business records, that is, those records kept by commercial enterprises. Today, insurance generally falls into four major categories; business, life, property and health insurance. To understand the importance of insurance and to begin the process of researching insurance documents, I need to review a little history.

The earliest insurance policies actually date back into the dim past of the ancient world in China and Mesopotamia, but we generally date the origins of insurance to the rise of guilds in Europe. The earliest insurance policies, not contained in a loan or other document, originated in Genoa in the 14th Century. See Wikipedia: History of insurance. Here is a quote from the article concerning life insurance:
The first life insurance policies were taken out in the early 18th century. The first company to offer life insurance was the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office, founded in London in 1706 by William Talbot and Sir Thomas Allen. The first plan of life insurance was that each member paid a fixed annual payment per share on from one to three shares with consideration to age of the members being twelve to fifty-five. At the end of the year a portion of the "amicable contribution" was divided among the wives and children of deceased members and it was in proportion to the amount of shares the heirs owned. Amicable Society started with 2000 members.
It is entirely possible that during the lengthy period of time, some of your ancestors purchased some form of insurance. In some cases, these policies may still be available. Just as with many business records, discovering their current location may be one of the biggest obstacles to their use. But insurance records do exist and have found their way into a variety of record repositories. Here are some examples with quotes from the materials and articles listed as appropriate:

Mutual Assurance Society Policies 1796-1865
The Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia was incorporated December 22, 1794. The organizational meeting was held in December of 1795 and policies began to be written in March 1796. The complete collection of policies of the Society from 1796 to 1867 (31,138 policies) are now in the possession of the Library of Virginia. These policies are available to researchers on twenty-three reels of microfilm, Accession number 30177. The Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission created a paper index for these policies. In 1993, the Center for Historic Preservation at The University of Mary Washington, completed computerizing this index.
African American Genealogy Part IX: Wills, Deeds, and Insurance Policies by Sharon Leslie 

Sanborn Insurance maps. Here is the description of the collection housed at the Library of Congress:
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Online Checklist provides a searchable database of the fire insurance maps published by the Sanborn Map Company housed in the collections of the Geography and Map Division. The online checklist is based upon the Library's 1981 publication Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress and will be continually updated to reflect new acquisitions. The online checklist also contains links to existing digital images from our collection and will be updated as new images are added. If you have any questions, comments, or are interested in obtaining reproductions from the collection, please Ask A Librarian.
To date, over 6000 sheets are online in the following states: AK, AL, AZ, CA, CT, DC, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MO, MS, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NV, OH, PA, TX, VA, VT, WY and Canada, Mexico, Cuba sugar warehouses, and U.S. whiskey warehouses.
 The Genealogical Society of Southwestern Pennsylvania makes the following comment:
We recently were given many historical documents related to Washington, PA and the Washington Fuel and Oil Company. These include deeds, mortgages, insurance documents and others. Some of the surnames on these documents are Bolton, McCollister,Gilmore, Baker, Meyers, Ecker, Bedillion, Hatfield and Price. Contact the society if interested. The Kennedy Mine Foundation Mining Archive
Holdings include many of the records from 1886 through 1942, the 56 years of continuous operation by the last company to own the mine. They cover personnel records, operations, maps of the underground workings, plans for on-site facilities, letters to and from the Kennedy Mine, legal actions, ore quality and quantity, financial balance sheets, and purchases of supplies, land and other mines. Also photos of the operations from the 1870s to the present and fire insurance maps of the facility at various times during its operation. 
Personnel records include Payroll ledgers, applications, accident reports, California insurance, as well as other miscellaneous documents. 
There are bound volumes of copies of the letters from the Kennedy Mine Superintendent to the Mine Board as well as all other letters he sent. Of particular interest are the Superintendent's view of accidents at the Mine and the Mine's legal liability in them. They provide a narrative of progress from a marginal financial gamble, through wildly successful times, then decades of eking out a marginal living, and finally government-mandated shutdown. 
There are a few records of operation of the mine prior to 1886, and perhaps extending back to the 1860s. 
The Kennedy Mine Archive also has documents and pictures relating to the mine after it was no longer in operation, from 1942 to the present. This includes about 10 years of ownership by its last Superintendents, 33 years by Sybil Arata, and 10 years by the Kennedy Mine Foundation.
I think you can begin to see the variety of places that insurance documents may be found.

Selected Bibliography

  • African American Genealogy Part IX: Wills, Deeds, and Insurance Policies.” Accessed June 25, 2015.
  • Catlin, Peter. “UMW LibGuides. Genealogy. Websites and Databases.” Accessed June 25, 2015.
  • History of Insurance.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, December 23, 2014.
  • Slavery & Insurance Examining Slave Insurance in a World 150 Years Removed.” Accessed June 25, 2015.

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