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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Where did your ancestors live? -- An Introduction to parcel maps

Sanborn Insurance Map of Provo Utah, 1908
My recently post on cadastral mapping points out an interesting fact: local tax records usually indicate where and when people lived in a particular place. Since determining the exact location of an event in an ancestor's life is often crucial in determining his or her identity, any resource that can give an exact location is invaluable.

My early experience with these important records was in researching town records in Rhode Island. I found that most of the documents associated with land or land transfers were in these records. In a quick search on, I find only six collections of digitized town records. So most of these records, at least on, are still available only on microfilm. A search on shows more town related documents, with over 600 falling in this category.

Beginning in 1867, the Sanborn Map Company began publishing insurance maps of cities in the United States. There are various collections online. The map above comes from a collection at the University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library. There are over 660,000 of these maps available, many online. The largest collections of these maps are in the Library of Congress and online. Search for "fire insurance maps" on Google.

The corresponding maps for the rural part of the United States are on "county atlases." These maps can be quite detailed and show individual parcels and ownership. For example, the Map Collection of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum CommissionBureau of Archives and History, Pennsylvania State Archives contains Pennsylvania County Atlases and Maps from the 1850s-1870s.  Here is an example showing the individual property owners:

Map #334 - Map of Bradford County, Pennsylvania, 1858 Published by Wm. J. Barker, Philadelphia. J. M. Edsall, Assistant Publisher
You can download these maps and zoom in and see the individual lot owners.

Another way to approach this research is by searching in the online records maintained by individual counties. These are usually maintained by county recorders and/or assessors. There is a portal to these records maintained by Nationwide Environmental Title Research, LLC. For example, using their Public Records Online Directory, I clicked on Utah, then Utah County and found the website for the Utah County Recorder online. Within seconds, I found the chain of title to my own property in Provo. These records contained a legal description of the entire subdivision development. Here is an example of a legal description from that source:
Legal Description: COM N 40'48"W 1063.12 FT & E 405.72 FT FR SW COR SEC 29, T6S, R3E, SLM; 60.98 FT ALONG ARC OF 402.60 FT RAD CUR L (CHD N 6 DEG 54'33"E 60.92 FT); N 2 DEG 34'12"E 18.48 FT; ALON ARC 300 FT R CUR T L (CHD N 5 DEG 36'08"W 85.29 FT); ALONG ARC 20 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 28 DEG 43'08"E 27.02 FT); ALONG ARC 269.5 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 71 DEG 33'17"E 3.22 FT); ALONG ARC 269.5 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 80 DEG 37'02"E 81.64 FT); N 89 DEG 19'12"E 186.9 FT; S 40'48"E 182.35 FT; N 88 DEG 27'42"E 199.63 FT; S 40'48"E 21.34 FT; S 89 DEG 19'12"W 485.31 FT TO BEG. AREA 1.36 ACRES.
This brings up another issue. In many cases, to interpret the land records you find, you will need to know how to read the legal descriptions and further, how to place those descriptions on a larger map. Very often, the county will include a way to look at the parcels and ownership. Here is an example from the Utah County Parcel Map:

Early land acquisition records in the United States are also a valuable genealogical source. In future posts, I will explain how to read the above legal description and others both recent and historical. I will also explore some of the other detailed land records in the United States dating back to the times of the earliest settlers. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm new to your blog and I'm loving the map discussions. Looking forward to more!