Mapping the Past

With Google's now infamous detailed photos, it's rather easy to see how a town is laid out today. But what about 50, 100, or 150 years ago? Where are the maps that show how the towns and counties grew through the years? One excellent source of information is the Sanborn fire insurance maps.

What Are the Sanborn Maps?

From the latter half of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth, the Sanborn Insurance Company made detailed maps of many American cities, including the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Sanborn Insurance Maps clearly document the growth of Fredericksburg and the changes to the city's buildings with regard to their shape, expansion or demolition, as well as their use.

The Central Rappahannock Regional Library holds some local Sanborn maps in paper and microfilm form, but the Library of Virginia also provides an online version of the Virginia maps.
First, a few caveats: the information is not necessarily consistent from map set to map set, and not all years are available. Fredericksburg's listing technically includes "Spottsylvania," but there is very little information about the county on many of maps. Court house records, including deeds, might be a better source of information for certain areas. Furthermore, LVA's online Sanborn Geo Edition has some quirks. MyNotebook, where searches may be collected, is actually a shared notebook with other users in other states. Sent something to yourself? Be sure to check the spam folder. You will need a separate card with the Library of Virginia to use this service.

In addition to the celebrated Sanborn maps….

The Virginiana Room houses an extensive collection of local and regional maps prepared by military engineers serving with the Confederate States Army in the 1860s, including:

  • sets of the official National Park Service time-and-motion maps of the Battle of Fredericksburg
  • a collection of miscellaneous historical maps and plats of Fredericksburg and the surrounding counties
  • a special collection of maps showing the various Prince William and Stafford County cemeteries destroyed during the mid-Twentieth Century expansion of the Quantico Marine Corps Base
  • an extensive collection of the United States Geological Survey topographical maps which cover the CRRL service area—not just the current maps but also older topographical maps

Researchers can also find useful materials at other area libraries. These online guides make preparing for a day of library trolling a more pleasant experience.

A portion the 1683 Alain Mallet map of VirginieOne good place to look is the Virginia Historical Society's online map catalog. Some maps do not appear as online images, but each one is well cataloged to provide useful information for researchers

The Library of Virginia has two pages of particular interest to cartographic researchers. Architectural Drawings and Plans includes a collection guide, mutual assurance society records, photographic collections, a 19th-century public works inventory, and an online catalog.

Their Maps Collection page has the Virginia Historical Inventory (photographs, maps, and detailed reports documenting architectural, cultural, and family histories of thousands of 18th- and 19th-century buildings in communities across Virginia—much of which is online. The Civil War Map Project, created in cooperation with the Library of Congress, contains guides to research, a map collection index, and an index to an 1835-36 Virginia gazetteer.