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Guide to Historical Maps in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center

A guide to the types and uses of historical maps in SCARC's collections

Maps by Use

Historical maps can be put to diverse and myriad uses by researchers with a wide variety of interests.

Maps, such as Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, can help genealogists better understand the cities, towns, or neighborhoods in which their ancestors lived and worked. Similarly, land ownership maps, such as Metsker atlases and plat maps, list the names of the land owners.

Historical maps such as topographs, aerials, and surveys - when combined with more recent data, such as GIS data - can help researchers chart the environmental history of a location, and/or make arguments about urban development patterns.

Historical maps  (e.g. topographic maps, aerials) – when paired with historical land use statistics – can help identify and assess changes in land use, and connect those to local, regional and global changes in the natural and built environment.

Lastly, historical maps allow us to see through the eyes of those who drew them, to come a little closer to understanding and seeing the world as they saw it. Perhaps their function as time machine is what makes maps such an alluring historical resource.


It's worth noting that several map collections in SCARC's holdings appear across multiple tabs, and can be put to a wide variety of research uses. Those collections include the:

  • Metsker's Atlases of Oregon Counties, 1929-1988: Our Metsker collection includes one or more atlases for all 36 Oregon counties. In addition to property boundaries, property ownership, and donation land claims, the maps in this collection show roads, railroads, streams, bodies of water, and schools.
    • Uses: Beyond the their utility in determining historical property ownership, the inclusion of property boundaries inside and outside of city centers proves the usefulness of Metskers for research on historical use and urban growth as well.
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Oregon, 1879-1956: Our collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps includes detailed maps of 178 towns and cities in Oregon, depicting structures in both business and residential areas. All types of structures are represented, including homes, apartments, and boarding houses; churches; schools, courthouses, community halls, parks, playgrounds, and other public facilities; warehouses, factories, mills, dryers, canneries, and creameries; retail stores, banks, and other businesses; and garages, barns, and sheds. The maps provide detailed information about lumber and saw mills and log ponds. Information about streets and railroads as well as the water system and fire department for each municipality are provided on the maps.
    • A boon to genealogists interested in learning more about the time and communities in which their ancestors lived, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps can help researchers chart the growth of urban centers, or investigate a wide variety of statistical / demographic research questions (e.g. churches or saloons per capita at a given point in the past).
  • Aerial Photographs of Benton, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, and Polk Counties, 1936-1979: This collection is comprised of aerial photographs taken by, or under contract with, the United States Department of Agriculture from 1936 to 1979 and includes images of 5 counties in western Oregon: Benton, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, and Polk. The collection contains photo mosaics and partial sets of photographic tiles for each county. This collection is being digitized, and is available online in Oregon Digital.
    • With a bird's eye, photographic view of the land below, aerial photographs provide a literal snap shot of a geographic place at a specific point in time, supporting land use, anthropogenic change, and urban growth research.