Researching Land Use

By Ben Boulden

If you don't have money to hire an abstract and land title company to research the land use history of a particular piece of real property, the Fort Smith Public Library has some free resources that might help you do it yourself.

On microfilm, the library has copies of the fire insurance maps that were created and upated by the D.A. Sanborn Co. beginning in the 1860s. It also has copies of old city directories on microfilm. The library's entire collection of directories has not been filmed, but all of them remain in the holdings of the genealogy room in hard copy.

Sanborn designed the maps to assist fire insurance agents in determining the degree of risk associated with a specific property. As an outgrowth of this purpose, the maps diagram all kinds of information about city buildings and uses to which they and the land they are on were put. The library's copies of the maps document changes to a property over time in use and in physical structure and layout. Sanborn maps are unrivaled as sources of information about the histories of residences and commercial structures.

Another good source is the library's collection of city directories. Most of these contain a street index which gives information about properties and their occupants. The index is in order by street name and within a street listing in order by address number.

A city directory will only list the occupants for a particular year. If someone or some business was at an address between publications of a directory, then it will be difficult to find them. Also, there are some gaps in the library's collection of directories. Still, the directories can be helpful.

For example, I was researching what was at a particular address on Rogers Avenue. Not only did the directory give me a good approximation as to when a business first located at the address, it also gave me an idea of what was around it at different times. When this information was conveyed to the business' owner, it cleared up some confusion as to what she had been told by various people. What she had been told the property was used for in the early 1950s was actually what some nearby property was used for and not the site in question.

Beyond these sources, the Sebastian County Assessor's office has title history information on file and these are documents subject to public use and access. Also, the library has copies of the Sebastian County atlases published in 1887 and 1903, which give some information about land use as well. The 1903 atlas does contain some inaccuracies in its text so it's best to doublecheck anything in it that is of importance to you. I believe the diagrams are reasonably accurate though.