(+) Tracing the History of Your House
The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
Perhaps you have spent a lot of effort studying your family’s history. However, have you ever considered studying the history of the family’s home – either the home in which you live or perhaps the ancestral home in which your parents or grandparents lived? To be sure, many families may have lived in the same house, sharing the joys and tragedies of family life throughout the years. Are you curious who they were and perhaps what their experiences were? Who built your house? When was it built, and by whom? What did it cost? Who were the previous owners and residents? What did the interior and exterior originally look like? Those questions can usually be answered by a bit of investigation. In fact, you can create a social genealogy: facts about the owners and residents of the house.
House research is quite similar to genealogy research, often looking at the same records: old maps, deeds, and books. Through research, you can discover who lived in your home and probably what they did for a living. In short, you become a house detective.
The most important stage in tracing the history of your house will be preparing a research plan. Adopting a methodical approach will yield far better results and allow you to pursue key facts. The search is much like a genealogy research project: always start with yourself. Gather the paperwork from your purchase of the home. What are the names of the former owners? How long did they live there?
Next, talk to local people. Your neighbors can be valuable sources of information if they lived in the neighborhood before your arrival. They may even have photographs of the house, possibly including photographs of previous owners. Real estate agents can be valuable sources of information; they almost always have photographs of properties they have listed in past years. However, you need to be sensitive that the real estate agent’s job is to sell houses, not to answer questions from hobbyists. Keep your questions brief so as to minimize your intrusion into the real estate agent’s work day.
Next, you can move to official records. The local Registry of Deeds can provide the names of previous owners as well as descriptions or drawings of the property lines. Look in the lists of Grantors and Grantees. (Grantors are those who sold the property; grantees are the buyers.) You also may need to find out more about the local community. Village and town lines may have been redrawn as areas were developed. Has the street or house changed its name (or number)? Do street names reflect an important event or landowner?
As in genealogy work, census records will provide valuable information. In many cases, you can identify the residents of a house in 1940 or before in the U.S. census records. In older records, house numbers are not common, and the enumerators (census takers) did not always record street names. You may want to study the enumeration districts; even where street names are absent, each enumerator provided geographic descriptions of the districts covered.
City Directories are perhaps even better than census records, when available. Unlike the federal censuses, city directories were typically published annually or biannually. They always list the street, as well as the house number if house numbering had been created.
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