House History Hunting (A how to)
So you bought an old house and now that you have recovered from the initial shock (and think you have some time on your hands), you want to know what idiot could have possibly put up the Masonite panelling over a door or who poured cement down your chimney. You might want to know who scratched the beautiful woodwork in the hall or who painted that duck egg green color in every room but have no idea where to begin. Here is a "how to" starter guide. Once you head down this path though, you may find that you become addicted to research. You may also discover a few things that you don't really want to know as well so be careful what you wish for!
Start with your deed. It will have the name of the people that you bought the place from on it. It may also have an unusual legal description. Ours had a very old and unusual legal description it read "lot number 8 on the plat of lots attached to the will of S.D. Edgar" and so I went about researching S. D. Edgar. Your deed should also have a reference number on it that will lead you to the previous deed or document. Next you go to the county building where deeds are recorded and ask to look at the old deed records. Someone will help you. The old deeds are most likely stored on microfiche cards so you will have to learn how to research those. Once you find the recorded deed that proceeded yours, you can find the one before that one and so on until you get back to about 1920 in most cases. Before then they didn't always reference the previous deed so, if your house is older than the reference system in your county you will have ask where the oldest deed records are kept. Here in Dayton they are stored in a completely different building and recorded in huge books in hand written script with an ink pen. Most of these deed books have a set of indexes (completely separate set of books) by buyer and seller and are grouped by years. You would simply look for the name of the seller on your oldest deed to see if there are any records associated with that name. In our case with S.D. Edgar there are dozens and maybe even more than a hundred real estate transactions starting in the 1830s and continuing until his death in 1874. After that there are even more as his estate was liquidated and I haven't even scratched the surface looking at them.
What you have now is a bunch of names and a time frame for when they owned in your house. This doesn't mean that they lived in your house, they owned it. So, go to your main library and see if they have old street directories. Be aware that old directories may be indexed by name and not street name. In the directories before 1913 you may find listings by names of people only. After they were listed by street as well. You may find that your house was occupied by someone other than is named on your deed. While at the library you can look in the genealogy department at some of the old maps, atlases and biography books to see if you can find your house or the names of people who lived there. You may want to look in biographies from adjacent counties too. People tended not to move very far and when they did it was generally associated with work and where jobs were available. Most people were not adventurous. For example, my own family arrived in the U.S. in 1753 from Amsterdam arriving in Philadelphia, Pa. By 1930 they had migrated as far west as Pittsburgh, Pa and my grandfather grew up in nearby Punxetawney. So I come from long line of great explorers and well respected groundhogs as you can tell!
The library should have copies of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps and they may have aerial photographs that reveal things to you also.
Now that you have some names, you can be real creepy you can go and find them in the cemetery. This can actually be fruitful because many people tended to buried in family plots. These yield married names and often a recent interment will list names of surviving children. Descendants often have photographs! This is how I found all of our old photos. Since you now have a date of death, you can then search the obituaries in the paper which may yield more names or tell you a little about the person.
Now, if you have gone this far then you can be classified as addicted and join the ranks of people like me who never stop looking for information. Your next step will be to get involved with your neighborhood association and then your local government because these often played a role in the history of your home. After that happens you will be involved in all kinds of civic meetings and have no time left to work on your house. People will be wowed by your knowledge about the development of your neighborhood and your collection of maps and photographs without realizing that it all started because you wanted to know who pissed on your bathroom floor leaving that stench in the wood!
Just so you realize there is a darker side of house history research. We can be pretty certain that at least 7 people have died in our house or near it. The youngest was a newborn, another was a 4 year old girl. Charles Edgar was 26 and died of convulsions. Sam Edgar died in the house (paralyzing stroke) and so did Elizabeth Volkenand (cancer). The last one was a suicide in the basement (2000) that people were happy to disclose after we bought the place.
I was inspired to write this because of an email that I received from someone at THIS SITE that reproduces historic maps. I have all the maps that they produce regarding our house but thought that the information may help other folks out there in blog-reader-land. You may want to check and see if they have any maps for your county or birds-eye view paintings for your city.