Sunday, August 22, 2010

Online New England Maps from the Boston Public Library

Maps are a great tool for house researchers, especially when dealing with missing records or those that are hard to find.  Maps can show old, out of use historical names for local places, changing borders, or land owners from past centuries.  They can be just the thing you need to get your research back on track when you’ve hit a stumbling block.
 A great collection of maps with a New England focus is available online from the Boston Public Library.  The maps in the physical collection are a combination of the Norman B. Leventhal collection and the Boston Public Library’s collection.  The library has a collection of 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases dating as far back as the 15th century.   There are many maps online showing Boston, Massachusetts and New England.
From the main page select the View Collection link at the top.  You can explore the collection by location, subject, publisher, date or projection.   There are also some highlights to get you started in case your can’t decide.  Try out the link for maps and charts of Colonial New England and Colonial Boston to give you a flavor of the collection.
With a quick search I discovered the online collection has 255 maps of Massachusetts, 30 of New Hampshire, 45 of Rhode Island, 35 of Connecticut, 21 of Vermont and 59 of Maine. 
Try searching for the name of your town.  I found two bird’s eye view maps of Medway, Massachusetts dating to 1887.  The Medway Historical Society sells large reproduction copies of these.  There were 8 maps of Bristol County, Massachusetts starting with 1852 and ending with 1884.  There are also nice bird’s eye view maps from 1881 of Guilford, Wallingford and Chester, Connecticut.
You can zoom in to get details view of the maps or you can download them for non-commercial use.
Try it out and you just may find a view of your house from the 19th century.
The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library can be found online at

Friday, August 20, 2010

House Histories in Westport, MA

Last night I had the pleasure of presenting a talk to the Westport, Massachusetts Historical Society. The talk was called “Researching the History of Your House.” I like to customize house history talks by using a local historical home as the example to demonstrate the key points of my talk. Last night I used 42 Prospect Avenue at Westport Point as the centerpiece.

42 Prospect Ave
Residents of Westport are very lucky to come from a town with many historical homes. According to public record there are 342 single family homes built between 1850-1900, 48 built between 1800 – 1849 and 30 built between 1700 – 1799. [Please note that years assigned by public record can vary from that of completed historical inventory survey forms and other sources.]

Westport residents also benefit from the support of an active historical society. When starting to research the history of your home be sure to visit the local historical society to make use of the many resources that will help you in your search. The historical society has historical land ownership maps, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps as well as copies of the historical inventory forms that were completed for the Westport Historical Commission. The society also has a collection of books that can be helpful in your research.

Without stepping foot in the society building you can benefit from the tremendous resources available on the society website. The Society has put online a searchable database of its entire collection of photographs, postcards and archives. Many years worth of town records have also been transcribed and are available online. Perhaps the owner of your home was noted in these records as having been elected a fence viewer, warden or tithing man in 1790. There is so much online at the society website that you’ll even find a separate section for online photo albums.

You can also stroll down a visual memory lane by viewing the online Lees Market Collection. Here you will find many postcards from yesteryear.

Meanwhile from the Westport Historical Commission website you can access a recently added cemetery database compiled by volunteers. If you are a historic home owner, you will also find many files on the site that are particular to being in a historic district, demolition bylaws, and historic inventory lists.

A good way to quickly get started on researching the history of your house is to check to see if a historical inventory survey form (previously mentioned above) has been already completed. Each survey form contains a photo of the historic home (at the time the survey was completed), as well as information on the approximate date built, a list of architectural details, and a description of its historical significance. Some forms contain more information than others but at the very least you should be able to obtain an older photo of your home. If you don’t want to wait to view the hard copies at the historical society, head to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) to search for a copy online. Photos and pdfs of the forms have recently been added to the site.

When you are ready to start researching the deeds to your property you can go online to the Bristol County South Registry of Deeds. Indexed deeds are currently available (as of August 2010) back to 1978. You can also search by book and page number back to 1999. Need a more hands on approach? Head over to the Registry at 25 North 6th Street in New Bedford. They are open 8:00am – 4:30pm, Monday through Friday.