Sunday, October 31, 2010

Boo! Spooky Historic Houses!

Happy Halloween Everyone!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Save Time: Create a Contact List

One of the first things I do when I start a new house history project is to create a contact list.  A contact list contains the names and contact information for repositories and archives that are likely to have the information I need to complete my project. 

Whether you are researching your own home or that of an ancestral homestead, creating a contact list will make your research easier.  If you research at the registry of deeds and find yourself with extra time, you can use your contact list to choose another location to move on to.

Typical places to include on the contact list are:
  • The Registry of Deeds
  • The Probate Court
  • The local Town/City Hall
  • The local library
  • The local historical society
  • Any relevant museums
Items to include on your contact list are:

  • Name of Location
  • Street location (so you can plug it into your GPS)
  • Phone Number
  • Hours of operation
  • You can also include the web address and relevant email addresses
Here you can see a SAMPLE Contact List for a project that I am working on in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Creating a contact list ahead of time can save you a lot of time.  Keep it handy whenever you go out to do research.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Next Stop - Harwich, MA on Cape Cod!

The New England House Historian is on the road again - this time to Harwich, Massachusetts.  Learn how to research your Greater Boston historic home.  Discover how to research the history of your house using an archival trail of records such as deeds, maps and censuses.    It is free and open to the public.

"Researching The History of Your House"

Presented by the

Time: 2:00 pm EST
Date: Saturday, November 13, 2010
Location: The Brooks Free Library, 739 Main Street, Harwich, Massachusetts

See my website for my complete lecture schedule.

I hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Autumn in New England: Grab a Camera!

Autumn in New England is one of the most picturesque times to take photographs of your house.  Showcase your house in beautiful fall foliage and harvest decorations.  You will capture your home at this moment in time and have a beautiful memory keepsake.

Friday, October 22, 2010

3 Tips for Determining if Your House Was Moved

Do you suspect that your older home was moved  from another location?  Moving homes was fairly common a hundred or more years ago.  They were lifted off of their existing foundations and moved down the road or to another part of town. Another way to move houses is to dismantle them and reconstruct them in another location.  I'll talk about that method in a future post.

Here are three tips that will give you clues as to whether your house was moved or not.

1) Check the basement foundation

If you live in an older home in New England then you will very likely have a fieldstone foundation.  Fieldstone is a foundation made of  large rocks.  If you live in an old home but your foundation is made of bricks, cinder blocks or poured concrete then it very likely was moved.

2) Check for chimneys and fireplaces

Chimneys and fireplaces were and still are very difficult to move intact.  The process of moving them is also very expensive.  For this reason, many chimneys were taken down before a house was moved.  If you have what looks like a very old house but you are lacking in chimneys then your house is a good candidate for having been moved. Also, if you do have chimneys check to see if they are of modern brick in the case that they were rebuilt.

3) Check an old map
Does the feel of your house suggest that is 100 years or older?  If your house was moved then it would be a fairly recent transplant to the land that it sits on.  Look at old maps of your town from before 1920 or whenever you suspect the house was moved.  If a 1900 map shows no house on the land but you think your house was possibly built much earlier then perhaps it was moved. Be careful not consider this as definitive proof.  There could have been another house on the property before yours that was demolished. In that case a house would appear on earlier maps on the same plot of land.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

3 Strategies to Work Around Missing Deeds

You're chaining a deed and you get stuck. There isn't a previous deed reference and you can't find anything in the indexes either. What can you do? Here are three strategies to help you get past these obstacles:

1) Use Land Ownership Maps

While I encourage everyone to start with the present and work backwards in history, sometimes you have to break the rules. Imagine this scenario: You are researching a house built circa 1820 and you successfully trace the deeds to 1880. At that point you get stuck and can't go back any further.

One of the best resources to turn to is Land Ownership maps. Many maps were produced between 1850 and 1880. Check to see if your house, including the landowner's name, is on an earlier map. If it is you can check the indexes in the registry of deeds for that owner. Check for the owner as both grantee (buyer) and grantor (seller).

Read the previous posts I've done on maps online and panoramic maps to help you locate maps.The landownership map above is an F.W. Beers 1874 map of Woodbury, Connecticut (source:

2) Search Probate Records

You could be stuck because previous land transactions transferred in probate rather than in the registry of deeds. This was fairly common when land transferred within the same family.  Locate the appropriate Probate Court in your area and check for records for the last owner you traced in the deeds.  You may get lucky and find the information that will get you back further.

3) Become a Genealogist

A very helpful way to get you out of jams is to learn how to do genealogical research.  In the 19th century and earlier it is common to find land transferring from father to son or other family members.  By doing a little family research using census and vital records you can reconstruct the family of the owner where you got stuck.  Once you determine the name of the father, search the grantor and grantee indexes to see if the father once owned the same house. 

I once got stuck researching the home of Appleton Bragg in Holliston, MA.  I couldn't find a previous deed reference nor could I find him listed as a grantee.  By determining that his father was Arial Bragg I was able to find the deed where Arial had purchased the property before selling it to his son.

Still stumped?  Describe to me your situation and I'll see if I can come up with more suggestions.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Come meet me at the Boston Public Library on Wednesday

The New England House Historian is headed to the Boston Public Library.  Learn how to research your Greater Boston historic home.  Discover how to research the history of your house using an archival trail of records such as deeds, maps and censuses.    It is free and open to the public.

"Researching The History of Your House"

Presented by the

Time: 6:30pm EST
Date: Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Location: The Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St., Boston, Massachusetts

See my website for my complete lecture schedule.

I hope to see you there!

Friday, October 15, 2010

House Tidbits Hidden Away in Local Town Histories

Local town history books can be a great source for information when you are researching the history of your house.  Towards the end of the 19th century town and county history books were very popular.  Many were created and you will likely find one, the other or both for your area.

Local town history books not only provide history of town events, they often also included biographies of current  residents and genealogies of the founding families. Though you might not expect it, these items can provide a wealth of details for your research.
For example, consider the book Swampscott [MA]: Historical Sketches of the Town by Waldo Thompson (1885).  Following are a number of details I culled from it about local homes and home owners.

Note: items in brackets [ ] are not original text but added to facilitate context.

Philip L. Seger – "came to Swampscott in 1800 and lived at the old farm-house on the Mudge estate. The old elm near was set out in 1740."  (p. 172)

While this doesn't tell you the exact location of the Mudge estate it is probably easy to find out.  If the old farm-house is still there then this helps date it to the early 1800s.  Check to see if the old elm tree still stands.

Ebenezer Weeks – "first came to Swampscott in the year 1805 and lived on what is now the “Rowe” farm."  (p. 173)

Again, no street address but other records or even a different chapter in the same book might reveal where Rowe farm is located.  Rowe farm, if still standing, could go by the same name today.

Captain Nathaniel Blanchard – "When he built his brick house, the first in town, he went out fishing one morning in his dory, caught a load of fish, took them to Boston, sold them, and came home with the dory laden with stone caps, which were placed over the windows in his new house. His widow still lives [in 1885] in the brick house on Humphrey Street."   (p. 174)

It is extremely helpful to know this was the first brick house in town.  And such specifics about the source of architectural detail on the house is a real treasure.  Do you live in the old brick house on Humphrey Street?

William Marshall – "lived in the Marshall House, on the Point. Daniel Webster was at one time his guest." (p. 176)

If you live in the Marshall House on the Point, you would likely be delighted to know that Daniel Webster was once a guest. That would also increase its historical significance.

Deacon James Wheeler – "lived in the only house on Blaney Street at that time [1833 when he was married]. Land on Blaney Street was valued at thirty dollars per acre in 1845, while now (1884) it would cost thousands." (p. 176)

Learning that this house was the first house on Blaney Street is very important.  Knowing the values of land in 1845 vs. 1884 will be of interest to all Blaney Street home owners.

Dr. J.B. Holder – "He built a pretty cottage, with diamond-shaped windows, adjoining what is now [1884] the summer residence of Charles E. Morrison, on Winnepurkitt Hill." (p. 177)

For a home owner who would like to place a marker/plaque on their home, this provides the critical information regarding the first owner/builder.

John Chapman - "a well-known house carpenter; has built many first-class houses during the past forty years." (p. 181)

Though not in reference to any particular house, this is none-the-less helpful in identifying the builder of numerous homes between 1845 and 1885.  If several "John Carpenter" houses can be definitively identified through other records then that can lead to uncovering others by comparing style and architectural details.

Check your local library to see if you can find late 18th century town or county histories for your region. If you've already traced the deeds to your house, then locating the name of a former owner will be easy. You may be able to unearth new details about your own home.

Photo credit:
John Humphrey House, Paradise Road,Swampscott, Massachusetts. HABS,, HABS MASS,5-SWAM,1-

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Taking a Stroll at Old Sturbridge Village

Old Sturbridge Village recreates life in early New England from 1790-1840.  There are 59 historic buildings on 200 acres.  It is an interactive museum where visitors can speak to interpreters of that time period, view antiques, enjoy traditional gardens and see working farms.

If you are an historic home owner one of the best ways to learn about your home is to visit other homes of the same time period. Since Old Sturbridge Village recreates life from early America you can gain insight into how your home may have looked from furnishings to wallpaper and much more.

If you get a chance, take a stroll through Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.  Here are some photos from my trip earlier in the week.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Answers to Yesterday's Skill Challenge

Yesterday I challenged readers to answer 10 questions about an 18th century deed.  If you haven't done it yet read that post first.

The challenge may have been easy for very experienced researchers but might have been a bit of a challenge for someone who has never seen an old deed before.  Tomorrow I will post a full transcription of the deed.

Here are the answers to yesterday's questions:
1.Who is selling the property? The seller of the property is Ichabod Seaver. 

2. Who is buying the property? The buyer of the property is Tisdale Puffer. 

3. Who is the grantee?  The grantee is the person buying the property.  In this case, the grantee is Tisdale Puffer

4. Who is the grantor?  The grantor is the legal term for the person selling the property.  Ichabod Seaver is the grantor on this deed.

The house which Ichabod Seaver sold to Tisdale Puffer in 1795
5. Where is the property located (town, county, state)?  The property is located in Medway, Norfolk County, Massachusetts.

6. Explain the profession of the buyer and seller in modern terms.  Both Ichabod and Tisdale are cordwainers.  The modern term for a cordwainer is a shoemaker.

7. About how many acres does the property contain?  The property contains 14 acres "more or less."

8. How much did the property sell for? The property sold for "one hundred pounds lawful money."

9. Is the house in the East or West part of town? The house is on "a certain tract of improved land lying in the East Parrish in Medway."

10. Bonus: What is Ichabod's wife's name? Ichabod Seaver's wife is named Rebecca spelled in various different ways in the document

So how did you on the skill test?  Let me know in the comment field

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Test Your Skills on an 18th Century Deed

Have you ever seen an 18th century deed? They look a little different than deeds of today. Old deeds can be tricky mostly because of the old style handwriting being used.

The deed below dates to 1795. Click on the image to enlarge it. (In image view click on the image again for the original size.) The original was on two pages and I cut and pasted it to appear on one page.

See if you can answer the following questions about the deed. If you can, try to transcribe the deed. Tomorrow I will post the answers and the next day the full transcription.


1.Who is selling the property?
2. Who is buying the property?
3. Who is the grantee?
4. Who is the grantor?
5. Where is the property located (town, county, state)?
6. Explain the profession of the buyer and seller in modern terms.
7. About how many acres does the property contain?
8. How much did the property sell for?
9. Is the house in the East or West part of town?
10. Bonus: What is Ichabod's wife's name?

Good luck!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Headed to Swampscott in October

The New England House Historian is headed to Swampscott, MA in October.  Learn how to research the history of your house using an archival trail of records such as deeds, maps and censuses.  I will be using a local Swampscott house as an example during the talk. If you are in the Swampscott area stop by.  It is free and open to the public.

"Researching The History of Your House"

Presented by the Swampscott Public Library

Time: 7:00pm EST
Date: Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Location: The Swampscott Public Library, 61 Burrill Street, Swampscott, Massachusetts

See my website for my complete lecture schedule.

I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Discovering Occupations in Deeds

Deeds, can at times, appear like pretty dry reading. Yet deeds are crucial to your house history research. Part of what you are trying to accomplish with your research is to "flesh out" the lives of the people who lived in your home. By taking a closer look at deeds you will find some wonderful clues that will help you.

One aspect of social history that you can glean from old deeds are the occupations of the parties involved in the sale. Perhaps the former owner of your house was a blacksmith, a doctor or a minister. Not only will this information provide you an idea of what their lives were like it could also help you find other sources for information.

Let's take a look at three examples (click on the image to enlarge).  I have underlined the names of the parties in yellow and the names of the occupations in orange.  Only a portion of each deed is shown.
These particular deeds are from the 18th century but I've seen occupations in 19th century deeds as well.

1. In the first deed from 1793, the grantor, Jenckes Norton of Wrentham (Massachusetts) is identified as a Physician.  The grantee, George Hawes, also of Wrentham, is indicated as a Gentleman.  These "occupations" indicate that both men were educated.  More information might be discovered in university records, and in the case of the doctor, medical boards.

2. In this deed, Barnabas Clark of Randolph (Massachusetts), the grantor, is called a Gentleman.  Meanwhile Benjamin Howard of Randolph , the grantee, is a cordwainer.  A cordwainer is a old style term for a shoe maker.  Clark is educated and of independent means while Howard is a tradesman who likely knows how to read and write but little more.

3. In the final example from 1754, William Hathorne, the grantor, of Salem (Massachusetts) is identified as a mariner.  The grantee, Joseph Goldthwait, of Danvers (Massachusetts) is a yeoman. Yeoman was the term at the time for a farmer.  So here you have a deed where a sailor is selling his property to a farmer.

As you are checking the deeds to your home, be sure to look for the occupations of the occupants.  It could give you a whole new image of what the former residents were like.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Top 10 Places to Find Old Photos of Your House

One of the most fun aspects of researching the history of your house is viewing old photos of it from yesteryear.  Old photos can reveal what color your house used to be and alert you to any alterations or additions that have been made.  Here are some of the best places to look for photos.

1. Your Local Historical Society
When people clean out their parents' estates or move from town they often leave their archive of local photos at the town historical society.  Your local society may have large collections of photos of homes and buildings in your town through the years.

2. Images of America books
Arcadia Publishing puts out several series of local history books most of which are photographically based. The Images of America series features old photos of individual towns and cities.  Many towns in New England have books specific to them.  You will find many photos of old homes in the series and many even find a photo of yours!  These are often for sale at your historical society or can be viewed at your library.

3. Neighbors
New to town and looking for photos of your house?  Check with your neighbors.  Maybe they didn't set out to take a photo of your house but they might just have one anyway. Photos could have been taken of the neighborhood kids or from a neighborhood block party and your house could be in the background.  See who has lived in your neighborhood the longest and ask them to check their photo albums.

4. Former Owners
The people who used to live in your home are very likely to have old photos of your house.  The trick is tracking them or their children or grandchildren down to get copies of the photos.  Do a little detective work or ask your neighbors for contact information.  Send them a polite and non-intrusive letter to ask for the photos.  Be sure to offer to pay for copies if they can't make scans.

5. The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
If you have an older, significant house there may be a photo available on the HABS section of the Library of Congress website.  HABS originated as a Works Project Administration effort to put architects and photographers to work by surveying historical homes in the 1930s.  Each HABS file includes a photo or schematic which will show you what your home looked many years ago.

6. Local History Books
Don't rely on just old photo books for images of your house.  Local history books, whether specific to your town or county, may also have images or drawings of your home from years ago.  Peruse the local history section of your library stacks to find these books, some of which were published in the late 1800s.

7. Local Library History Room
Some libraries have their own local history rooms set aside for historical town collections.  You could go to your library for years and not know that they have a local history room if you've never asked.  Often these rooms are locked and require sign in.  The local history room can contain many different types of collections including, old newspapers, tax records, and old photos.

8. Old Newspapers
It might take a bit more work if there isn't an index available but old newspapers can provide old photos of your house too.  Is your house located near the town center?  Your home could be featured in photographs of town parades or highlights of holiday decorations on the Fourth of July, Halloween or Christmas.  If you live in an area that floods your house could be featured in an expose after a 100 year flood.

9. Real Estate Listing Sheets and Ads
If your house has been sold a number of times in the past 20 years there may be lots of old photos of your home.  Check with a local real estate agent and ask them to print out the listing sheets for all the previous sales of your home.  Keep in mind that listings have only been computerized in the last 10 years or so.  However, some historical societies (Dover, MA for example) have files of printed copies of listings that can go back earlier.  Also, before computers, advertisements, sometimes even full page, were taken out in local magazines and newspapers.  These could also be good sources for old photos of your house.

10. Historical Commission Survey Sheets
During the 1970s and 1980s local historical commissions started surveying the historical properties in each town.  Most survey forms include a photograph.  Check your local library for a copy of the survey sheets.  If you can find them, check with the state historical commission or preservation office.

Having success finding old photos of your house?  Send me a note and let me know.  I would love to hear your stories of where you found them and how old the photos are.