When you reach the point in your family history research at which you’d like to start writing some sort of narrative, you might turn your attention to house genealogy.
That’s because as a writer, you can only get so far with vital statistics. Weaving them into a a story about your ancestors’ lives and times cries out for context. If you’re lucky and an ancestor’s former address is still standing, you can really add to your research by learning its story.
Imagine knowing exactly how the house was constructed, how big the yard was, how many neighbors lived on the street, what the view was from the front-room window. It’s possible to learn these things.
Of course, a lot of people, myself included, become curious about old houses because they live in them. Sometimes house history helps an owner undo decades of neglect or bad remodeling. Sometimes it’s just fun.
Here are some basic resources I’ve enjoyed exploring in researching houses:
Tax records. The ultimate starting point for determining a chain of ownership. Tax assessment data will give you the owner of record (though this might not necessarily be the person who actually lived in the house). My town library has the massive yearly property survey books, including lot numbers, assessed values and ownership data. In other places you’d check with city hall.
City directories. Very useful in conjunction with tax records, especially since they can give a more complete view of who actually resided at an address in addition to, or instead of, the owner.
Sanborn (and other) maps. Insurance maps can give amazing details, down to the composition of the roof and the location of windows and doors. They also show a lot of context about the neighborhood, including street layout, schools, churches and nearby businesses. Although Sanborn maps are best known, don’t neglect the possibility that local libraries may hold other detailed historical maps, too.
The University of Maryland offers a houseful of resources for beginning researchers, some of it Maryland-specific, but also a lot of great general information and links.
The New York City Tax Photograph database might actually produce a picture of your ancestor’s house.
Case study: The Smithsonian has a neat presentation about 200 years of history in a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, including tips on being a house detective.
A response to the 52 weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #22: Find-A-Grave.
I can spend hours hanging out at Find-A-Grave, and here they are telling me to poke around on this site as a challenge. Yeah. Right.
Oops! I meant to say, “Wow, tough assignment; I’m just going to have square my shoulders and do my best.”
Find-A-Grave has done fine things for my research. It helped me clarify where my great-great-uncle William’s wife was buried, since they weren’t next to each other. It was also nice to see my dad’s headstone on the site, placed there by a volunteer who has photographed many veterans’ graves in Calverton National Cemetery.
I also get an enormous kick out of finding out which famous people are buried in cemeteries near my hometown. Searching by locale, you can easily pull up a list of cemeteries in your area and browse the entries. There’s always an interesting story or two.
But the most important things I’ve learned from Find A Grave have been in the forums, where regulars congregate to swap tips, pet peeves and general wisdom. For example:
• I know that you will not win any friends by bragging about how the chalk you put on that 18th-century headstone made the inscription clear as day.
• Ditto for whipping out a Sharpie to color in the letters.
• I know that each year, kind volunteers fan out across Woodland Cemetery in Newark, N.J., to record inscriptions and photograph markers. It’s a chance for volunteers to work in a big group with an escort from local police. (Security concerns are a fact of life in many urban burial grounds.)
What’s very interesting, and important for genealogy enthusiasts to know, is that Find-A-Grave is primarily a gathering place for people who love graveyards. Some of them also love genealogy; the two interests often dovetail.
I don’t mean to imply that genealogy queries are unwelcome there — quite the contrary. I’m just saying that when I first found Find-A-Grave, I was thrown for a loop. Why were complete strangers (at least, I think they were strangers) photographing tombstones in my family lines? What was in it for them?
The answer for many really is simple: They get to explore cemeteries and read interesting tombstones. And because so many Find-A-Grave volunteers love what they do, we all gain in our research. Thanks, guys.