History begins at home

I have been known to write that genealogy begins at home. I had meant that one should talk with the elder members of the family to record oral history and find out as much as possible. This becomes the soundest basis for genealogy. Start from the known and work toward the unknown.

However, I am increasing becoming aware of another meaning. Many people who have purchased old homes and are restoring them want to develop the building's history. This, at first glance, appears to be a reasonably simple task. Maybe so, maybe not. One would think that real estate, having intrinsic worth would be easy to track as the property is bought and sold, titles change, transactions are recorded.

My first (somewhat distant) experience with this is from my daughter and son-in-law who recently purchased an old two-story wood frame house that serves both as a veterinary clinic and a home. Upon inspecting the place, I noticed hand-hewed floor joice, visible from the basement. Anndrea, my daughter, said yes that she had been told that the house might have been built around 1850 or earlier. I was skeptical.

Anndrea was off and running. Before she was done, she had drafted the (free) services of a historical architect whom her mother knew and they were searching the files at the local county court house and the county historical society. She had built-in resources when she needed them. Her mother worked for a land surveying company and knew her way around county courthouse records, and her father was hooked on genealogy. Anndrea was able to establish the line of ownership and then able to review county histories and other reference materials to learn a little about the owners who came before them. She also learned that the town used to have another name and that is was formed largely because it was out about one day's travel by horse and wagon from Indianapolis. This humble origin, starting as a place to stop, became a place to find shelter, buy goods, and to worship. Those providing these needs, of course, lived there, and another town was born. Their clinic and home had a long history as a religious meeting house and later, a parsonage for an early church. The back porch of their house had been made from lumber from a church that had been abandoned after a newer church had been constructed.

Their veterinary clinic waiting room now sports a framed history of the house, tracing from the initial land purchase from the federal government in 1835, through the period of early settlement, to their current ownership. In neat concise manner, it tracks the list of owners, and provides a little information on each. It also includes an early 1900s photo of the house with a white picket fence and elderly Victorian ladies posed in the front yard.

If you are interested in tracking down the history of an old home or other structure, the process is similar to traditional genealogy. Recent real estate transactions are the starting point (not unlike starting with living relatives) and you search the court house records back into time. If you have been lucky and the "old court house" hasn't burnt down (destroying the old record you need so badly), you may get to the point where the land was deeded by the federal government to an individual. Herein lies the problem. Early real estate transaction records usually record the transfer of fairly large parcels of land, e.g. 40, 80 or 160 acres, but may make little or no mention of buildings on the land. If buildings were mentioned, they may simply be mentioned in a passing way referencing that the sale included the buildings, without describing either the building or the building locations.

If the property is rural, you should look at old plat maps for the county. They will give "snapshots in time" of not only property ownership, but also who the neighbors were, and help determine if the property owner also owned other land in the area, or perhaps had relatives in the area that owned land. Check the county histories. They include not only a lot of biographical history, but also county and township histories that may provide some interesting stories to establish the setting for the old building. Also, you might be lucky. Some histories have beautiful renditions of prominent farms, factories, stores, banks, schools, of the period. Perhaps your property will be included.

In preparing the write up for the building, you can help the reader gain a sense of perspective by relating it to better known events of the same time period. For example, it may have been built around the time of the Black Hawk War, or when Indians still roamed Knox County, occasionally startling women and children by abruptly walking into the yard or even the house, unannounced and uninvited. In more recent periods, look for published historical photographs of the area, and check your local library for newspaper photos or articles, if something of significance may have occurred in the area. Perhaps you will find that Lincoln once slept there (he had to sleep somewhere).

You may also want to look at published literature to learn about the design of the structure. Is it Victorian? Does it look like it has been modified and if so, what would it likely have looked like before modification. Is restoration to its original form consistent with your desires and uses?

But be prepared for a couple of almost certainties. You will not be able to answer all the questions that you have. If you are enjoying the research, new questions should pop up for every one you answer. And the work will take more time and more effort than you expected. Also, to save time and reduce errors, photocopy when possible, to include the title page of books and record the library call number and the name of the library.

Finally, if you don't have an old home with a long lineage, you can still start the lineage, with photos of construction, if you built the house, or by recording relevant information. When was the house built? Who built it? Who were the previous owners (if any)? What was the land used for before it became "developed" and who had owned it?

Posted to Zephyr Online March 8, 1999
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