Whether you live in a sprawling mansion, a quaint cottage or a modern split-level, your home is historic — it has a story to tell, no matter its age. The story of the people who owned the home or its land before you can be an interesting one to uncover.
Upstairs, Downstairs. Before you delve into documents, look around the house — the structure itself may yield more clues about its former inhabitants than you expect. Elaborate woodwork may point to an original owner who was a carpenter. A servant’s staircase could indicate that the family had live-in help, while a sink in the attic could mean they took in boarders. And a suspiciously missing panel of stained glass could point to a resident’s childhood baseball mishap.
Yes In-Deed. Your property deed is the next step to finding out more about the history of your house. Use the most recent deed number to do a search at your local recorder of deeds office and page back through the decades, noting names of previous owners. This search can also give you an idea of when your home was built and whether there were additional outbuildings on the property. Today’s patio may have been yesterday’s garage, or the neighbor’s lot could once have been part of your property.
Expand the Family Tree. You can then use Ancestry.com to explore your list of previous property owners. Create a family tree for each owner, or simply browse available records. U.S. Census data can often tell you the profession, nationality, marital status, and number of children for prior occupants of your home. These records can also tell you whether the family had live-in household help and who the neighbors were.
Your Ancestry.com search can lead you to military draft cards, ship passenger lists and immigration records. This information will help you construct a more vivid picture of the individuals who once walked your halls, climbed your stairs and cooked in your kitchen.
Go Local. Armed with this information, you can then use local resources, such as newspaper archives, city directories and image repositories, to further investigate your former occupants.
You may very well end up with a veritable orchard of family trees, all originating in your humble abode.
—Melanie Linn Gutowski