The following post is a copy of a magazine article I wrote for the Sept/Oct 2013 issue of "Family Chronicle Magazine." At the end of the post you will find instructions for researching deeds to create a house history. Elizabeth
FINDING JOHN AND HANNAH’S HOUSE
One of my passions is researching and photographing the homes of my ancestors. The opportunity to see where an ancestor lived can be an extraordinary and emotional experience.
When I learned through census research that John and Hannah Clark, my maternal great-great grandparents, owned a home in the hill town of Buckland, Massachusetts, I set out to find the property.
While the 1870 federal census showed that John and Hannah were residing in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1870, the 1880 census found them in Buckland. Apparently, the family had purchased the Buckland property between the two census years. This gave me a starting point to begin my research.
Utilizing the “old” grantor index at the Franklin County Registry of Deeds, I quickly found a deed transferring the property from the Clark’s to George Crittenden on 22 September 1879 for two hundred dollars. The deed for a subsequent transfer was executed five days later from Crittenden back to the Clark’s for $235!
The next sale of the property occurred in 1882 from John and Hannah to Christian Adler for four hundred dollars. My search for Christian Adler in the grantor index did not produce an entry for him. However, a further research of the grantor index showed that a transfer for a Buckland property from an Adler family occurred in 1927. A cursory examination of the deed showed that the children of Christian Adler transferred the property to their sibling William and his wife Grace Adler. I was certain this transfer was for the correct property since the deed noted: “The above premises were formerly owned by our father and mother Christian Adler and Anna May Adler.”
Apparently, William Adler had passed by 1951. By way of a deed executed on 9 Oct 1951, Grace Adler and Pearl Ledger became joint tenants of the property. I performed a search for Pearl Ledger’s name and found yet another transfer of title to both Pearl and her husband Harry W. Ledger. The next transfer of title was from Pearl Ledger to Robert Ledger. This deed contained a house number and street! Since street names change and numbers are reassigned, I continued to move forward in the grantor index to the current owner of the property to confirm the addresses matched. Once done, I was confident I had found John and Hannah’s place.
However, I wanted further confirmation that this was the former Clark residence. Indeed, an online search of street directories produced a result for Christian Adler residing at the same address recorded in the Ledger deed. I had found John and Hannah’s place!
Several weeks later, I made a trip to Buckland with my newly discovered information in hand. Fortunately, the old house was still standing. The house was a plain two story structure, typical of the company housing in that era. The adjacent housing was similar and appeared to be of the same vintage. It was interesting to note that the cutlery where my g-g-grandfather had once worked was located the bottom of the hill on the other side of the railroad tracks, which are mentioned in the description in the deed.
Seeing where John and Hannah lived gave me a better context in which to write my narrative history of this family and as I snapped the photo of the house, I felt as if I had stepped into their world for a moment.
Genealogy is about reconstructing families in their historical context. Knowledge of their occupation, geographical location and religious persuasion bring their story together. However, nothing crystallizes an ancestor’s life better then the home where they laughed, mourned and laid down and laid down their head at night.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
The search for an ancestor’s home is never without pitfalls. The looming question is always: Is the house still standing? The dwelling may have been destroyed or the street may have disappeared beneath a highway. Luck is the operative word when engaging in this kind of research
The most reliable method of locating a property is to create a chain of title and follow the ownership of the property to the current owner.
However, if you are researching a family, who resided in a community between 1900 and 1940, you can find the address by consulting the federal censuses, which noted addresses on the enumeration forms. Street directories and owners maps are other resources to locate a property. Again, luck is the operative word here. I recently located a family I was researching in the 1900 federal census and to my dismay the street was not entered on the enumeration form. Even when the street address can be located, the street name may have changed or the house numbers reassigned. The best course to locate a property is to create a chain of title.
HOW TO CREATE A CHAIN OF TITLE
Simply put, a chain of title is a compilation of deeds pertaining to a property arranged consecutively by the recording date. A chain of title is usually created by researching deeds for a property beginning with the current owner. However, for the purpose of locating an ancestor’s property, you will need to begin your research with the earliest deed for the transfer of property from your ancestor to a buyer.
Creating a chain of title will probably require a trip to the registry of deeds/county recorder in the county your ancestors resided. It is also advisable to query the county registry/recorder office to determine when the office began keeping records and what information is available on-site and online. Once you have established the office holds records for the time period you are researching, you are ready to begin.
You will find that, in most cases, deeds prior to 1949 are unindexed online and while it may be possible to search for and to retrieve an image of an old deed online, you will still need to perform your research onsite to access the old indices to obtain a book and page number.
Your first task at the registry/recorder office is to locate the old grantor-grantee indices. The grantor indices are arranged alphabetically by the name of sellers, while grantee indices are arranged by the names of buyers. For the purpose of locating your ancestor’s former home, you will be utilizing the grantor indices
Begin your research in the grantor index to locate the first transfer of the property from your ancestor to a buyer. Once you have located their name in the index, retrieve the deed and note the name of the buyer, along with the book and page number and date of transfer on a worksheet. This will keep you organized and facilitate the process. You will then begin a new search for the next transfer of the property using the name of the buyer to whom the property was transferred. Once you have located that buyer’s name in the grantor index, repeat the process. Be sure to note the book and page, as well as the date of transfer and retrieve the deed. Once you get the hang of this process, your research will move along fairly quickly.
While early deeds may reference the location of a property with a vague description, such as “past the oak tree at the end of the stonewall, next to the property of Tom Smith,” more recent deeds will yield an address. However, just to be certain you have found the current house number and street, it is best to follow the chain to the current owner.
AN EXAMPLE OF A CHAIN OF TITLE
Here is an example using John Smith, a fictitious ancestor, who owned a property in East Oatville in 1879. In this case John Smith’s property was transferred to buyer Thomas Brown on 1 Dec 1871. Your worksheet will look like this:
John Smith to Thomas Brown 22 Sept. 1860 Bk. 33 Page 78
Thomas Brown to David Hawkes 1 Dec. 1871 Bk. 43 Page 22
David Hawkes to Roger Smith 15 Apr. 1902 Bk. 60 Page 120
Once you have completed the chain of title, you can cross reference the information you have compiled with other sources such as owner’s maps, assessment records, 1900-1940 federal census records and street directories. It is also time worthy to write a proof summary which includes the chain of title and all of the sources you consulted to support your conclusion that the property you have located belonged to your ancestor.
RESEARCH TIPS AND HINTS
Verify where your ancestor lived. Family members often refer to a larger geographical area or a metropolitan area, rather than the village or the smaller contiguous community an ancestor resided. This can be accomplished by way of census research.
If your ancestor’s residency was more recent, a search of owner’s maps may yield a location and/or an address. A collection of land owner’s maps can be found on Ancestry.com, as well as some state sponsored sites. Other resources to consult for land owner maps are the local town hall, historical societies, and libraries, to name a few.
Bear in mind that street names may have been renamed or even disappear over time and house numbers reassigned. If you are unable to locate a street, a call or email to the local historical society or collections department of the library most local to the town your ancestors resided may help resolve this issue.
If your ancestor owned more than one property in the same town, compare deed references to set one property apart from another.
Be sure to make a note of the book and page numbers of all of the deeds; Print out the deeds and arrange them by date of transfer. Some deeds were not recorded for months and years. Rely on the date the deed was executed.
Cross reference the owners of title with street directory listings, owner’s maps and federal census records for supporting evidence. Most federal censuses for 1900-1940 listed the street address and house number of residents.
Historical societies, libraries, and local archives may hold materials such as inventories of older homes in the community, as well as photographs of old houses, which may include your ancestor’s home.
CREATING A HOUSE HISTORY
House history research is not much different from performing research to locate the address of an ancestors home except that you will be creating a chain of title by starting with the current owner's deed. You will work backwards toward the earliest deed on record.
Once you have assembled the chain of title, you can perform additional research in census records, newspapers, tax lists and the resources mentioned in Finding John and Hannah's House to learn about the former owners and their lives.
House history research is fun and full of surprises!
If you have a question about house history research, you can post it on the "comments" page. You will find the link at the end of this post.
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Look for an update on my research of French-Canadian genetic disorders
Good luck with your research!
Franklin County, Massachusetts, Unindexed Property, 85:748, William Adler et al to Charles and Grace Adler, deed,7 July 1927, digital image, Secretary of the Commonwealth-Registry of Deeds, Franklin District Registry of Deeds (http://www.franklincountydeedsme.com/: accessed 28 Aug 2012); this 1927 deed was not recorded until 1928.