So you’re all excited to research the history of your house! You’ve seen an 1855 map with your house on it as well as the name of the Jones family who lived there at the time. Why not jump right in and start researching county histories or other records?
When I give presentations about how to do house history research I always recommend starting with searching the deeds. Yes, it’s true that deed research might not be as exciting as exploring census records. But doing the deed research is important for two reasons:
#1 Addresses have changed over the years
You may want to start searching for information based on your street address. You’ll be surprised to discover that is not as easy as it seems. The trouble is that your street address is very likely to have changed over the years, perhaps even several times. Say you live on Plain Street in Millis, Massachusetts. Over a hundred plus years ago the road may have been referred to simply as “the road to Sherborn.”
Even if the name of your street hasn’t changed the number of your house could have. For instance, if you now live at 1052 Main Street, the address of your house might have been 49 Main Street only 30 years ago.
By searching for the deeds to your house you will find descriptions of your property that will help you pinpoint its exact location through the years. When a street or number change occurred the deed very likely mentioned “1052 Main Street, formerly 49 Main Street” or “Plain Street, formerly the road to Sherborn” thus helping the chain of title link from the current address to the former address.
#2 Not all records can be searched by address
Another reason for searching for deeds is that certain records weren’t sorted by address or street location. Many records, even early 20th century tax records, were sorted alphabetically by the owner’s name with no address mentioned, or perhaps only a street with no number. Census records are also much easier to search when you have the owners names. Residents lists and city directories are also based on alphabetically listings. If you don’t have the names of the owners of the house then your search will become much more difficult.
By doing your deed research first for all previous owners, you will be armed with the information you need to get past alphabetization and missing address stumbling blocks.