If you do not know anyone to talk to, start with the person who sold you the house. Then go to the courthouse in the county or city where the house is located. Search for the owners of the property as far back as the courthouse records will allow. Take notes on the names of the owners and the dates of ownership. Look at the description of the property to see if there is any change from one deed to another. Sometimes the deed will allow you to date your house if you find the point in time when an “improvement” was added to the land. Sometimes you get lucky. One deed I researched even had a drawing of the house on the deed. Courthouses have their own way of indexing records which can be confusing at first. If you have never worked with these, you may want to hire someone to do this search or to show you how to do it.
While you are at the courthouse, check the old tax records. They can not only help you date your home, but they also give you an appropriate value for your home for a certain period of time. For example, if the tax record for 1860 only shows a tax on land and, in 1861, there is a tax on land and an improvement, there is a good chance that this “improvement” was a house or other building added to the land.
Other county records at the local courthouse will vary and are too many to list here. But some of the more common ones are marriage records, marriage bonds, death records, plats, court orders, wills, chancery records, and deeds. Some courthouses even hold old community records and Bible records. Most of these records, with the exception of chancery records, are probably familiar to you. Chancery records are created by special courts that seek to settle disputes over such things as inheritances, land and debts. Because it is settling disputes, chancery courts and the records they create are often full of testimony by witnesses. This is an excellent source of information on contested assets or even the individuals and their relationships to one another. Land and houses are often items that are in dispute over ownership so you should always check these records to see if your home or your home’s owners are mentioned here. Once you have the names of the early owners of your property, you can look them up in all of these court records to get more details about their lives.
Our next stop is usually nearby. Many counties will have a genealogy library which will house local home and family histories. This is a good place to check to see if a history of your house already exists. Check with the local historical society as well. Some counties have published books about their historic homes. These local sources are an excellent source of special information which may not be available anywhere else.
Once you have exhausted local sources, the next step is to visit regional sources such as Mary Ball Washington Museum and Library in Lively which has genealogy information on local families or Colonial Williamsburg which has a research library and extensive records on early homes. Colonial Williamsburg also maintains a website where you can actually read old copies of the Virginia Gazette. This early newspaper, like our more modern newspapers, has real estate ads listing 18th century properties that were for sale. The advertisements as well as the news stories are a good source of information for all of the early Virginia settlement not just for the Williamsburg area.
In Virginia, we are lucky to have two excellent resources for researching your home—The Library of Virginia and The Virginia Historical Society. Both have searchable indexes of many of their offerings online. The Library of Virginia even has numerous digital images of its documents online. Both have an incredible amount of information on early homes and families. These sources, located in Richmond, have census records, old local and state newspapers, local histories listed by county, and early insurance policies giving locations of homes and outbuildings and their dimensions. Here you will find the Virginia Historical Survey, a survey of old homes which was completed by the WPA (Workers Progress Administration) in the 1930s. Also, during the 1970s, Jeffrey O’Dell surveyed many old homes and home sites in this area. Look for “Inventory of Early Architecture and Historic and Archaeological Sites” and “Historic American Buildings Survey: Virginia Catalog.” If your house is listed in these surveys, you may find sketches, dimensions, stories, and other tidbits of information he obtained in visiting the properties.
Did you ever wonder if previous owners of your home were farmers, lawyers, doctors, or teachers? Did they have children? Was your house a tavern or boarding house? You can sometimes find this information in the U.S. Census, especially censuses starting with 1850 and later. Although there were censuses and lists of property owners earlier than this, this census year is the first to give any detailed information on the inhabitants. You can find the censuses several places online and at state and some regional libraries. Some of the censuses will even give you an idea of
the value of the assets of the owner.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources should also be on your list of places to contact. They may be able to assist you if someone has already documented your home’s history. They also have information that the state obtained during historical surveys. In researching my own home, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had several early photographs of my home. They charged me for their cost to develop the film which I was happy to pay to get these early photos.
Another source of information about your home may be in the home itself. Always check your old home carefully for documents that have been left behind. Sometimes you will find papers and other memorabilia in the walls during renovation. Another possible place is the attic. During a repair to our home, we found old letters, wills, deeds, and other written documents under the floorboards of the attic. They had been carefully placed there and gave us a very detailed view of the former inhabitants. They were not visible until we leaned over and looked under the attic floor. Sometimes in the strangest places, we find the greatest treasures.
So far we have looked for a paper trail to document the history of your home. If you can find written records to prove when your home was built, who lived there, and the historical happenings that took place, you have a great start. But what if you can’t find written records? Unfortunately, some early county records were destroyed by fire, flood, or just neglect. If you live in one of these counties, you may have trouble documenting your home. You may still be able to determine an approximate date that your home was built by looking at its architectural features. Some state government offices, colleges, and universities may have architectural historians on their staff. Try to persuade them to visit your property. They are trained to look at the details of your home’s construction to determine when it was built. Clues exist in the type of brick that was used, the pattern of the brickwork, saw marks on the wood, molding profiles, stairway type, age of wood used, type of nails, and many other construction techniques.
In a way, researching your home’s history is like a treasure hunt. It does require a lot of time and effort, but the rewards are great. One local couple discovered that their old home had been a summer home for circus entertainers.
Another homeowner found that her home was once a schoolhouse. It is not unusual to find that a home was a meeting place for early church services before the church itself was built. Some homes were taverns offering not only food and drink, but overnight accommodations for the weary traveler. (If you suspect your home was a tavern, you may want to read the travel diaries of 18th century explorers and historical figures to see if they mention staying at your home.)
Once you have completed your house history, make a copy of it and give it to your local historical society. Old homes pass through many hands. By doing this, you will preserve your work for future generations.
Finally, although documenting the history of a home and its occupants probably increases its value should you decide to sell it, the real value in this research is not financial. As you climb the stair treads worn from the footsteps of previous owners, you are stepping into their history. You should feel a sense of satisfaction from knowing about the people who lived there, their history and now your part in continuing this history.