House Stories: Finding the Clues

I love pictures with houses in the background. They represent a deeper family history mystery. Not just a question of who’s in the picture, but details about the dwelling.

One of the photo challenges in this picture is identifying the location.  Children’s Party, circa 1920

When we bought our house a few years ago, an archivist friend gave us the perfect house warming present.  It was a document showing who lived in our house around the time it was built.  A Mrs. Mary P Clewley took out a permit for drainage in 1896.  The same year our house was built.

A quick look at the 1900 census showed me the occupants of the house.

Locate the people living in your house by searching the census. 

The census is a wonderful social history document.  Mr. Clewley, a coal dealer and his wife Mary shared their house with a sister-in-law and an aunt. They employed a servant from South Carolina.  This was a big surprise. Each detail in this census record makes me want to search further.  Who were these people?  In 1900, our neighborhood was fairly new.  It was part of an expansion of the area near Brown University.

My street only run for three blocks. It’s cozy neighborhood of Victorian houses and lots of trees.  Now that I’ve peeked into the early beginnings of this neighborhood, I’m going to have to learn more about the houses and the folks that lived in them.  I think a neighborhood history is in order.

Having Mary Clewley’s name gave me a research short-cut.  I could search for her in the census, but without that I’d have to browse the pages looking for the right address match and consult other documents.

If you don’t have a clue who lived in your house here are a two ways to search:

Land Records

House and property research is similar to genealogical inquiries. You start with the present and work backwards. Land records consist of transfers of ownership from the grantee (seller) to the grantor (buyer) and are often indexed.

Map It!

The local historical society in your area may have maps worth consulting.  The Registrar of Deeds may know of maps of your area as well.  The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps at the Library of Congress are now online. 

Key to reading a Sanborn Map.

I’m lucky.  There are house directories for Providence, RI searchable by street address instead of surname.  My next step is to dig into those and see what else I can learn about previous owners of my house. It’s rumored that spinster sisters lived here with their father for decades. I’ve been collecting stories from older residents of the neighborhood.   One was very unhappy that I turned a small room on the first floor into a small reading room. It seems the sisters used it as a Christmas room and used to invite in the neighbors.  Uh oh!

Let me know what you find out about your house or ones owned by your ancestors. I love a good house story.