One House’s Story: How I Do It

1910 Sanborne Fire Insurance Map

One of the questions I often see after I post a house story asks how I go about researching these individual houses and their occupants. I thought I would write this post to provide that information. Firstly, these posts are not intended as full house-histories. If I were conducting house history research for a paying client, it would involve a great deal more in-person research at courthouses, libraries, etc., would address multiple occupants, and more detailed architectural examinations. The “One House’s Story” posts are more focused on what I can discover on an individual occupant without the need of leaving my home office.

I first conducted historic site research while working at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia in the 1990s and early 2000s. During that time, I conducted significant background research on what became the Public Armory site that you can visit on your next family trip to Colonial Williamsburg. Additionally, I researched the locations and site histories of a number of Williamsburg’s 18th century house builders as well, including the background research on two major historic building trades sites, the Kendall-Gardner Carpenter and Joiner site and colonial-era Timberyard sites.

My literal first step in doing my “One House’s Story” posts is taking a walk, either in-person or through the magic of Google StreetView, to find a house that I find particularly interesting. There’s no real logic to my selection other than my own curiosity about a house and who lived in it. Once I have a house in mind, the first source I look into are the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps that may survive for whichever community the house rests in. These maps are useful in determining lot numbers, street addresses, building construction and layout, etc. for a snapshot in time. I usually look for a map that corresponds with the nearest census record so that I can cross-reference and start to determine potential occupants. It is important to note that house numbers and street names change and you need to know if and when these changes happened.

GoogleStreetView of Ray Avenue, NW.

The Federal Census records are very useful, particularly those of 1900 and later, because they often list a house’s street and house number. Sometimes you will get lucky with the 1880 Census, but they typically only list the street, if anything at all. I usually supplement the census record for a particular year with the nearest available city or community directory that may exist. These two sources allow me to focus on an individual occupant, or family, that may have lived in the home at a specific point in time. Census records are readily available, and free to search, via the FamilySearch website. City directories, if you have a public library card (get one!), can be searched through sites that typically require subscriptions like HeritageQuest or Ancestry. When I am looking at a more rural property, the most useful sources are the 1875 and 1906 atlases of Tuscarawas County. These atlases show all of the property owners by name in their respective townships. If you know the modern location of the house, you can easily determine its location on these earlier maps and then identify the owner in either 1875 or 1906. From there, you can then look for those owners in census records, etc. to start to flesh out the home’s history.

Once you have a name, then you can search many of the standard genealogical resources available online to begin to explore the history of the person or family that resided in the house. These sources may be birth and death records, marriage records, military service records, etc. I also try to discover stories about the house’s owners through their local newspapers. I rely on the newspaper database’s search feature for my “One House’s Story” posts, but if I were conducting in-depth research I would spend far more time looking through individual papers during the period in question. Again, much of these sources are available to you free if you have a library card (get one!).

Get a local library card to get access to online sources for FREE!

There are a number of other online sources I may use in researching a particular home that enable me to present the history of the house and its occupants in a more personal nature. In addition to newspaper reports mentioned above, the house’s owner may have been recorded in a county history, a history of a military unit in which they served, a yearbook or history of a school they attended, etc. There may even be a book written about the family’s genealogy that could have a detailed profile of their lives and connections. Many of these sources are readily available through an amazing resource called the Internet Archive. One of the highlights of doing the research is when I can find an image of someone who lived in the home during the period I am researching. These images can occasionally be found in the newspaper, on Ancestry, or the yearbooks mentioned above. You will also occasionally find an image of the person being researched if their memorial is recorded on FindAGrave.

The last piece of the puzzle is actually writing the profile itself and trying to bring all of these individual sources together to present something that is interesting, informative and readable. I may go out and take pictures of the home if it still exists, use the most recent image of the house I can find on Google StreetView, determine what maps or records might be the best at illustrating the story, and then I hit “publish” and its out there for you to enjoy. Finally, as I mentioned above, these profiles are simple, surface examinations of the history of the houses presented. Extensive site histories require hours and hours of painstaking research, trips to repositories that may have more detailed information on the property, and considerably more effort. I am glad that so many people have enjoyed the “One House’s History” posts and I look forward to doing many more.

The 1914 New Philadelphia Board of Education members. (Source: https://delphianyearbooks.org/)

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2022.

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