Public Records, Private Reflections, and Pictures

one house, five families, 200 years of history

How can you learn who lived in a house and what a neighborhood was like? Documents, pictures, and reminiscences can help give a sense of a house's history.

From wills and deeds on file in town or county records, a researcher can often construct a chain of title—a list of owners from the first to the most recent. Census records, city directories, maps, diaries, photographs, and interviews with former residents all add pieces of the puzzle.

The deed proves that Abraham Choate's house was built sometime before the date of the document, March 10, 1769. On that date, he used his "houselot with my dwelling house and other buildings" as collateral for a bond.

Deed, March 10, 1769

Deed, March 10, 1769

Courtesy Essex South Registry of Deeds, Salem, Massachusetts

Josiah Caldwell and his family appear on the 1850 U.S. Census returns for Ipswich. This entry shows who was living in his house and notes that he was superintendent of the Ipswich railroad station and owned real estate valued at $8,000.

Census entry, 1850

Census entry, 1850

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

The house on Elm Street is highlighted on this map, made during the Lynches' time. The numerals inside show the number of stories in each section. The "x" denotes a shingle roof. The mills around the comer show that this was an industrial neighborhood by 1887.

Sanborn Insurance map, 1887

Sanborn Insurance map, 1887

Courtesy Library of Congress

Family albums sometimes offer clues about houses. This photo shows Roy Scott standing behind the house. The older portion [right] is covered in clapboards, the newer in shingles. You can also see part of Mary Scott's garden.

Roy Scott, 1942

Roy Scott, 1942

Courtesy Richard S. Lynch