Monday, October 17, 2016

Researching the History of Your Property in Massachusetts

The doorway of "The Stearns House,"
which was built in 1776. Image from
Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926)
by Mary Harrod Northend.
Massachusetts has some of the oldest and most historically significant buildings in the United States—in fact, you may own or live in one.  Researching the history of your home can be fun and informative, in understanding both past ownership as well as learning about the original footprint of the structure and surrounding property; the latter is especially important if you’re interested in preservation and restoration.  Below is a list of essential and supplementary resources that will help you gather documentation that traces the history of your home.

Online resources:
Massachusetts Land Records:  A database provided by the Registry of Deeds that maintains both historical and current land records for properties across the Commonwealth.

State and Federal Censuses:  The census population schedules record who and when people were living on certain properties.  They also include additional information, such as age, place of birth, occupation, and property value.  Most, if not all, early censuses are now available online.

Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS):  A database of historical properties provided by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.  Since this database should not be considered exhaustive, it may be good to contact the MHC to see if they have additional properties on file.

Partial image of a plate taken from the 1906 atlas
of the city of Lowell.
Real Estate Atlases: The State Library has digitized a large portion of its collection of real estate atlases that cover many of the cities and towns in the state.  These atlases, mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, document the names of property owners, the foot print of structures, as well as what the structures were made of.  The library also has atlases that were not able to be digitized; please check our online catalog for additional materials.

Historic New England Collection Database:  Users can browse or search for architectural drawings and interior photography of historic homes in this online database of Historic New England’s collections.

Resources not available online:
Massachusetts Directories:  City and town directories, which were usually published on a yearly basis, list residents alphabetically by last name (much like a phone book), along with their street address and occupation; the volumes also include the names and addresses of businesses.  Some directories have house guides with listings sorted by address and not by the residents’ last names.  Many Boston directories have been digitized and are available online.  Make sure to check with your local library to see if they have historical directories for your area.

City and town annual reports:  Early municipal fire department reports often list the location at which a fire-related event occurred, sometimes including the owner’s name(s), and, if known, the physical and monetary extent of the damage.  If you suspect that your house once experienced a fire, these reports may help you track down what happened and when.  Other departmental reports may also provide data about neighborhoods and development.  The State Library has a large collection of such reports, and your local library may also have their own collection.

Tax Valuations:  Tax valuations help identify individuals’ names and property holdings.  The library has valuations for various cities and towns up to 1811 on microfilm.

Probate Records:  These court records are especially helpful if a piece of property transferred ownership through an inheritance.

Private publications:  There are many books that compile the histories of cities and towns, as well as local architecture.  You can check our online catalog for such materials, and also make sure to check your local library.

Historical Newspapers:  Do you suspect something happened on your property on a specific date or within a certain time frame?  Maybe the event was covered in a local newspaper.  If you’re having trouble locating a particular title or issue, the Boston Public Library has one of the largest historical newspaper collections in the area. The State Library also has a collection of newspapers; peruse our online list to see which titles we have available.

Local government and cultural institutions:  Municipal departments oversee many functions that record changes to properties, such as building permits (the City of Boston even provides an online permit database) and tax assessments.  Most cities and towns also have a public library, an archives, and/or an historical commission.  Many of the resources listed in this blog, as well as records unique to the institution’s collections (photographs, maps, building plans, newspapers, etc.), can be accessed without having to travel too far from home.  In the case of local historical commissions, many homes already have compiled research on file.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department