Researching the history of a property can be immensely rewarding. When the different pieces of the puzzle start to come together you can discover a wealth of information about previous owners and their lives as well as the various roles the property filled in the community contributing to the rich tapestry of the history of the area. However, it can be quite intimidating to know where to start the search. Here are a few ideas:
Trace the Previous Owners
Many sources recommend starting by looking at the deed history to find previous owners. This can be done through the local registrar’s office or other city/county offices and will give you a list of names to keep in mind as you broaden your search through other avenues. Try to go back to the original owners and keep in mind that records may be kept in different locations as you go back through the history. Genealogy websites may be a great resource for discovering more about the names you turn up.
Contact the local Historical Society
Chances are good that your city, county or region has a Historical Society that may have some of the information you are looking for or can point you in the right direction. These groups are often happy to assist and you may be surprised at how much you can learn by sending an email or making a phone call.
Preservationdirectory.com has a great resource page here that can help you find the right group for your area.
Check the Library Newspaper Archive
Local libraries often have extensive archives of old maps and newspapers that can give loads of context to your property. Maps are hugely helpful especially when street names change over time. Use a landmark like a nearby waterway to help locate the property. Old newspaper articles can tell a lot about what was going on in and around the property as you go back through time.
Ask a Neighbor
Never underestimate the value of a good neighbor. They may remember things that can spark a whole new path of investigation or point you to a source that helped them in a similar project in the past.
Check the Library of Congress Research Guide
This guide on House History from the Library of Congress website has more detailed discussions of most of the methods listed already above and is the best online resource I’ve discovered in my personal research. I found the database of Sanborn fire insurance maps particularly interesting: a searchable archive of old maps of localities across the country complete with all the information a company would need to quote an insurance policy for the properties pictured.
I hope this can help get your research journey off to a great start. Who knows where the trail will lead you?