27 December 2015

The Importance of Contacting Your House's "Descendants"

In some of my other posts here, I have championed the importance of learning the personal histories of those who have lived in your home in the past. Doing so will bring life to the facts which you are compiling about your house's history. This exploration, of course, extends beyond the legal owners of your property-- to their children and their parents who may have also lived in the house. The "FAN Club" Principle, as explained by well-known genealogist and historical researcher Elizabeth Shown Mills, describes how the seeking out of documents for your subject person's Friends, Associates, and Neighbors can lead you past sticky "brick wall" type problems to take it a step further.

All of this is to say that you must go beyond those property owners whom you find in your title chaining. In most cases, especially if your house has some age to it, those past owners are no longer with us. However, those past owners have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and in-laws who just may have spent significant time in your home or even lived there. If you can locate these living "descendants" of your house's ownership history, you just may find yourself on the track to gaining first-hand knowledge about the way your house was several decades ago. I can almost guarantee that you will NOT find much of this information in any other way. This is also the single most likely way in which you might find older photographs of your house.

Note: This is a photo of my grandmother Virginia Gillooly when she was a toddler in the early 1930's, held by her great-aunt Emilie Louden, who raised her. In the background you can see not only their home at the time, but the neighboring house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. The present-day owners of these homes might be interested in them! 

Locating Living "House Descendants"

Excusing the continuation of the pun, you should "fan" out starting with one of your house's previous owners. You might find it easy enough to build a small family tree or pedigree chart for them on Ancestry.com or on another genealogical website or software. Instead of going backwards in time, you will be looking to move forwards in time towards present-day.

The most useful documents for heading in this direction might just be census records and obituaries. Census records (currently available up to 1940) will help you build the makeup of the household in question. For my home's longtime owners, John and Catherine Cantlin, I know from both the 1930 and 1940 census schedules that they had three children: Jean (aka Claire, born c. 1927), John Jr. (born c. 1929), and Robert (born c. 1934), all of whom lived in this home during their childhood.

1930 Census schedule enumerating John and Katherine (Catherine) Cantlin in Philadelphia, with daughter Clarie (Claire) and son John.

1940 Census schedule enumerating John and Catherine Cantlin on Central Avenue in Ardsley, with daughter Jean C (Claire), son John, and youngest son Robert.
Using some simple logic and pretending I know nothing else, head of household John Cantlin would be 114 years old if living today, while Catherine would be 108-- not very likely that they would still be with us, and in fact they are not. Extending to the children, they would potentially range from ages 81 to 88 if living today, which is much more realistic. All three children could be sought out to see if they might still be with us. Search more recent public records and Google to find out. As crazy (and perhaps unsettling to some) as it may seem, nearly every person living today in this internet-age has unwittingly or not created some form of online footprint. You may be able to find out relatively easily if they are living or deceased. I will spare you further suspense in this example and inform you that all three of the Cantlin children have passed away previously.

Although you may not find living descendants in this first portion of the search, remember that you must expand out further beyond the immediate family. Your first searches may lead you to recent obituaries online, or you may need to seek older obituaries out in other repositories. See my previous article on obituaries for the types of information you will find within them. The most important portion of the obituary for locating living persons is where the decedent's survivors are listed. In this case, I located an obituary for John Cantlin's grandson who passed away within the past decade, and in it were listed two living daughters-in-law as well as four now-adult living grandchildren of John and Catherine Cantlin. (Note: I wish not to reproduce this obituary here, bearing in mind privacy concerns for the living persons listed in it). After locating the obituary, I now had as many as six living persons I could consider contacting to see if they were willing to share any memories of not only the house, but of John and Catherine themselves.

Making Contact

Once you've got some names, you might again turn to Google to seek out their current mailing address and/or telephone number. You might also consult current telephone directories. Further, in this digital age, Facebook might yield a current profile for living descendants. In my case with the Cantlins and the six living family members, I initially was able to find Facebook profiles for several of the grandchildren still living in the area, and did reach out to one of them several months ago, with no response as of yet. I may delicately try again to reach out, or may try to contact one of the other grandchildren.

The most successful result, however, was with one of the daughters-in-law, who by chance has lived within my same neighborhood for decades. I found contact information including the telephone number and address in a phone directory, and started off by writing a simple letter and including some current photographs of the interior and exterior of the house. I did not receive a response, so after a couple of months I made a simple phone call. On the receiving end was the daughter-in-law, who was delightful to talk to, who HAD received my letter (but had not responded only because she assumed she had no useful information for me), and who proceeded to have a very nice conversation with me about what I've found to date and about what she recalled.

I'll remind you to approach living persons respectfully, of course. After all, they are not at all expecting it. I find that most people are receptive to reconnecting with the past and to sharing with you, but it's worth reminding that some may not. The ideal scenario, of course, is that the descendants you contact are as excited to share what they know as you are to hear it. In these cases you will likely need to do little to spur the floodgates to open. If they are less enthusiastic or responsive, I find it worth giving folks some space if they are not immediately forthcoming with a ton of information. Make it clear that you are willing to bear the cost of reproducing any documents or photographs they are willing to share. Whether you initially make contact via telephone, snail mail, or email, send them a gentle reminder letter/email, perhaps with a single new question. Asking 20 different questions all at once may be too overwhelming. If you write, include a self-address stamped envelope for them to write you back (this may have been helpful for me to include on my first letter)-- make it as simple as possible for those you are corresponding with to write you back. Be patient, and you will likely be rewarded. You MAY even be rewarded with some old photographs of your home!


  1. I knocked the on the door of my old family home in 1985 (we had moved away in 1963) and the current owner was more than happy to welcome me into the home and show me around. She loved hearing stories about the house and I told her about renovations and structural changes that I recognized during my tour. I'd like to do that again if I get back to New Jersey anytime soon.

    1. Thanks for sharing Linda! I think you are much more likely to encounter an open door than a closed door. After all, we are all merely stewards of these old homes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.