31 January 2016

FamilySearch Basics For Your House History Research

In researching the history of your house, an invaluable resource to you in learning about the former and original owners and occupants of your home will be the vast database of resources available via the website, FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org). Certainly, if family history is one of your hobbies (or your profession), then you no doubt log on to this website on a very frequent, if not daily, basis. However, even for you, I hope you glean some tips here with a focus on relevance to the history of a house.

What is FamilySearch?

FamilySearch is a completely 100% free website backed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If you are a skeptic at heart, fear not-- there is no obligation whatsoever to subscribe to or to be subjected to any teachings of the LDS. The Mormons believe that families continue beyond physical life, thus they provide this extensive database for all in order to contribute to the worldwide knowledge of families. FamilySearch is, bar none, the most extensive free online collection of historical documents and indexes related to genealogy (Ancestry.com is likely the most extensive paid-subscription resource). The number of documents available grows by the day as more and more documents are digitized, indexed, and placed online for free viewing. In addition, an even greater amount of documents are listed in their database here which are not available online, but are available for borrowing on microfilm for viewing at any one of over 4,700 Family History Centers throughout the world.

What Resources are Available for House History Research?

On FamilySearch, you will primarily be hunting for knowledge about those persons who have owned and/or lived in your house in decades past. However, items like probate records might also assist you if your house's land was passed down within a family, creating a gap in the chain of title found in deed research. On the main FamilySearch home page, clicking the menu heading "Search" will lead you to the main Search overview page.

At the left side of the Search page, one can input any historical person's name, and FamilySearch will provide search results for available records. You can be as specific or as broad as you like in your search inquiries-- in general, inputting specific information into several search fields will yield fewer, but more targeted results. This may be the quickest way to find exactly the document you might be looking for, if it is available; however, you may miss other important documents that a broader search would provide. Broad searches (for instance, inputting just the person's last name) will yield a high number of search results (think tens of thousands) which will include a high number of results which are not relevant to your research task. It's important to strike a balance between the two extremes and to search trying a number of different things, in order to find documents which actually refer to your targeted person while also opening up the possibility of finding the highest number of relevant documents.

One thing I usually start off with is to input the person's first and last name, and under "Restrict Records By:", I restrict records to the particular state(s) where that person lived. If I'm able to deal with the amount of search results, I will usually go several pages deep in the results before trying a more narrow search. In the screenshot below, I searched for one of the previous owners of my house's land, Frederick A. Brandes, whose life I chronicled in a previous post, using his first and last names and restricting records to Pennsylvania. The search results list 3,166 results. FamilySearch lists those which match the search prompts most closely at the top of the list. Here, 4 of the first 5 results are indeed relevant to the same Frederick Brandes I was looking for. Within those four records are two census enumerations, a World War I draft registration card, and an index listing for his marriage to Bertha Winkler. If a digitized image of the record is available for viewing, you will see a camera icon at the right-hand side of the results listing, where you can click to see the document image.

Looking back again at the main FamilySearch search page, clicking the link for "Browse all published collections" will navigate to a list of all available record collections. In the left-hand sidebar, one can narrow down the records list by place, date, and collection type (highlighted). Let's now examine two of the main record categories and how they can help in your house history research: census records and probate records.

Census Records

Within the past year, FamilySearch has updated their census collections to include free access to images for nearly every census year, whereas previously some years were only available for image viewing at other sites. Now, you can use FamilySearch as a one-stop shop to a large extent for census images. I've discussed previously how census records act as an essential building block for gathering some of the basic facts about previous occupants of your home. If you happen to know some of the names of previous owners of your house, you can search for that person directly by doing a name search on the main search page and examine any census results which seem relevant. In such a manner, you can learn a good deal about that former owner, such as their occupation throughout the years, their family make-up, and perhaps even whether they owned a radio or not. However, you may not find a census result for each available year at first. To search a particular census year (i.e. 1910), you can navigate to the collections list and type "census 1910" into the search bar. Finding a census listing for a previous owner for the year in which they lived in your house can give you the full listing of their household in that year (for 1850 through 1940 only), telling you all the occupants of your house in that year. Think spouse and children, most obviously, but there also may have been other relatives, other boarders, or even servant helpers living with the family in your house. If you believe that the family lived in your house in, say 1920, and you find them in the 1920 census, you can essentially confirm that they did indeed live there if they municipality listed at the top of the census enumeration matches, and furthermore if the address and street name are listed in the left-hand margin of the enumeration sheet.

The fourth family listed on this sheet of the 1940 census if the Cantlin family, which owned and lived in my house at the time. At the top of the page, the incorporated place name "Ardsley" and township "Abington" match my house's location. The address listed in the left-hand margin next to the Cantlins "402 Central Ave" was the address of my house at that time.
If you have not yet completed your chain of title, or if you were left with an ownership gap after that process, then you may be left searching the census for your house's occupants in a bit more of a "blind" manner. This is also true if the owner of your house never actually lived there, which may be evidenced by your finding them enumerated at another address in the expected year, or if their grantee and grantor deeds both list their residence in a different town.

To find occupants for your house in the census without the benefit of a name to search for, the most effective way is to search City Directories, which are not available on FamilySearch, but which may be found on other sites such as Ancestry (the BEST place to look for these is the local historical society-- not everything is online!). Short of that, at FamilySearch you may be subject to searching census images "manually", by locating your municipality in a given census year, and scrolling through page-by-page looking for your house's address. This is, admittedly, somewhat cumbersome (but much easier than yesteryear when you couldn't access these images from your home computer!), and not a guaranteed success, as some census enumerators did not list the household's address in the margin. In such case, you are left to likely inaccurate guessing as to which household lived there. Be aware that addresses do change from time to time (for example, by home's address number was #402 from its origins until sometime in the 1940's, at which time it was switched to the current number #502). Navigate to the desired census year (ie 1920) by searching "census 1920" into the search field on the collections listing page. Next, in the field for "Residence Place", input the name of the town, city, or governmental municipality where your house is located (you may have to try one or two different names-- ie Ardsley for neighborhood might not yield results, but Abington representing the township may work more successfully). Moving to the search results will give you a list of names living there at the time, at which point you can select one of the names to view the digitized images for that locality. Start paging through, looking for your address, if addresses were listed. If the enumerator did include street names and addresses, yet you don't have any luck finding your street at first (and you know it existed in that year), try clicking the town name at the top of the screen in the navigation string. Notice in the image below that "ED 67" is currently shown, indicating that images are being shown for Enumeration District #67. Clicking on the locality name of Abington gives me the option of switching over to images for ED 66 or ED 68, which I can also browse through. With any luck, you will find the address you seek, as well as the household living there.

One can use the arrows in the upper-left of the screen to scroll through successive images, or you can type in a number to jump to that image in the sequence. Notice on this image that Frederick Crispin and his family lived at 119 Oakdale Avenue in Abington, PA.

Probate Records

If your house or its land was passed down through generations of the same family, then your deed research may have resulted in a large time gap. In this case, you should try to find probate records which can verify the transfer of the land through inheritance. Or, you may have found reference to this type of ownership transfer in a later deed once the land was sold out of the family. Navigating back to the main FamilySearch collections list, click "Probate & Court" under collections type. You can then filter further by "United States of America" and then by the state in which you live. In Pennsylvania, I have the choice to browse a collection called "Pennsylvania Probate Records, 1683-1994". Here, you can attempt to find probate records such as wills and estate administration documents. Note that in most, if not all cases, you cannot search for specific names by typing into search fields. Instead, you will need to browse the images and consult the images of the index books, which will lead you to other document images-- this being the virtual equivalent of using physical deed books in the actual courthouse.

Take the example of the will of Daniel Mulvaney, who was the father of Emma Spear. In the land deed conveying Emma Spear's tract of land in Abington to Reginald Ferguson, the prior transfer of this land from Daniel to his various daughters, including Emma, is mentioned, and the will location is referenced as Book #13, Page #440.

A portion of the deed conveying land from Emma Spear to Reginald Ferguson. See the middle paragraph for the history of conveyance within the Mulvaney family.

So, due to this deed, I know that this will exists and that it proves the transfer of the land through inheritance. But let's assume for a moment that I do not know the exact Book and Page numbers, and pretend that I wish to find a will for Daniel Mulvaney in Montgomery County, PA on FamilySearch.

Once I click on the PA Probate Records collection at Family Search, I then click further to "Browse through 3,200,560 images" (don't worry, we aren't browsing through that many images!). Next, a listing of all the PA counties for which probate records are available on FamilySearch. I click "Montgomery". I am presented with the following list:

I click on "Will Index, 1784-1942, K-R" since Mulvaney will be listed within that portion of the alphabetized Will Index. This takes me to the digitized Index book for K through R, which includes 639 images. As I start to scroll through, the headings at the top of the Will Index book include two initials (for example KW). Looking at the content of the index page, it becomes clear to me that the index books for these years are organized by Last Initial and First Initial (for example, William Keeler is under KW). I skip ahead to the middle of this digitized film roll, and finally find the page MD which should contain the index listing for Daniel Mulvaney. Sure enough, Daniel H. Mulvaney is listed, with his will proved on May 24, 1873 and located in Book #13, Page #440, matching the information in the deed exactly.

Daniel H. Mulvaney is included in the index at the bottom of this image. The information matches that which was provided in Emma Spear's deed to Reginald Ferguson.
Now that I have the Book and Page number, I click back to "Montgomery" within the navigation string at the top of the page, to return to the long list of image groups shown earlier. This time, I click on "Wills 1871-1878 vol 13-14" since I know that the will was proved in 1873 and that it was recorded in Book #13. Out of the 738 digitized images in this book, I skip ahead to image #230, which shows me Page #440 of Book #13. There it is-- the transcribed will of Daniel H. Mulvaney, which, in short, gives a third of all his real estate to his wife, Julia, for the rest of her life, and the remainder to his two daughters, Emma Spear and Bertha Mulvaney, and his grandson Ralph Stone. This is a key portion of the land history of my particular house.

The last will and testament of Daniel H. Mulvaney, proved in 1873.

Photos on FamilySearch

If you create a free account on FamilySearch, you will be given access to additional features of the website, including the worldwide collaborative Family Tree, and the collection of user-submitted Photos. From the FamilySearch home page, click "Photos" under the heading "Memories". This will lead you to a page where you can submit your own family history photos from your personal collection. However, if you click the "Find" tab, you will be able to search the collection of user-submitted photos. Within this collection are a number of historical photos, many of which are pictures of ancestral homes.

Although I have not been able to locate anything related to my own personal home or to those who formerly owned it, a search for the term "house" yielded nearly 20,000 image results, so it is well worth giving it a shot!

Final Thoughts

Although I have delved deeply into only two record collection types here, I hope that this demonstrates that FamilySearch has much to offer, not only for personal genealogy research, but for house history research as well. And you can't beat free. As always, view findings with a grain of salt until you are able to matter-of-factly know that any assumptions you may be making are proven via agreement across multiple documents. So head over to www.familysearch.org and have a blast! You might find yourself searching for hours upon hours.

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