15 May 2015

Envisioning ancestors’ neighborhoods: National resources Part 4

After you've checked deeds, probate records, censuses, tax records, and/or city directories, you may want to learn more about your ancestors’ neighborhood and what their dwellings may have looked like. If your family wasn’t from Lexington or Massachusetts (like the study in the previous three posts), you’ll find the strategies are similar but the resources may be different.

Historic Places to Visit

Collins Log Cabin (1818), Columbia, Missouri; photo: HornColumbia
If you’ll be in the neighborhood, check out USA.gov’s links to state travel and tourism web sites. From there, you can drill down by region, county, or town, or do a Google search for a local tourist bureau. You’ll find historic places to visit and a calendar of events. In all likelihood, you won't find your ancestral home, but you may find similar building styles and household furnishings pertaining to the time frame youre interested in.

The American Alliance of Museums’ directory lists museums from A to Z (aquariums to zoos), including history museums, historic sites, and museum associations that make up its membership. You can search by name, city, state, or museum type.

PreservationDirectory.com offers several databases for the U.S. and Canada, including historical societies by state/province, region, or keyword; historic house museums, living history museums, and specialty museums by category; and historic tours by category.  

Learning about Architecture

If you didn’t take art history and architecture in school, you may want to brush up on some building styles and time periods to put your ancestors era in the correct context. For the Lexington, Massachusetts, study, I referred to Historic New England’s architectural style guide, but different regions tend to create buildings more in line with their landscapes.

Jeffery Howe, a professor at Boston College, put together a Digital Archive of American Architecture for his students. He includes a chronology, description, and examples of architectural styles. The web site hasn’t been updated in a while, but its still useful. Or pick up a book on architectural history.

The Anatomy of a Historic House

Maybe you’re lucky and your ancestral house has a National Register (NR) designation for being connected with a famous person or event, or for being culturally or architecturally significant. If not, you can learn about NR buildings in your ancestors’ community and surrounding towns. Some of them are private property, but their NR paperwork is available. 

In the 1960s, there was a big push for the U.S. government to recognize and preserve historic buildings. That’s why National Register of Historic Places seeks to “identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.” Some states have their NR documentation posted online, with photos, floor plans, descriptions, and house histories. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, contact the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO).

Location, Location, Location

Realtors know the importance of location. You may want to compare historic maps with Google Maps and Google Earth to get a bird’s-eye view to see why your ancestors may have chosen a specific location and how its changed over the years. Check out these collections:
Every Picture Tells a Story

Carlyle House in 1909, Alexandria, Virginia
William & Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine,
Vol.18, No.1., pp.1-17.
It almost goes without saying, but check your photographs and ask relatives if they have pictures of the old homestead. If not, you may be able to find pictures of your ancestral houses or neighborhoods. 

Public and secondary education libraries sometimes have archival collections online, such as the Archive of Photographic Documentation of Early Massachusetts Architecture at Boston Public Library, which includes late 19th century photographs and engravings of 17th and 18th century buildings in Eastern Massachusetts. Connect with state libraries, public libraries, academic libraries, and federal libraries for collections.

Old and new town histories usually have photographs of buildings, so do a search on Google Books, Internet Archive, HathiTrust digital library, or other digital providers. You also could go to your local library and check their collections or interlibrary loan.

Several web sites invite people to add their images, both old and new, to online maps. Check out HistoryPin.com and WhatWasThere.com. The Clio and Waymarking.com tag historic buildings and much more—with photos and descriptions.

Arcadia Publishing specializes in local books filled with old photographs, often compiled by town historians or using historical society collections.

You’d be surprised what turns up on postcards. I have a postcard of Mirror Lake taken from the exact location where my parents built their house 30 years later, before any buildings existed on the property. I bought the postcard from eBay. I’ve also purchased historic house cards from CardCow.

Building a Foundation

Researching how people lived will give you a better understanding of your family in their neighborhood setting. Envisioning their homes, the everyday tools they used and chores they did, their status in the community, the luxuries they had, and the hardships they faced will help you appreciate your forebears and the choices they made.

And, now that youve gone beyond birth and death dates by filling in the space between, you should consider writing down what youve discovered and sharing it with your family. 

Read previous posts, Envisioning ancestors’ neighborhoods: A study of Lexington, Massachusetts

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