Every house has a history, just like we do, created by the families and people who lived in it. How much do you know about your family home and those who lived in “your” house?
Depending on when your family home was built, its pedigree chart, so to speak, might extend back into the 1600s or, more likely, into the 19th or 20th century.
Exactly how does one go about uncovering the the families who lived in your house before your family lived there and, perhaps, after your family moved elsewhere?
There are actually four excellent resources to help identify the residents of a particular house.
1. The most obvious resource is land deeds, which (usually) clearly show an unbroken chain of ownership. FamilySearch has an excellent collection of land deed databases from counties all over the United States.
However, while land records typically extend backwards in time to the creation of of town or county, they often move forward in time only into the late 1800s or early 1900s.
What if your family home was built around the turn of the 20th century like mine was? When I contacted the county clerk’s office, I was told I had to hire a title company to retrieve a land record for me! That could get expensive really quickly.
Would you be surprised if I told you that you can learn a LOT about your family home if it existed in the late 19th century well into the 20th century – WITHOUT ever looking at a land deed?
There are three readily available resources that don’t need a title search and accompanying check to find out more about your house and who lived there.
1. Census records (1900+ give addresses)
2. City directories
I’ve color coded the resources so you can match them to the fact source in the timeline created for the people who lived in my childhood home at 49 Summer Street, Passaic, New Jersey.
Just as we begin our own genealogical research with what we know, start with what we know about our house. I knew several facts about my home and also have the advantage of knowing the neighborhoods.
49 Summer Street
1. Nana said my father was born in the house, not in a hospital, on 9 February 1926.
2. Nana sold the house on 10 December 1963 to Feodor and Janina Mosentow.
3. The 1920 census shows my grandparents living at 10 Cedar Street, Garfield, New Jersey, which Nana had told me years ago.
The 1930 and 1940 U.S. censuses enumerated my family at 49 Summer Street, so my grandparents bought the house sometime between 1920-1926.
After searching the federal (1900-1940) and New Jersey state census records (1905, 1915), I turned to Passaic city directories, which are found on Ancestry in the collection U.S. City Directories, 1822-1895.
It took many years for Passaic newspapers to be digitized and available online, but newspapers dot com offers free access every so often and I always take full advantage on those days.
NOTE: The key to successful searches is to search by ADDRESS in addition to the surname.
Yes, that takes a lot of extra time and knowing city neighborhoods is a definite advantage when trying to uncover your home’s family history.
When searching newspapers, I discovered that I can not only search for people, I can search for “49 Summer St.” OCR isn’t always the greatest (e.g. hits included 549, 89, summer as a season, etc), but I found lots of mentions of that street address.
This post would be miles long if I detailed each step of my searching. The quick explanation is that I worked back and forth through census records, city directories and newspapers, putting together a timeline of people and details, which created my home’s “family history.”
What Did I Learn?
I originally thought my house had been built about 1900, but it’s a full decade older than that. It was likely built about 1890 as the Kaufman Brother grocers are the first to appear at 49 Summer Street in the 1891 city directory.
The 1890 directory is not extant; the 1889 directory not only lacked anyone living at 49 Summer Street, there were ZERO entries for homes on Summer Street with house numbers lower than 178, which is several blocks north of my house.
The land across the street from my house, which now has apartments, was originally the estate of Oscar Dressler, a bigwig at one of the mills. That was the only residence found in 1889 on my block.
Another huge surprise is that, aside from the 40 years that my grandmother owned the property, 49 Summer Street has pretty much been a revolving door of owners and renters, both before Nana owned it and afterwards. 21st century statistics indicate that only 28% of Passaic residents own their own homes. Being an immigrant city, the rental rate has always been quite high.
Here are the facts I’ve gathered to create the family history of 49 Summer Street. The color coding matches the three sources listed earlier. See the commentary at the end for an explanation of the 1897 and 1898 dates:
1891 – Kaufman Brothers – first residents and possibly the first owner
1892 – E. G. Kaufman, grocer
1894 – James Dunham
1895 – James Ashmead & family
1895 – R.F. Karr, salesman
1896, 26 Oct – James Dunham, registered voter
1897, 12 June – Joseph Morrisse
1898, 4 Apr – J. Lenox Ashmead purchased Otto Lane’s house, 49 Summer St. (Otto was a druggist, the family had a maid and he could certainly afford a second home, but I don’t think he ever lived in the house. He probably used it as a rental.)
1898, 13 June – Joseph Morrisse to James Ashmead, mortgage
1900 – James Ashmead & family
1902, 22 July to 27 October – House for sale, 8 rooms, bath room plus gas and electric lights!
1903 – Rev. Nicholas S. Becker, wife and 2 children (likely the new minister at the Presbyterian church across the street)
1904 – Rev. Nicholas S. Becker & family
1905 – Edwin F. Disbrow, wife, 3 children + Joseph and Viola Polly
1906 – Edwin F. Disbrow
1907 – William H. Woodruff
1910 – William Woodruff & family
1910, 29 Dec – Emily Woodruff hosted Xmas party for friends
1914, 26 June – Emily Woodruff married Joseph Herrington and couple lived there after the honeymoon
1917, 14 Apr – Wm. H. Woodruff, unpaid taxes of $6.79
1917, 30 Aug – Hudson auto for sale
1917, 1 Sept – George Bornkessel, 33 yrs old, bought the house and would live there “after alterations”
1918 – George Bornkessel
1919 – George Bornkessel
1920 – Frank Nitto & family
1922 – Frank Nitto
1923 – Frank Nitto
1924 – George Sabo
1930 – George Sabo & family
1940 – Julia Sabo & family
1956, 21 Jan – Julius Novizcki, renter, injured hand at work
1963, 10 December – house sold to Feodor & Janina Mosentow
1965, 26 Mar – Zdzislaw Fedorczuk, new citizen
1967, 25 Nov – Red Cross seeking Fyodor Vasilyevich Mosentsow/Masanets/Mosentow
1970, 27 May – Yaroslaw Petesh died in a car accident, aged 59
1977, 2 Oct – Oiha Smoroski, 69, injured with other passengers riding a city bus
Believe it or not, there are many others who lived in my house whose names are lost to history because Nana rented out the upstairs bedroom at the back as her source of income after my grandfather died. Julius Novizcki, above in 1956, happened to get hurt at work and have the story in the newspaper.
I didn’t know/don’t remember the names of any others of those men or women. My only memory is of one gentleman with gray hair and later, a lady who was probably 50-60 years old.
By the way, I did look at land deeds for the late 1800s and found an entry for Everett G. Kaufman purchasing a lot from Mary C. Snow on 10 October 1889. There was a building restriction on it for ten years – any building erected on the property could not cost less than $2000!
From this deed, it is evident that E.G. Kaufman purchased the lot and built the house that became my home 63 years later. 🙂
There was also a surprise deed from Joseph Morrisse to Lenox Ashmead recorded in 1898. For $1.00 and other valuable consideration, Morrisse sold the property to Ashmead. It was identifed as the same property conveyed by Everett Kaufman and wife Sarah to Morrisse on 12 June 1897. The buyer, Ashmead, agreed to assume two mortgages for $800 and $1000.
The family tree for 49 Summer Street has lots of branches and leaves on it! How much can you learn about your home?
4 thoughts on “Your House Has a Family History, Too: 4 Ways to Research It”
Great job! Did you know Marian Pierre-Louis is/was a house historian? She wrote some blog posts about it years ago – not sure if they are still online.
I need to do a newspaper search for addresses I guess. Haven’t done that for my Carringer people. Might have a surprise or two!
You didn’t pursue county recorder records that may be online and accessible for free. San Diego County has records from the 1970s on and have been helpful at times. They only show ownership though.
City directories only go up to the 1980s in San Diego so info after that time is limited.
I didn’t know that Marian was a house historian. There was also a young man who blogged about house histories off and on for maybe a year. I encouraged him to continue, but the blog went dormant.
I have looked at Passaic County records and while they have terrific digitized naturalization records, land records only go back to 1996. That’s how I found out I was supposed to hire a title company.
Great post. I have added this to my list of future projects.