Breathing Life into Our Ancestors through House Histories

Developing a family tree is obviously of great interest to genealogists and family historians, but without knowing ancestors beyond their name, dates, and the people they are connected to, the list becomes just that, a list. On the other hand, what if you knew (even if you’re not a genealogist) that your ancestor lived in a house just around the corner from where Oscar Wilde was visiting a famous actress, Lillie Langtry, who was scheduled to make her American debut in a play in the Park Theatre across the street from where your ancestor conducted business on a daily basis? Or what if your ancestor occupied the apartment just above where a gathering took place denouncing loyalty to President Lincoln during the Civil War? When we look over the information we have gathered as a family historian or genealogist, we find that it is the specific and unique details that breathe life into the names that one has gathered. Rather than take the view that all people living in the 1800s dressed alike, took part in identical current events, ate the same food, lived in a house that was built in that era, and interacted with no one but their own relatives, why not discover what their personal life was really like?


Before beginning the process of discovery that will bring life to your ancestor the foundation must be laid. This starts with developing the framework of a plan including the choice of a family member who will be the focus individual and the location that is to be searched. While discovering the history of a dwelling, the information may touch on more than one life in the family, but your research should always return to the individual who is the focus of your search. Next, record all the background information beginning with the property street number and name. Locate the designated block and lot numbers which are generally found at the municipal or county clerk and often available online as well. Include the current town, county, and state keeping in mind that town and county lines may have changed over time. Part of your foundation investigation will include searching building records, studying and recording the physical aspects of the architecture and what you observe about its construction and possible alterations.


Once you have made a building choice and have your framework in place, a number of resource materials are available to begin constructing your ancestor’s life story including architectural books, municipal archives, online resources, local, county, and state libraries, building records, tax records, city directories, censuses, genealogy databases, architectural resources, and my favorite, newspapers. Organization is essential and knowing/discovering the area history as well as state, country, and world events will enhance your ancestor’s story and possibly dredge up additional questions that need to be explored.


Though there may be several dwellings and/or businesses in your ancestor’s past, as a general rule, each should be researched separately after which consideration should be given as to whether or not the history of the buildings should be woven together. Producing a cohesive story from what can amount to hundreds of pieces of information is an art which is a subject for another blog entry. Throughout future blog entries on this topic, specific steps and tips for how to search some of the individual resources, and breathe life into your ancestor through house histories, will be explained in more detail.

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