If there is one piece of evidence that gives me a sense of discovery & accomplishment for the hard work I put into research, it is the land deed. Deeds provide a tangible way to see with your own eyes that an ancestor was present in a certain place. All you have to do is use the words in the document to locate that place.
In most states that were settled after 1785, it is relatively simple, with a system that divides lands equally at right angles. If you’re trying to do this in New England, good luck. A different system was used prior to the revolution, and it was based on what was in use in England for centuries. I’ve had a difficult time pinpointing boundary lines that use trees that have long since fallen down and stakes in the ground and heaps of stones as turning points. You can educate yourself on the jargon of the times, rods and chains, but mapping it out can be very cumbersome, if not impossible. Thankfully we have creeks and roads that do not change much, and offer enough of themselves in the metes and bounds system of colonial deed script.
After you have interpreted the deed for the exact location of the land your ancestors owned or rented, you probably want to visit the site and breathe in the air. I like to take photos, draw a schematic including the roadway in front and document at what angle each photo is taken. However, it isn’t as meaningful if the present dwelling is not the one standing at the time of the ancestor’s residency. Therefore, I use a few websites to determine the age of a house. When I know the home I’m looking at is the same one they lived in, I enjoy the process so much more.
Let’s take my great grandfather’s house as an example. He owned several lots on Coulter Street in Creston, Ohio, and four more in Rittman, Ohio, a few miles away. When I searched the internet for these addresses, I found that the homes now standing on them were built in 1928, 1932, 1956, etc. Except one. My great grandfather died in 1926, so it is obvious it was not him that had these homes built. It’s probable that the one he lived in was the one on Coulter Street that was built in 1920. His obituary says he lived on Coulter Street, but any one of those lots could have had an earlier house built upon it.
How do we find the age of a home?
There are more governmental ways to determine the age of a building though a simple way to do it from the internet is to use real esate web sites. Zillow is popular, but it’s not the only one. I used to use Trulia.com exclusively because it was the only one that gave the year built in the description. Zillow had stepped up recently and now provides this as well. Both web sites are owned by the same conglomerate, Zillow Group, as is hotpads.com, geared toward renters. The three web sites do not seem to be be much different in terms of information provided, though Trulia includes crime information and Zillow includes minor details that Trulia does not. These items, however, are moot to the genealogist. Crime in a neighborhood today is not an indication of what it was like fifty or a hundred years ago. As a genealogist, I am most interested in two things on the site: photos and the age of the building. Even aspects like indoor plumbing and how many rooms are not indicative. Any home could have been remodeled to add or subtract these amenities.
I am interested in photos because many listings have interior shots and snaps of the back yard, areas you wouldn’t be able to see if you were doing a drive by shooting (with a camera, of course). The photos tend to be duplicated among the different web sites, as this one was part of a group of exactly the same album on both sites.
I also typed in a great great grandmother’s former address on a different side of the family, at 168 Hudson Street, Tiffin, Ohio. You can see plainly where it lists the house as built in 1913. Though sometimes it’s even written into the narrative.
I then typed in a 3x great grandfather’s address for a home that was built in 1859. The home built in 1859 exists. I took a photo standing in the street in font of it.
But it only shows up on Zillow, not Trulia or Hotpads, and there is no photo. Just a map.
Another one of Zillow Group’s companies was realestate.com – and it was absolutely useless for any practical purpose. It didn’t even find the addresses I typed in.
The last two web sites I’ll discuss are realtor.com and homes.com – I’ll lump them together because neither were impressive. While homes.com did provide the year built, there were no photos and it was a very disorganized layout. Realtor.com displayed the same information or less, but did provide the full photo album that was offered by Zillow and Trulia.
All these sites claim to gather their information from public records. It’s not hard to believe that at least one of them does, but I presume that some get their information from the other, so they’re not exactly adhering to the most absolute genealogical proof standards, but it’s a quick lookup if you’re in the moment.