Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Genealogy of your Old House, Maps

If you live in an old house, you've probably wondered about the families that lived in your house before you. Who they were, what they did for work, what their lives were like. These are just a few of the things I've wondered about my old house's former residents. Recently I've been researching my family's genealogy trying to prove or disprove old family tales of ancestors being on the Mayflower. The internet has some wonderful research tools so I wondered whether or not I could use these same tools to learn a little bit about the "genealogy" of the Urban Cottage.

The biggest hurdle is learning the names of the former residents. We're extremely lucky in Cambridge to have had a project undertaken by an assistant librarian at the Harvard School of Design to document every building in Cambridge. It's not complete but it does list some key data points which can be helpful.
The Harvard listing for my house shows a two-story structure was built in 1843. In 1842 a land deed transfered ownership from Catherine Watson to Barnes Putnam. It also shows a building tax paid by Barnes Putnam so it stands to reason that Mr. Putnam built the house (or had it built). In 1846 a house tax was paid by the heirs of William Watson so the property ended up back in the hands of the Watsons. The house is also documented on the 1854 Walling map of Cambridge which is the earliest map of Cambridge showing structures. And, finally, the house was sold by George Averill to Jennie T. Ray in 1892.

So let's take a look at maps from Cambridge and see what else they may tell us.
This 1854 map shows houses that existed at the time. Unfortunately there are no names of property owners. Even though I've marked it with a star, it's fairly easy to spot my house because it's right next to the long, narrow strip of land, a little alleyway. Today, it's the last remaining dirt street in the city.Since my house was built 11 years before this map was made, I thought it would be fun to see what the street looked like at the time the house was built in 1843. So using technology, I took the map back in time from 1854 to 1843 by editing out houses (using the Harvard database) that were built after 1843. So this is what my street looked like when the house was built in 1843. It's hard to imagine what all the open space would have looked like.

This 1873 map is the first map I can find that shows property owners. I put a red star next to my house and the little dirt street that borders the garden side of my lot.

These maps seem fairly available on the internet, for urban areas anyway. Try doing a google search for your town's/city's name and "antique" or "historical maps." All of the maps in this post, I found on the internet. If you can't find anything, I'm sure you could make a call to or an appointment with your local Historical Society/Commission. I have found the people at my local historical commission thrilled to help. I'm sure you can also get the information from your Registry of Deeds but that seems a little more daunting to me.

Here's another map of my house from 1894 (just above the red line) showing the house still owned by the Watson family. The Watsons are well known in my neck of the woods. I think it's doubtful the Watson family, who would have been quite wealthy, would have lived in my house. It was very much a working class neighborhood. So it's also important to remember when doing this research that the property owner may not be the same as the resident of the property.

It's interesting to note that this map contradicts the Harvard data which showed the property being sold by George Averill to Jennie T. Ray in 1892. Sometimes this process is like putting together a puzzle that someone's thrown a few extra pieces into. Sometimes you just have to collect and lay out all of the peices and see what you have before the puzzle will go together. Particularly when you start to look at census records, names can be mispelled and sometimes just incorrect.
This 1903 map shows Jennie Ray was the owner of the property. This makes sense if she bought it in 1892. It also appears that the property has been divided into two smaller lots. The previous map showed the lot was 3175 square feet and now Jennie Ray owns 2200 square feet and another owner right behind her has 1000 square feet. Did she divide the property?
In 1916, Jennie T. Ray still owns the property. This woman interests me for some reason. I even like her name.
And finally in 1930, we still see Jennie T. Ray owning the property. I know the family that I bought the house from purchased it in 1940. So it seems the home has transferred hands very few times over its 167 years.

So these maps provide a few names we can research to (try to) learn a little more about the people that lived here. Putnam Barnes, the Watsons and Jennie T. Ray. Next time we'll see what we can find about these people.

Can you find any maps that show who owned your old house?


  1. Hi! I am so enthralled with this post - it was incredibly interesting to read. I am amazed that you found all this information online and I didn't realize that your house was that old. It also continuously amazes me that there are still records saved from so long ago-like with your ancestry search and back to the Mayflower. That's astounding to me.
    I think it would be great art for your home to frame some of these documents and maps. I am definately more determined than ever to research my home more, especially if I can find information on the gentlemen that died in my home.
    You continue to impress me with all your homework! :)

  2. I'm with Sarah, I can't believe you found all that on the internet! My husband spent days in the registry office searching out our place. Good work and I love those old maps!

  3. hi steve,

    fantastic post on ye old urban cottage!

    i love learning about the history of these old places. it fascinates me to no end. i've been contemplating a post on our property b/c it's so darn interesting. this post inspires me to now more than ever.

    great job storytelling too.


  4. Ok, I'm having so much fun exploring your blog! Excellent research on your house. I agree maps can be suhistorical sources on historic properties. Have you tried looking at old Sanborn Insurance maps yet? Many towns had volumes of these and they contain a lot of good information about each property that is keyed to a legend. Some are even color-coded to represent building materials. You should be able to find them at your local library, archives or other repository. Have fun digging for more history!