Researching the History of Your House

Researching your home history is like building a family genealogy.  Begin with what you know about your house from the time you purchased it.  Write down any previous owners and related stories passed on to you by your realtor, neighbors and former occupants. Use these notes as a beginning reference as you explore primary resource materials. The following lists are good places to find information about your house.

Andover Assessors office

Andover - Memorial Hall Library

Andover Historical Society

Essex Northern Registry of Deeds in Lawrence, MA [ENTDL]

Essex County Registry of Deeds in Salem, MA [ERDS]

Peabody - Essex Museum Research Library, Salem, MA

Massachusetts State Archives in Boston

Haverhill Public Library - Special Collections Room

Newspapers; Andover Advertiser, Andover Townsman, Lawrence-Eagle Tribune

National Register Building Survey Inventory

Local Cemeteries; Spring Grove, South Church Burying Ground, West Parish Garden Cemetery, Christ Church Burying Ground, Academy Burying Ground, St. Augustine’s Cemetery, Jenkins-Woodbridge family lot and the Gould family lot.

How to Begin — Deed Research

Step one – Deed, book & page - To find the approximate age of your home and past ownership you must do a deed search. The Essex Northern Registry of Deeds offices in Lawrence (deeds from Sept. 1869 - present) and the Essex County Registry of Deeds in Salem, MA (Deeds- 1600’s - 1869) are the two locations to reseach deeds of properties in Andover. If you have a copy of your original deed the Book and Page number will be on the document of your recorded deed in Lawrence. 

This information is now available online by going to the Andover town website at andoverma.gov.  Open Get Connected on the dashboard and then choose Assessed Values.  Click to open andover.patriotproperties.com. Enter your street name and scroll down to your house number. Click on the line of your property which will open your current property information. The Legal Reference numbers are your book and page at the registry.  A visit to the Assessor’s office at town hall also has books for your deed information. There are two books available, one listed by owners and one listed by address. There is also a computer terminal for obtaining information on your home and property. This is also a good time to request copy of your plot plan by map number and lot number. This map will give the dimensions of your property, square footage and abutters in the neighborhood. Also available online via Get Connected under GIS maps which includes a layout drawning of your home.

Step Two — Deed Search at Registry of Deeds

The Essex County Registry of Deeds are located in two locations. The main branch at the county seat at Salem, MA contains all the county deeds from the 1640’s to the current date. The Essex Northern District Registry of Deeds -ENDRD- in Lawrence, MA is on the third floor of the former Wood Mill Buildings on Merrimack Street.  All deeds for property in Andover, Lawrence, Methuen and North Andover from the current date and going back to September 30,1869 are recorded here. All deeds are now available online by computer. Deeds are recorded three ways for cross referencing; First by book and page, 2nd recorded by Grantor, (the seller) and 3rd by Grantee (the buyer).  Deeds give the dimensions of the property, date of sale, all owners, buyers, spouses names, sometimes the sale price and almost always the book and page number of the previous sale transfer. Begin your search online with book and page numbers working back in descending order. Record all the grantor and grantee names, book, page and dates of sale.  Banks often hold the deed until mortgages are paid off but the grantee names are still the legal owners unless they default on the loan.  Sometimes an owner will hold the mortgage for the new owner or use his/her property as collateral to obtain a loan from another individual and transfer the deed over to him.  It is then transferred back when the loan is paid back. Some deeds may refer to a Plan number.  Record this information too as it will also give a map of your property or the former farm or estate that the neighborhood development was created from.

The Northern Essex Registry Deeds, Lawrence website has updated the look and format of searching deeds. It is different format from the original site but for the first time researcher you may find it easy to navigate through.  Search Registry Deeds, enter Book & Page - Below the green bar - look for the Book Icon Recorded - click, Document Image list - View Image Online, click and your deed will appear.  Scrolling to the next page involves clicking Document Image list at the top of the page and entering next page number of the deed.

Essex County Registry of Deeds – Salem, MA

The Salem Registry of Deeds contains all recorded deeds and probate records for towns in Essex County. The deeds from 1640 - 1869 for the County and Northern Essex Co. are now available on line.  All earlier deed books have been transferred to the Massachusetts State Archives Building at Columbia Point in Boston, located near the Kennedy Library. The earlist books 1640 - 1750 have also been microfilmed and are available to the public at the Peabody Essex Museum. Call the library for the hours they are open for researchers.

To begin your search of deeds before 1869 go to the website for Essex County Registry Deeds, Salem, MA - Open on Southern Essex Registry of Deeds. Click on Search Our Records 1640 - present - Start Here.  If you have your Book and Page #s enter them in the boxes and click Document Info.  then View Original Document.  A point to remember: A Page is now refrenced as a Leaf in deeds, which is two open pages in a book.  If you don't see your deed on the first Leaf scroll on to the next as it will appear somewhere on that page.  At the top of the page is a house icon with two green arrows to scroll forward and back on the pages of the deeds.

If you don't have the Book & Page numbers you will need to open the Index Books tab on the first window and search by Grantor or Grantee.  Three tabs include deeds, 1640-1799 - 1800 - 1854 and 1855 - 1950. Click on the appropriate year tab and enter name of Grantee and Search.  the 1800 - 1854 deeds are divided into five periods of dates. Only a Surname search is available so look for the Town of Andover after the names.

What if a book and page is not referenced in the deed?

If this happens during your search, the Grantor and Grantee books will provide the missing book and page numbers not recorded within the deed. These two sets of books record the Grantors (sellers) and the Grantees (Buyers) separately in alphabetical order by date of the transaction.  These books are also now online in the Search by Name windowa. The books are still available at the far end of the floor as you enter the registry in Lawrence.  The books list date, names, town and the book and page number to the next deed.  Once you have reached the last book of your search in Lawrence, if your home is older than 1869, the deed will reference a Book and Leaf number at the Essex County Registry of Deeds in Salem, MA. The Grantor and Grantee indexes are also online via the Salem registry website.

Things to keep in mind as you read through the deeds

The deed concerns the property transaction and not necessarily your house. Pay close attention to major changes in lot size. This could be a clue that the property has been divided off from a larger lot or estate.  Most deeds will state “with buildings thereon” or a certain “message of land” which means with buildings. Some deeds say "Moiety" which means one half or a portion or share. If neither are mentioned, it is likely the property was sold and your home was then built sometime later by the new owner, but not always. Some houses also burned to the ground and were rebuilt. You can’t assume that the structure mentioned in your deed is in fact your house. If a map number is given within the deed, record the number as you can then see the plan via the website page. If you go to either office site the clerks will guide you through the use of the computers if the maps have been added to the system. If not, they can provide you with a hard copy. Copies can be made and purchased for a small fee and are also now available online.

Street names and numbering system

Streets and roads close to the town or village center were often named quite early in the 19th century but as you travel farther out the roads were often referenced as “the way from Mr. John Smith’s to Mr. James Abbot’s, each living at the extreme ends of the road.Andover finally adopted street names for all roads in 1905. Some road names were changed at this time, such as Mineral St. became Red Spring Rd., Green St. is now Morton St., Village St. is now Shawsheen Rd.  Deeds will reflect these changes by stating, “Formerly known as…..”

Street numbering systems were also adopted with the numbers increasing as you travel away from the town center. Odd numbers were assigned to houses on the right and even numbers to the left in most cases but not all.  In 1959 it was necessary to re-number most houses in many sections of town as lots began to be subdivided, especially in West Andover. Some changes were dramatic such as #183 Argilla Rd is now #93.  Don’t assume the resident moved, only the number was changed. Check the 1958 with the 1959 Andover Street Directories at the library or historical society

What if my house was moved to the property?

Deeds only follow the land and not the structure. Deeds do however mention land “with buildings” at the time of sale.  If your deed no longer states “with buildings” it is likely that your house was either built at this time or moved to the lot if the house is from an older period. Moving structures was a common practice in 18th and 19th century New England.  Moving a major structure however would have been an event and possibly written about in a local newspaper. Often a brief news line may state, Mr. Smith has purchased the former James Abbot house and relocated it to his new lot. Now you have the former owner name. Maps can reveal where Mr. James Abbot lived. Andover may be unique in that we have over 250 documented structures that have been moved.

Units of measure

Units of measurement in land surveys have changed over the years.  Feet and inches are most common in late 19th and all 20th century deeds. Earlier deeds used the archaic British system using rods, poles, links and chains. A rod is equal to 16.5’ and a link is 7.92”. Twenty five (25) links equals 1 rod. 100 links equals “a chain” which is 66 feet.  A pole is 1 square rod. Copy the first deed you encounter with the measurement change to use as a reference as you continue your search. The further back you go in years the less accurate the deeds become. Reference points can be trees, rocks, fences, and buildings that have long since disappeared. Keep notes on abutter’s names and total acres included within your property to make sure you are continuing on the right property. Best advice, don’t try to convert the measurements just familiarize yourself with them and keep an eye out for major discrepancies.

Other Resources

Probate Records at the Registry of Deeds in Salem, MA

Personal wills are also a great way to find out more about family and relationships. If a person dies intestate, (without a will) or defaults on a mortgage, the court is required to settle the estate. A complete inventory is done of all personal property and real estate. Alphabetical indexes by date of death are located in books in the Probate office. Write down the probate number and hand it to the clerk. They will retrieve the estate papers for you to read. Early records have also been relocated to the state achieves. Some probate records have recently become available online via the Salem website and are also on Ancestry.com.

Federal & State Census Records

A search of Federal and State census records will give all family members living at your address during that year.  The First Federal Census began in 1790 and continues to this day, once every ten years. 1940 is the latest available year opened in April 2012.  Included in the records will be age, occupations, place of birth and marriage status. Sadly 1890 records were all destroyed in a fire so a search of Massachusetts Census records of 1895 may fill in the missing gaps.  Ancestery.com has all this information available on their website which can be accessed via the Memorial Hall Library. The Haverhill Public Library also has the census records on microfilm. Call ahead for the hours of their Special Collections room.

Street Lists & Directories

Town Street Lists and Directories are another great resource for locating family members and occupations. Both the library and historical society have copies of directories that were published every other year from 1885 to the 1940s and every year since 1948.

Tax Evaluation Records

Tax evaluation records, published every ten years from 1850 through 1920, give a wealth of information on individual personal property, number of acres owned, and building values of houses, barns and other structures on the property. WHERE?

Vital Records

Town Vital Records on microfilm at the library give birth, death and marriages from 1650s through the early 20th century. Published books containing the same data from 1660 to 1850 are also available for research.

Newspapers

Local newspapers often publish lengthy obituaries or obsequies on prominent town residents and can give vital family member information to aid in your research. Newspapers can be found at the Andover Historical Society and at the Memorial Hall Library (on microfilm).

Cemeteries

The town’s Spring Grove Cemetery was established in 1871; burial records are available online via andoverma.gov website under e-Services and Cemetery search.  The South Church burying ground, est. 1712. is available by loging on to the South Church Andover, MA website. West Parish Garden Cemetery also has a website currently listing notable people interred there and the superintendent  is always accommodating.  The Old Burial Ground of Andover 1660 located in North Andover has just been made available via the North Andover Historical Soc. website.

Maps

Maps are also a good source to locate owners of your property. Andover has published maps of 1830, 1852, 1855, 1872, 1882, 1888 and 1906 that include owners’ names and house footprints and locations on the map. Several more recent maps have been published that no longer contain individual marked property, but do list new streets and developments.

Collections

The Andover Historical Society has a large collection of research on historic houses in town. The holdings include an extensive photographic collection on individual homes and streets in town. A check of the files by street and house number could provide you with a period photo of your home. Be sure to check the files of villages of Andover too.  Once you have the former owner names look for individual family files of genealogies and photographs.

Memorial Hall Library has all local newspapers available on microfilm.  Town directories, family genealogies, and all town meeting records and school reports in bound volumes are available through the reference desk.  Computer terminals are available to guide you to the local town websites and cemetery records.

Dating Your House

Finding the exact date that your house was built is perhaps the hardest fact to uncover in all the research.  Deeds can lead to an approximate year but unless you uncover a recorded contract between the builder and owner or a deed that specifically states when the house was built, use the prefix “Circa” before the date.  Period and style of the home will give you a general clue as to the time frame. If you are lucky to uncover a beam or board with a date and name on it you will truly be a fortunate home owner. There is also a scientific approach called dendrochronology.  Core samples from beams in your home are taken and sent to a lab for examining the growth rings. From a library of 350 years of growth rings from virgin forest trees in the region, lab technicians can calculate to within a few years as to when the tree was cut from the forest to build your house. This is however a costly method and may not always produce the desired date you wanted to see.

Creating a Story About Your House

Once you have completed the deed ownership genealogy you will have a list of the families who owned and most likely lived in your house. Properties were sometimes rented out or boarders taken in for extra income, so don’t be dismayed if the surnames don’t match up with the owner. Record the people’s names, as they may be relatives of the spouse.

As you gather more information about each family from the sources listed above, a story will begin to emerge. Substantiate your findings with references and sources; don’t rely on information through conjecture. Family histories and traditions handed down through generations can be useful tools, but may also be filled with misinformation and myths. Stick to the facts. If you debunk a myth while doing the research, state the myth and the facts that dispute it. If you assume something to be true or false, state your assumption but let the reader know.

Keep your work organized in a binder for easy access. You are now the steward of your property. Most of all have fun while doing the research and don’t forget to include a brief history of your own family. If you have made renovations, explain what was done and when it was completed so future generations will understand the evolution of the home.

Applying for a Historic House Plaque

See this page on the Historic Building Marker Program.