Using the Chronicling America Website to Research House History

Shrewsbury Park Deeds Article rev

If you are not familiar with the Chronicling America website, it is a joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, and is an attempt to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of United States newspapers. The project began in 2005 and the initial phase covered the years 1900-1910. Currently you can search newspapers from 1836-1922. Right now there are over 6.5 million pages on the site! There are several reasons that this site is exciting to those interested in house history. First of all, reading stories that were written around the time that your house was built will give you a feel for what was going on in your town and the country at that time. The advertisements can give you an idea of what things cost, and how your homeowners may have been dressed. And finally, your homeowners or ancestors may be mentioned in the newspaper.

Once on the Chronicling America site, you can first select the state that your home, or that of an ancestor, is located in. Next you can enter a date range so that you can narrow down the results to the time period that you are interested in. Finally you can enter the appropriate search terms, for example the name of one of your homeowners, the name of the town the house is located in, and even the street or subdivision name. You may need to try variations on the information you enter. When I put the state of Missouri and John Murdoch in the search bar, I got 0 results. However, leaving off the first name and only entering Murdoch resulted in 19 hits. The items are displayed on the computer screen and you can select the ones you wish to look at. Since my Murdoch was in St. Louis, I knew that I did not need to initially look at any of the results from papers outside of the St. Louis area. The search term that you entered will be highlighted on the page, making it easy for you to see if the article refers to the person or place you are interested in. If you find something that you want to keep, you can download a PDF of the article or do a screen capture that you can open in Evernote, Photoshop or another program.

Research House History through Mechanic’s Liens

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Mechanic’s liens can be a useful tool in researching the history of your house. What is a mechanic’s lien? It is a security interest in the title of a piece of property for the benefit of those who have supplied labor or materials that improve the property. Mechanic’s liens have been in existence in the United States since the 1700s, offering protection to contractors and subcontractors in the event of non-payment on services or materials rendered. If your previous property owners owed money due to work performed on the land or building, then a mechanic’s lien may have been filed.

Where can you find out about mechanic’s liens? Start with an Internet search of mechanic’s lien records along with the name of the city the property is located in. For example, a search of “mechanics lien records st. louis” resulted in the information that local lien records are at the Recorder of Deeds office, and also that the Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative has digitized liens filed in the St. Louis court system from April 24, 1824 to December 31, 1875. Perhaps your city or state also has records available online.

What might you find in a mechanic’s lien? The petition for lien may include the statement of the lien, a description of the property, the account of work done, and the affidavit of the plaintiff (the person filing the lien). You should also see a notification to the owner and an account statement listing the materials and/or labor provided. So the lien may not only give you the name of a previous homeowner, but also a description of work that was being done on the house or building. It is worth doing a search to see if you can find a mechanic’s lien on your property.

What if Your House History Appeared on the House?

The house build by my Schwein ancestors in Steinweiler, Germany.

Schwein house

Having just returned from a two week genealogical research trip to Germany and Switzerland, I was amazed at the writing that appears on the old houses in the villages I visited. At first I did not understand what they meant. But then I visited the town of Steinweiler, Germany, where my five times great-grandfather Vitus Schwein lived. Some local historians took me to see the house that was owned by the Schwein family. The historians pointed out to me that the writing on the house not only identified Ulrich Schwein as the owner of the house when it was built in 1717, but the other symbol indicated that he was a blacksmith. As luck would have it while we were photographing the front of the house, the owner returned home from work. After my guides explained to him who I was and why I was in town, he invited us to come inside. What a thrill! To cross the same threshold that my ancestors had crossed centuries ago was an unexpected surprise, and one that still gives me goosebumps.

The current owners are renovating the house, so we were only able to see the courtyard area and the living area immediately inside the front door. The owner pointed out to us that the beams in the ceiling are original to the house, but the others had been replaced over the years. I was amazed that even the beams were still in place. Think of the craftsmanship that has enabled this house to endure all these years.

 

Schwein 1

Ulrich Schwein

Schwein 4

originally the animal feeding area

Schwein 6

courtyard, facing the street

Schwein 7

courtyard

Schwein 8

dining area

Schwein 9

entry area

Schwein 10

kitchen

Schwein 11

original beams

As I looked at these houses and the dates and symbols etched onto them, I couldn’t help but think about all the steps we need to take back in the United States to try and determine when our house or the house of an ancestor was built. How nice would it be if the history was just written on the house itself?

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