Using Addresses to Research House History

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While working with the Webster Groves Historical Society on an upcoming World War I exhibit, I was asked to do some research on a house located at 9504 Big Bend Road in Crestwood, just west of Webster Groves. The house reportedly belonged to the son of Christopher Hawken, of the Hawken rifle family. As I began to do some research on the Hawken family, my first challenge was that the son also had the name of Christopher Hawken. So whenever I found that name listed I had to ascertain if it was the father or the son in the record. The early census records obviously gave me the Township but not the actual address of the family, so I turned to city directories for assistance. Because Christopher Hawken, Senior died in 1905, I knew that any reference to the name after that date was for the correct Christopher Hawken. All the directories showed Chris Hawken residing on Sappington Road, south of Big Bend. Hawken had married Mary Emily Sappington in 1895, so they had property either near or on her family’s farm. Obviously the information given to us about the house at 9504 Big Bend was incorrect since it is located about a mile east of Sappington Road. But perhaps another member of the Hawken family lived at that address.

A further search of the directories revealed that the widow of Henry Hawken (brother of Christopher Hawken, Junior) resided at 826 Big Bend, and that Harry Hawken (son of Henry Hawken) lived at 810 Big Bend. Those two house numbers no longer exist in the community of Crestwood. Is either of them now 9504 Big Bend? It is a possibility. I did not pursue the research any further because the bottom line is that we did not have a direct connection to Christopher Hawken. If I wanted to go the next step with this particular project, I would have continued to look year by year through the city and county directories to try to find if and when the address changed for that house. I bring this up just to caution you that addresses have changed over the years, so the best thing to do is to make sure that the legal description of the property matches once you find a house and a deed to go with it.

Using the Chronicling America Website to Research House History

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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.