Have you ever wondered where your ancestors lived? Not the town or
even the village, but the actual structure inside which they spent their
everyday lives – in a dwelling, tenement or boarding house built of
wood, brick or stone. There are numerous sources to help you learn about
their place of abode. Researching house history is more than finding a
land record confirming ownership – it means learning about their
neighbors and immersing yourself in the neighborhood, as well as the
architectural history of the building they called home.
City DirectoriesStart by verifying where forebears lived
by searching city directories for your ancestor’s name and address
listing. Normally the entry will be annotated in a sort of shorthand
such as “h” (owns house), “bds” (boards), or “r” (rents). Once you have
the address, you’re ready to locate where they lived, in census or on
Finding Them on the MapBegin your map research by locating
one from the same time period your ancestor resided in a particular
place. Explore the options presented in my earlier article, “Mapping Rhode Island”. There are a few additions to
that original list.
· You can obtain maps reprinted from D.G. Beers and Co.’s, Atlas
of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: from Actual Surveys and
Official Records (1870), from the Higginson Book Company, 148
Washington Street, Salem, MA 01970 http://www.higginsonbooks.com/
($6.95 per map, plus tax).
· Explore the neighborhoods of 1917 Providence by using this map on
the University of Texas website: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/rhode_island.html
· An 1895 general map of the state with villages noted can be viewed
Maps created by the Sanborn Insurance Company use color coding to
designate building materials and layout features. The Everts and
Richards set of maps, New Topographical Atlas of Surveys
[Southern Rhode Island, Northern Rhode Island], provide users with a
general sense of the footprint of the buildings included.
Panoramic maps, actually scenes of an area drawn or photographed from
a high vantage point, are available online at the American Memory
Project of the Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/. Search their map holdings by
Land RecordsIf your ancestor owned property – that’s why
it’s so valuable to check for the “h” in street directories – you’ll
want to research the history of that ownership by using land records
available on the town or city level. Grantor/Grantee indices are usually
· Some early property records are in the collections of the Rhode
Island Historical Society http://www.rihs.org/
- or in the hands of local historical societies, but start at the town
hall before looking for records elsewhere. Deeds in Rhode Island are
filed at the town level. Survey the holdings of the RIHS under
“Business: Estate/property/holding,” contained in the Manuscript
Department section of their website, for your town of interest.
· Early land records for Providence exist as reconstructed plat maps
and lists of owners.
· The Home Lots of the Early Settlers of the Providence
Plantations with Notes & Plats by Charles Wyman Hopkins
(1886) (Higginson Books, 1997).
· Names of the Owners or Occupants of Buildings in the Town of Providence,
1749-1771 (1870) (Higginson Books, 1997).
· Lot, Houses & Shops in the Town of Providence in 1798 with
Maps of Providence, 1650-1765-1770 by Henry R. Chace (1914) 1997.
These are useful resources when trying to ascertain when and where
someone lived in the City of Providence prior to the appearance of city
directories in the early nineteenth century.
· Local histories can also contain colonial land ownership details.
Town histories exist for most Rhode Island localities and are available
at NEHGS or through interlibrary loan. Several compilations of colonial
land evidences are in print such as:
· James Newell Arnold, Records of the Proprietors of the
Narragansett, Otherwise Called the “Fones Record” (1894) (Higginson
Books, 1992). This volume covers land ownership in what is now
Washington County, Rhode Island, from a 1659 land grant, and includes
deeds and land transactions until 1686.
· An interesting collection of land ownership records created by the
Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company contains abstracts for deeds
for which it issued title insurance between 1850 and 1905. The material
is indexed by location.
Historic Preservation RecordsDiscovering that your
ancestor lived in a historically significant house is like winning the
lottery. Rhode Islanders like Antoinette Downing were at the forefront
of the Historic Preservation movement. Staff members at organizations
such as the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission and the
Providence Preservation Society have researched many of the early
properties or architectural gems in the state’s cities and towns. Before
examining land records, locate a copy of one of the RIHPC reports on
the community or (in the case of Providence) the neighborhood in which
your ancestor lived. You’ll discover historical and architectural
information on the structure. Reports are available at many of the
libraries and archives in the state and may be able to be obtained via
interlibrary loan as well.
Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission - http://www.rihphc.state.ri.us/directory.htmlOld
State House150 Benefit StreetProvidence, RI 02903- Consult
website for a list of staff and email addresses.
Providence Preservation Society - http://www.ppsri.org/21 Meeting StreetProvidence,
Consult this list of classic titles and new offerings on Rhode
Island’s architectural heritage:· William H. Jordy, Ronald J.
Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward, Buildings of Rhode
Island (Oxford University Press, 2004). Profiles include the current
name of a building, with any earlier names in parentheses, the date of
completion, the date of major additions or alterations and the architect
· John Hutchins Cady, Civic and Architectural Development of Providence
(1957) (Higginson Book Co., 1998). A classic that explores the growth
of the city covering everything from the date streets were paved to
· Myron O. Stachiw, Early Architecture and Landscapes of the NarragansettBasin, vol. 1. Annual Meeting and Conference of the
Vernacular Architecture Forum Newport 2001. Contains house histories and
an essay on domestic architecture in the Narragansett Basin, 1636-1840.
· Norman F. Isham and Albert F. Brown, Early Rhode Island
Houses: An Historical and Architectural Study (1895) (Higginson
Books, 1997). Explores several colonial houses built between 1636 and
1725, dividing them into three categories of architectural development.
Extensive drawings and floor plans accompany the text.
· Richard Grosvenor, Newport: An Artist’s Impression
of Its Architecture and History (Commonwealth Editions, 2002). Uses
contemporary illustrations to accent the text and includes a list of
selected architects of Newport as well as an architectural style sheet.
PhotographsReview the tips in A
Picture Perfect Past: Finding Rhode Island Family Portraits and
apply them to finding images of the houses in which your ancestor lived.
With a street name, you’ll be able to search picture files at the Rhode
Island Historical Society Library by geographical location. You might
even find a picture of your family posed in front of the house!
Architectural DrawingsIn 1982, an extraordinary exhibit
displayed the state’s architectural heritage from the eighteenth through
the twentieth century. The exhibition catalog, Buildings on Paper: Rhode
Island Architectural Drawings, 1825-1945 by William Jordy
and Christopher Monkhouse (1982), presented historical data on many
domestic, industrial and commercial buildings.
While it is difficult to locate drawings of ordinary houses unless
they are passed down from owner to owner, drawings of Rhode Island
houses and buildings can be found in the collections of the contributors
of the exhibition found in the front matter of the catalog. One of the
most extensive collections [c. 1750-1960] of these house drawings is
found at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library; it primarily
focuses on work by prominent architects. According to the collection
description on the RIHS website, the material spotlights “renowned Rhode
Island architectural firms and architects like Albert Harkness; Stone,
Carpenter and Wilson; Monhan and Meikle; Thomas A. Tefft; Russell
Warren; Bowerman Brothers; and William Warner, among others.” There are
also files created by architectural historians Isham and Cady. It’s
worth searching the index to the collection if you have reason to
believe a house was designed by a prominent architect or firm.
Spending time researching the homes your ancestors owned or lived in
is not a waste of time. Discovering that your great-grandfather’s family
lived in the same neighborhood where your great-grandmother grew up
could verify the persistent oral-history account that he married the
"girl next door." It’s also possible that your ancestor built the house
in which he lived and passed it down to his children, creating an
unbroken chain of ownership for several generations. House research is
not just about architectural details, quibbling about gables or gambrels
– it can help to re-create your ancestors’ daily lives.