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The Research Journey

One of the challenges I encountered in my research journey was untangling fact and fiction. At times the two intermingle, and what may seem to be uncertain or false—whether it is folklore, myth, tradition, rumor, or pure fantasy—often contains a kernel of truth. When asked “Is that a true story?” a professional storyteller told me his answer is always the same: “There is truth in every story.” Sometimes a fiction develops from a kernel of truth, especially when the truth is unfamiliar or unpalatable. And sometimes the fiction advances the search for the fact.

When the new century brought me and my husband a new house—a small and simple place—it came with three mysteries. At the closing on the property I learned from the former owner that my 1930s home was “a Sears house or something like that.” Owning a mail-order “kit house” sold by Sears from 1908 to 1940 and transported by railroad car to be assembled on site—all 30,000 separate parts, including 750 pounds of nails, enough paint and varnish for four coats, a seventy-five-page bound book of instructions, and even the lock and key for the front door—sounded intriguing. I set out to find evidence to prove that my house was a Sears house.

A second mystery came to light after the closing in a packet of papers from our lawyer—a building inspector’s letter containing a reference to the house having had, at one time, a different address. Why would a house have had another address?

Even more provocative was the discovery of several iron stakes protruding from the property’s enormous granite outcropping, bigger in square footage than the house itself. When queried about them, the former owner told me, “Someone a long time ago kept monkeys there, chained to the stakes.” Monkeys? Was this some kind of suburban legend?

The mysteries aroused my curiosity and precipitated a research journey taking me back to the 1600s. Intent upon finding the facts, I gradually peeled back layers of history, allowing the house and the land to tell their stories, finding a past inextricably woven into four centuries of American history. At the same time I found thirty-two owners, across 350 years, who had just one thing in common—ownership of a particular parcel of land.

As I unraveled the mysteries, it occurred to me that everyone’s home has a story to tell. At my house there is no historic marker out front, no designation as a historic site. It’s not even very old, and George Washington certainly never slept there. But stories I did find. An Uncommon Cape: Researching the Histories and Mysteries of a Property tells the tale of my eight-year odyssey of fact-finding and speculation.

In our “genealogy-crazed era” (Felicia R. Lee, “Family Tree’s Startling Roots,” New York Times, March 20, 2012), it’s true that many cannot trace their ancestry for one reason or another. People encounter insurmountable barriers to completing the family tree—adoption, migration, divorce, displacement, illiteracy, enslaved ancestors, the change of a surname, the loss or destruction of documentation, or the lack of time and financial resources to do the necessary research. But everyone can trace the history of the place where they live, and that kind of research has the added advantage of archival information usually being available close to home. People move, the land doesn’t. A genealogy of a piece of land is democratic and offers a heritage available to everyone—everyone lives somewhere.

Released September 2012, SUNY Press