Each sidebar in An Uncommon Cape: Researching the Histories and Mysteries of a Property addresses a topic that is valuable to researching property and houses. Here is just a snippet from each of them.
CALICO: The Research Process
CALICO is an acronym I have adopted for the key phases of investigating the history of a piece of land. C is for context, A for archives, L for libraries, I for Internet, C for conversation, and O for observation. Follow it and you will find a wealth of information.
Examine Your Property
Investigate your property and your neighborhood. Get a sense of them by simply walking and observing. There are many ways to view a parcel of land. How about a balloon—or Google Earth?
Use databases to find information organized into a searchable format. Part of what is sometimes called the invisible Web or deep Web, databases are accessible only from within a website as opposed to through a search engine like Google.
Contemporaneous newspapers greatly enhance finding out about a particular topic at a given time and place and allow you to glean what contemporary public attitudes toward the issues surrounding it were.
The Internet and the Web
As any schoolteacher will tell you, the Internet can yield information that is incomplete, misleading, or worse. It does, of course, offer a staggering amount of material but needs to be used with care.
Check for what is close at hand. Small, local organizations often do not have the resources to digitize materials and put information online, so going to their facilities in person is a necessity.
Consult magazines particularly in regard to popular culture. Compared to newspapers, magazines tend to be more relaxed in pace, somewhat more literary in tone, and retrospective rather than timely.
Changing Language, Changing Attitudes
Be cognizant of using stereotyping language when speaking or writing about times past or choosing language that might be culturally insensitive in today’s world. Especially when working from historical sources, remember that times change.
The Deed Chain
Each buyer/seller pair in a property transaction is a link in a chain of events, each one tied to the one before and the one after in a series of title exchanges.
Metes and Bounds
Understanding the metes-and-bounds system, which uses physical features of the land to define lines and points along the perimeter of a property, is essential when researching the history of a piece of land.
Use primary sources for information from someone with direct personal knowledge of a topic. It is important to seek out primary sources in lieu of relying solely upon and trusting secondary sources, written after the fact.
Wills and Probate
Wills are great sources of information about people’s lives. They can include occupations, birth places, and, especially important for genealogical purposes, names of relatives. They even can contain inventories of possessions and property.
Stone Walls: What They Tell Us
Picturesque and romantic reminders of the past, stone walls were once expedient ways to address the problem of rocky soil, but they also served as boundary markers for property and played a tactical military role during the American Revolution.
A firsthand report by someone present at an event enhances any historical study and can take many forms—letters, journals, memoirs, government reports, court records, oral histories, published quotations, and interviews.
Examined thoughtfully, the census is much more than a mere headcount. The “United States Census” and state and local censuses are equally useful to research historical topics.
Maps not only represent the physical features of the land, they also tell stories and document human activity in many ways, often revealing biases and political motives.
Look in your local library. It will often have focused information not found anywhere else, including on the Web.
Consult collections of historical records, set aside for preservation. You will find letters, journals, scrapbooks, manuscripts, photographs, maps, objects, audio and video tapes, and much more.
Sometimes what looks on the surface to be the complete solution can be enriched with more digging. Push beyond what seems to be an easy answer. It’s often worth the extra effort.
Why not use the myriad of genealogy websites and library and archival resources used by genealogists to research family history to find information on former owners of your property?
Ask the Experts
Consult an expert when you encounter a question that lies outside your realm of expertise and does not lend itself easily to library or archival research. It may take time and effort to find that person, but it’s worth it.
Research can feel lonely. A good antidote to the isolation is to reach out and engage people, ordinary people—anyone and everyone who is interested—in conversations about the questions and mysteries concerning your property.