When we live inside a house for a period of time, it begins to collect physical and emotional residue for us. People can remove old wallpaper and find another seven layers of wallpaper underneath. Carpets can hide beautiful floors, drywall can cover part of an old brick fireplace, a crawl space or even a secret staircase.
We touch, live, breathe and constantly add more life inside our homes. We begin to feel this sense that our home is an entity in itself, something permanent that has always existed. It provides comfort, shelter, warmth and water. You can throw yourself into it after a hard day. We can bring our loved ones together for a hearty meal.
Space contains memory. The memory will persist even after the fall of the four walls. A house is not a natural element. It is impermanent architecture – added over time, torn down and rebuilt, improved with a new roof and a coat of paint, or neglected and deteriorated – according to the dictates of those who inhabit it.
We want to know more about our houses, especially our old houses. Who built it? How old is he? Who lived there? How has it evolved over time? People sometimes want to trace the history of their house. A house is a brick-and-mortar family tree.
Start of research
How to start tracing the history of your house? I live in New Paltz, so I tracked down Carol Johnson, coordinator of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library. I only knew that I had a small, relatively old house in the village.
Johnson said the act was the first place to look. “Go to your safe or wherever you keep your deed, and look at it, because there’s a lot of information in it,” Johnson advised. She had already made a copy of my deed. “It will tell you when you bought it, who you bought it from, what your property lines are, how it was built, what upgrades have been made.” The deed also lists the home’s assessed value, a description of the property, its general condition, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms it has, and the year it was built.
If you don’t have your deed, you can find a copy online by going to the Ulster County Clerk’s website and searching under “Parcel Viewer”. “Type in your name or address and the deed will appear,” Johnson said. “Often he will give you detailed information about previous owners.”
My deed listed the two oldest owners and said my house was built in 1890. Johnson, a seasoned local historian, disagreed with the dating. “Sometimes that date is a guess or just something someone said a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s not always accurate.”
His suggestion was to start with my own act and work backwards. If it only lists the previous owner, she said, find that deed, then backtrack.
While the online tool was a huge help, Johnson was quick to point out that there was a gap between 1900 and 1950. Search”. In Ulster County, we’ve digitized everything since 1950, but those five intervening decades necessitate a visit to Kingston.
I am the ninth owner
The deeds themselves are housed in the county clerk’s office on the second floor above the DMV, where you go to get your driver’s license, Johnson explained. “When there, you look for the liber [book] and page and find your act. You start with your own action and work backwards.
Since 1965, HHHS has kept newspaper clippings, photos, letters, and any other type of archival material they can get their hands on. They put everything in a plastic sleeve inside hundreds of blue binders that contain the history of every residential and commercial building in New Paltz.
“Newspapers are a great source of information, and luckily New Paltz had very talkative newspapers,” Johnson said with a laugh. Old New Paltz newspapers would contain articles or small bits of information about someone building a new porch, building a roof, or selling property to whom. “We cut out all of these items and then associated them with the property,” she said, pointing to the pouch containing all of the information they collected on my property.
I am the ninth owner of my plot.
A newspaper clipping tells of Jared Smith building a house in 1911 on his property, which was purchased from DC Storr, who purchased it from Cornelia Deyo Broadhead, who was related to one of New Paltz’s original twelve patentees. According to History of New Paltz, written by Johnson and Marion Ryan, New Paltz was “founded in 1677 by 12 French Huguenot settlers” who “negotiated land stretching from the Shawangunk Mountains to the Hudson River” with Indigenous peoples. Considered an “Indian deed”, he traded the land for various material goods, including 40 kettles, 100 knives and 40 oars.
The indigenous peoples had no concept of property in the sense of the Europeans. Called Esopus Sachems, their names were drawn on the deed, which gave the dozen or so colonial families access to 400,000 acres of land, later divided among them by drawing lots from a hat.
The Deyo family and therefore Cornelia Deyo Brodhead, a seventh generation Huguenot, inherited lot 4, level one, which comprised the three-tenths of an acre on which my house sits.
Other detective tools
Through this walk through history, I was able to see how the landscape changed from rural to residential to commercial. I had learned the names of all the people who had owned my property before me. I could imagine the fertile soil of the Wallkill River and the Munsee Esopus and Lenape tribes moving from the floodplains to the mountains and back to the valley.
The land has been divided into rectangular pieces over time. The houses in the village of New Paltz are now a stone’s throw from each other like in a residential neighborhood of Fischer Price toys.
With Johnson’s memory, his ability to navigate files and websites, and his knowledge of how to cross-reference newspaper articles with deeds and photos, we could reasonably assume that my house was built around 1911. A trip to Kingston and some further digging into the journal’s archives might fix that date.
Johnson showed various maps on the wall and explained how the land was originally owned collectively by the patentees, then divided among their children, and then others. “Few cities have a historical collection of this size,” Johnson conceded. “Many only have one shelf in a library.”
Luckily, there are other ways to find out who built your house, what kind of people lived there, and what their lives were like. “Newspapers and maps are a good resource, as well as census records, family histories, obituaries, etc.,” Johnson said. “The letters, diaries and receipts found in attics are very useful. These also help you know the people who lived in the houses. We probably get one or two requests a week, from Robert DeNiro to you.
Thanks to Carol Johnson for all her help in researching this article and to HHHC for all their resources.