Award-winning author, speaker, public historian, professional genealogist and archivist.

I’ve been researching and writing local history, both black and white for nearly forty years.

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Researching the history of a place

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When one buys an old building, or home, they buy history! No matter if it is in a big city or a town, or out in the country, if its old – it has history! I’ve been working on a project writing the history of 150 buildings on Saint Charles Main Street and even though I’ve been writing and researching for over 30 years – every building’s story teaches me more! Research of a place, whether it be a building, a cemetery, a school, a church or where a historic event occurred, it has a story! Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned over the years on how to learn the history of your place!

Begin by building your timeline with Deed and list of Owners

You can start with the legal history of the property. Its like the skeleton, and I’m not talking about ghosts! Its’ the framework of who was the legal owner and when. But not all owners lived on a property, and not all owners are a single person, but sometimes a society or group of trustees, a school board, or even a “benevolent” association. To begin with you have to know the first owner, and each subsequent owner of the property and the dates that they owned it. Most begin as U.S. Land, but could be early Spanish land grants as well. Someone purchased it from either of those and then sold it. Those sales, are Deeds that are recorded at the County Recorder of Deeds. Now if you are lucky enough to have one of those good old fashioned abstracts around, that the deed company provided when the property changed hands, this is great. What you want to create is the same thing, the transfer each time the property changed hands, who it was sold to, what was on the property, and when exactly this happened. This creates a timeline of the property. When buying a property the title company is doing this research but its expensive, and well-worth it. This can take quite a bit of time in the County Recorder of Deeds office. In St. Charles County (MO) one can research the deeds online in St. Charles County at https://stcharles.landrecordsonline.com/index.html at almost any time of day! This is a great advancement through technology. You will want to read the actual deed and make a copy to refer to. These old deeds can tell you a lot whether it was Main Street or a cemetery!

Its’ the people who tell the “STORIES”!

Now its’ time to be part genealogist and part “history detective”! Once you have developed your timeline of who owned the property and those dates you will want to know more about the people!! That is the flesh and blood of the story. The lives of the people who lived or died on your property. The stories are not always limited to the “property owner” though! Innkeepers, churches, slave owners, schools, cemeteries are all examples to stories linked to a place and not the owner. Deeds, tax documents and estate probates can tell you more sometimes about the buildings. Plat maps share where schools and graveyards, mills and orchards, creeks and churches are. Sanborn Insurance maps were used by local insurance salesmen to document the buildings make up, roof, doors and windows for the big insurance brokers in the east. Circuit Court records are full of disputes over properties where the mortgages weren’t paid, or siblings fought over who should get what. Newspapers will share the stories of fires, murders, and lynchings! And the stories don’t stop there.

So many sources

There are so many sources for this information!!! You can spend forever developing the story of your property just researching the lives of all the people who lived there. You may even want to consider Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places if it qualifies, and it hasn’t already been done. Check first to see if its listed and if its eligible at https://dnr.mo.gov/shpo/ where there is a great group of people ready to answer questions! Below is a list of a few online links that you many find helpful….

Further steps in developing your place’s history …

  • Death and Taxes are the two things you can’t escape. Those records in St. Charles County (MO) can be found at https://lookups.sccmo.org/assessor where all the public records for property can be found. If its in St. Charles County they’ve got it. You will find the Deeds literally in the Recorder of Deeds office in the new St. Charles County Administration building on Second Street in St. Charles. This date is not to be taken as absolute though.
  • Newspaper articles can be found at either https://www.newspapers.com/ for a cost or many can be found in the archives of the State Historical Society of Missouri where they have microfilmed thousands of newspapers. To find out what newspapers they have see http://shsmo.org/newspaper/ or check out some of the great collections of newspapers at the St. Charles City-County Public Library at the Kathryn Linnemann branch through http://www.youranswerplace.org/ which is also free. What are you looking for? If the owner died a tragic death you will find it in his obituary, or if the house suffered damage in the cyclone of 1876, or maybe he did something famous that put him in the newspaper.
  • If you proficient in genealogy and have an Ancestry.com account try searching the families that lived there in the Public Family Trees. If you find your people, contact the owners of that tree. They will love knowing and having pictures of their ancestors house! You will want to connect with earlier families that lived in your house because only they can give you pictures of the Christmas tree in front of the mantle or Grandpa on the front porch. They are a resource like no other! Also consider https://www.familysearch.org/ as a FREE website with the Church of Latter Day Saints behind it. This is a huge database that you can create a free tree and log into thousands of digitized records. There is more to Genealogy than just these sites though!

Suggested research sources…

  • Sanborn Insurance Maps that show what your house looked like in certain years. University of Missouri has been Missouri’s resource and has them available online…https://dl.mospace.umsystem.edu/mu/islandora/object/mu%3A138690
  • Tax books! Nothing tells a story better than when the value of a property. No one escapes the tax man! The Assessor decides how much the value should be. Just like today, financial crisis and wars do affect these things. The Collector tells you if the taxes. were being paid, by whom and by when!

Check back to this site and learn more research methods that I will be posting periodically….



2 responses to “Researching the history of a place”

  1. Janet Newberry Gralen Avatar

    Thank you for the timely article! I did not know there were so many resources available online. My home has had 8+ owners since 1892 so I’ve got my work cut out for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dorris Keeven-Franke Avatar

      The hardest part can be the deed research. And it is actually easier I find right there in the Recorder of Deeds office. Remember GRANTOR is seller and GRANTEE is the buyer. The St. Charles County Historical Society can help you determine your Lot and block number that you will need to use the Index to locate your first deed in 1892. Sounds like your already well on your way!


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