When we live in a house for a period of time, it begins to accumulate physical and emotional debris for us. People can peel off old wallpaper and find seven more layers of wallpaper underneath. Carpet can hide beautiful floorboards, drywall can hide part of an old brick chimney, a crawl space, or even a secret staircase.
We are constantly touching, inhabiting, breathing and adding more life to our homes. We begin to experience this feeling that our home is a unit in and of itself, something permanent that has always existed. It offers comfort, protection, warmth and water. We can throw ourselves in after a hard day. We can gather our loved ones for a hearty meal.
The room holds the memory. The memory will remain even after the fall of the four walls. A house is not a natural feature. It is an ephemeral architecture – added to, demolished and rebuilt, upgraded with a new roof and paint, or neglected and decaying over time – and follows the dictates of those who dwell in it.
We want to know more about our homes, especially our older homes. Who built it? How old is it? Who lived in it? How has it changed over time? People sometimes want to track down the history of their home. A house is a family tree made of brick and mortar.
beginning of the search
How do you begin to trace the history of your home? I live in New Paltz, so I located Carol Johnson, coordinator of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library. All I knew was that I owned a relatively old cottage in the village.
Johnson said the deed is the first place to look. “Go to your locker or wherever you keep your certificate and look through it because it contains a lot of information,” Johnson advised. She had already made a copy of my certificate. “It will tell you when you bought it, who you bought it from, what your property lines are, what the style of construction is like, what improvements have been made.” its overall condition, how many bedrooms and bathrooms it has and what year it was built.
If you don’t have your deed, you can find a copy of it online by going to the Ulster County clerk’s website and looking under ‘parcel viewer’. “Enter your name or address and the certificate will appear,” Johnson said. “You often get detailed information about previous owners.”
My deed listed the two oldest previous owners and my house was built in 1890. Johnson, a veteran local historian, disagreed with the dating. “Sometimes that date is a guess or something someone said a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s not always accurate.”
Her suggestion was to start with my own act and work backwards. If it only lists the previous owner, she said, look up that deed and then go back.
While the online tool was a tremendous help, Johnson was quick to point out that there was a gap between 1900 and 1950. “The Mormons have digitized everything on their free Family Locator website. In Ulster County, we digitized everything from the 1950s, but the five decades in between require 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 pick up your driver’s license, Johnson explained. “When you are there, you are looking for the Liber [book] and page and find your certificate. You start with your own act and work backwards.”
Since 1965, HHHS has been safeguarding newspaper clippings, photos, letters and any other archival material it can get its 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 fortunately New Paltz had very gossip newspapers,” Johnson said, laughing. The old New Paltz newspapers ran articles or little tidbits about someone building a new porch, putting on a roof, or selling a property to whom. “We cut them all out and then match them to the property,” she said, pointing to the sleeve that contained all of the information they had gathered about my property.
I am the ninth owner of my package.
A newspaper clipping describes how in 1911 Jared Smith built a house on his property purchased by DC Storr, who bought it from Cornelia Deyo Broadhead, who was related to one of New Paltz’s twelve original patentees. According to that History of New Paltz, written by Johnson and Marion Ryan, New Paltz was “founded in 1677 by 12 French Huguenot settlers” who negotiated with native people “for land stretching from the Shawangunk Mountains to the Hudson River.” Dubbed the “Indian Deed,” it exchanged the land for various material goods, including 40 kettles, 100 knives, and 40 oars.
The native people did not have a concept of property in the sense of the Europeans. Referred to as Esopus Sachems, their names were inscribed on the charter that gave the dozen colonial families access to 400,000 acres of land, which was later divided among them by drawing lots from a hat.
The Deyo family, and with it Cornelia Deyo Brodhead, a seventh-generation Huguenot, inherited Lot 4, Tier One, which comprised the three-tenths of an acre on which my house stands.
More detective tools
Through this walk back in history I was able to see how the landscape had changed from a rural to a residential to a commercial landscape. I had learned the names of everyone 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 flood plains to the mountains and back down the valley.
The country was further divided into rectangular pieces over time. The houses in the Village of New Paltz are now just a stone’s throw from each other like in a Fischer Price toy neighborhood.
With Johnson’s flytrap memory, ability to navigate records and websites, and knowledge of matching newspaper articles with deeds and photographs, we could reasonably assume my home was built circa 1911. A trip to Kingston and some further rummaging through the newspaper archives was able to fix this date.
Pointing to various maps on the wall, Johnson explained how the land was originally held collectively by the patent holders and then divided among their children and then others. “Not many cities have a historical collection of this size,” Johnson acknowledged. “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 in it, and what their life was like. “Newspapers and maps are a good resource, as are census records, family histories, obituaries, etc.,” Johnson said. “Letters and diaries and receipts found in attics are very helpful. These will also help you learn about the people who lived in the houses. We probably get one or two requests a week, from Robert DeNiro to you.”
Many thanks to Carol Johnson for all of her help researching this article and to the HHHC for all of their resources.