Before you begin, remember not to place your expectations too high. Whether researching to satisfy your own curiousity or to provide details of your home to future generations, you may have to build the specifics out of some very vague material and perhaps be satisfied with less than a complete picture. Be cautious in forming conclusions. The records you will find can be full of gaps, errors, and tantalizing hints. Do not be surprised to find conflicting information.
Plan to keep accurate notes on all of your research, including dates, volume numbers, and page numbers. "Where did you find that?" is a very important question. "I read it somewhere," is not an acceptable answer.
Note: although steps 1-7 are outlined below, it may be necessary to skip from step to step (and back again) in order to work in a linear fashion through time.
Building materials and techniques, placement of chimneys and windows, etc., will give you the first clue as to the approximate age of a house. Look also at additions to the home and/or any outbuildings, as they may have been built significantly earlier or later than the main structure. Books in the general collection of most public libraries describe characteristics of various periods of architecture and may assist with dating parts of the home, and there are many websites dedicated to this topic.
The easiest place to begin your research is the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS). Although not all properties are listed here, quite a number of historic properties are. If you can't find your property by street number, try using just the street name as not all street numbers were included when the database was set up. If your home has a name it is known by, such as the "Keith House," try searching using the term "Keith" and omitting the street name and number. If you find your home listed, click on the link under the "Inv No." column to open the property's page, and then click on the blue "INV" button. This will start the download of a PDF file that will often contain photos and maps of your home, as well as details as to the architectural features, previous owners, and history. This should give you plenty of details to start your research project. If you don't find your home, don't be discouraged. At least you tried!
Check the "Field Card" record of your house and land, which can be found on your town's assessor's website. A Field Card typically contains the following information: owner information, year the home was built, square footage, type of foundation, type of roof and wall materials used, plat plan (assessor's map) the home can be found on, dates of additions and alterations, etc. Most of the information here pertains to the house as it stands today, but you may still learn something you didn't know. For instance, the type of material used in the home's foundation may help you narrow down a date of construction. Also be aware that it is not unusual for the date of construction listed on these "cards" to be incorrect. Start by clicking on the link to your town assessor's office below, and then search by your property address. You may want to print the field card for your records.
Depending on their workload, the staff in the Assessor's office may be willing to help you locate your lot on their earliest Plot Plan map. If you are able to do this, note the dates of the maps and the names of owners and neighbors shown.
Historical maps can be found in the Historical Rooms of the Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater, and Brockton libraries, as well as at the Old Bridgewater Historical Society. As mentioned before, the Town Assessors' offices may have historical maps as well. Be sure to call ahead and check their open hours before traveling across town (also keep in mind that the librarys' Historical Rooms may not have the same open hours as the hosting library). If you are able to find any maps showing your home, write down the dates of the maps on which your home appears and the names of successive residents as they are shown on maps from different dates. Also take note of any changes in nearby street names. Tip: Remember that residents listed may not be the home's owners.
Before you can begin researching when your home changed hands and for how much, you have to have a rudimentary understanding of how deeds work. When a home changes hands, there is no way to know when it is going to be sold again in the future. Therefore, starting at the beginning with the oldest deeds and working forward isn't feasible. It is possible, however, to start with the most recent deed and work your way back through time. Each deed should list (at a minimum) the volume and page numbers of the county's deed book in which the last sale was recorded. By looking at your current deed, you should be able to find the information pertaining to the prior deed, and that should have information about the previous deed, and so on. Keep in mind that deeds sometime also reference the book and page of the plat plan the home appeared on at the assessor's office, so make sure not to confuse the book/page info for the deed with the book/page info for the plat. As you work your way back through time, make sure you are writing down the volume and page numbers you found. It will save a lot of time.
Before we discuss how to find these deeds, remember that when you are reading these deeds, you should make notes of the following items that may prove to be useful in later research:
- The name of the buyers and sellers. In earlier times, a married woman could not own property in her own name; her property would legally become her husband's. It is therefore not uncommon to either find no mention of a wife in a deed, or not find her mentioned until the last paragraph. Even if she is not listed, keep an eye out for her signature releasing any claims she may have had to the property.
- The names of neighbors. These names may be helpful in locating your home on older maps, or may prove to be relatives to your home's previous owners.
- Mentions of homes and outbuildings. This may help you narrow down when barns and wellhouses were built or torn down, or when additions were made to your home.
- Depending on the level of detail you want, you may want to compare boundaries described in one deed to boundaries described in another. This will help identify when a property was parceled out, and help determine what the size of the property was originally. For instance, it would not have been uncommon for a man that owned 100 acres to give each of his sons a 20 acre tract of land on which to build a home.
Now that you have an idea of what to look for, go to the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds either in person or via their website. Whether you research from home or make the trek to Plymouth, you should become familiar with their website interface, as you will probably use it to look up the deeds even if you visit in person. Although you CAN pull every deed book you need off of the shelf, this can be very time-consuming and hard on the back. Although researching from your sofa at home is much easier, printing copies of the deeds for your records is not. The deeds you view online will contain a rather large watermark image through the document unless you pay $30/month to join the site. Even as a member, you will still be required to pay $1 for every page you print at home. If you visit the Registry in person, you will not need to pay the $30/month and you can view the images without watermarks, but you will still be required to pay $1 for each page you print (keep in mind they only take cash or checks). You may wish to do the very time-consuming research from home (where the internet website also makes zooming in much easier), and visit the Registry in person only to print the documents you find. If you plan to do your research at the Registry, plan on several hours on site.
Using the Registry of Deeds Interface
When you visit the Registry's website, there are many ways to search. Since most deeds reference the previous deed's book and page numbers, we will focus on this method search. First, click on the "Search Criteria" drop-down menu that appears at the top of the screen:
Then choose the appropriate search option (either books numbered 1-2392, or books numbered 2393 and later):
You will then enter the book number and page number you are looking up:
Once you find your document, you can open the image and zoom in and move it around. You will want to verify that the document you pull up pertains to your property. As you go back in time, you may not find the document you are looking for as easily. The earlier deed books had pages that were numbered as folios, rather than individual pages. This means that either the front and back of a page bear the same page number, or when the book is laid flat, both the left and right pages bear the same page number. Because the pages were entered into the system in today's format where each page surface is numbered individually, the numbers assigned to the pages in the website may not be the same page numbers assigned to the page by the original author. To find the page you are looking for, it may be necessary to double the page number you are looking for in the search box on the website, and look both at the previous and next pages.
To explain this a little further, here is an example: the deed you have in your hand says that the previous deed was recorded in book 15, on page 30. In the website's search boxes, you enter book 15, page 30. However, the image you pull up shows a hand-numbered page number of 15. This is because the book has two page 1s, two page 2s, two page 3s, and so on. So, to find the page you are looking for, you need to enter book 15, page 60 into the site's search boxes. If the document is still not the one you are looking for, remember that there are TWO page 30s in the book, so you may need to search for book 15, page 59 or book 15, page 61 to find the second page with a hand-written number of 30.
Once you find the page you are looking for, record the book and page number as you searched for it. This way, if you need to locate this deed on the site again in the future, or if you intend to drive to the Registry to print a copy, you will easily be able to go straight to the correct document. This frustrating feature is one of the reasons you may decide to do your initial research from home.
If you choose to print the deeds either at home or on-site at the Registry, it is highly recommended to write the book and page number on the back of each printout immediately. It is very easy to get the documents out of order, or forget which document came from where when you look at these printouts later.
You may come across a deed that, rather than referencing a previous book and page number, states that the seller received the property in a will or bequest. The document should list the name of the deceased from whom they received the property, and hopefully, but not often, a year of decease. In this case, you have a few options for locating a copy of the document.
- Visit the Plymouth County Registry of Probate in Plymouth in person (this building shares a parking lot with the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds). Once there, you will need to ask for the probate indexes, which are, as of this writing, in a room of the building's basement. Found in volumes bound by year, they list the deceased alphabetically by surname. The books list the deceased's probate case number. You will then take this case number to the probate court, fill out a request form, and wait patiently while a clerk pulls the file. You will then be allowed to examine the file, without leaving the room. Things to keep in mind: this is a federal building, so it is necessary to go through security before entering. Because it is a courthouse, no recording devices are allowed. This means you will not be allowed to take a camera to photograph any documents. There is a copier available for a fee. Also, older case files are stored offsite and may require a wait of several weeks before you can return to the building to view them. There is also a change that the clerks will refuse to pull older files and instead direct you to one of your next two options below.
- American Ancestors, a website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), has a database of probate records called "Plymouth County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1686-1881" available online. Their site, however, is not free, and requires a membership to NEHGS (currently $95/year). This database can be searched by name and town, and has black and white images of all of the documents in the deceased's probate case file. There are other benefits of membership, and if you are doing regular research as a genealogist, this website is highly recommended. It contains a host of Massachusetts-specific records that are not available on Ancestry.com, including church records, probate records, and vital records. Keep in mind the probate database is only good for probate cases recorded through 1881. Locating documents from cases later than this will require either using Family Search (see next) or a trip to the Plymouth County Registry of Probate. If vising the Registry, it is much more likely that these records will be kept onsite and not require a repeat visit.
- Family Search, a website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormons), has several online databases pertaining to probate records from 1686 to 1967. The website is free to use (although you must create an account), however, most of the records are not indexed, and will require some time-consuming (and confusing) manual searching. The methods by which the wills were kept varied as time progressed, and often, if you want to find all of the documents pertaining to a case, you may need to search an index, and then check one book for the proving of the will, another for letters of administration, still another book for the will itself, etc. If a person died intestate (without a will), there should still be documents stating how the court divided up the deceased's estate. If you find the documents you are looking for, it is smart to either print them, or write down the name of the book you found them in, as well as the page number. Remember also to record the probate case number.
Wills often do not describe how the deceased came to be in possession of the house and land you are researching. If this is the case, then how do you go back one step further in your research? The best option is to go back to the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds website, and see if you can determine when the land was sold to the deceased person named in the will. To do this, change your search criteria to "1685-1969 Grantee Index" (grantees are the receivers of property). Once you have chosen this, a drop-down will appear that will require you to enter a year to search. Once you have chosen a year, enter the persons name as follows: LastName FirstName, with no commas between the two. Have a piece of paper handy to record possible books and pages, for which you will once again have to change your search criteria from the main drop down menu.
If you don't know what year to search, you may want to see if you can determine the approximate time frame the person moved to the house by proceeding to Step 7, and then going back to the Registry.
By now, you should have at least a partial list of names and dates. You may now begin the process of "fleshing out" these names to determine who these people were, and what their lives were like. Did they own your home for long? Were their babies born in the house? Did they run a business from the home? Here are some guidelines on where to begin your research.
There are quite a number of books available online pertaining to the families of Bridgewater, Brockton, East Bridgewater, and West Bridgewater from the mid-1600s through the early 1900s. Here are a few recommendations:
Nahum Mitchell's History of the Early Settlement of Bridgewater, published in 1840, which provides a history of Old Bridgewater (today encompassing all four towns), from 1656 to the late 1830s. It is helpful in determining who "J. Keith" might have been on an 1837 map, or how many Benjamin Washburns there were living in the area. The book can be especially helpful if more than one generation of a family lived in your home. Although this is the best book to begin with, be aware that there are some errors in the text, and facts should be checked against official records if they exist. Copies are available for purchase at the Old Bridgewater Historical Society's Memorial Building.
Bradford Kingman's History of North Bridgewater, published in 1866, lists the history and family records of North Bridgewater (now known as Brockton). Very detailed and in depth, it can be helpful in ways similar to Mitchell's History of Bridgewater (see above). Copies are available for purchase at the Old Bridgewater Historical Society's Memorial Building.
Williams Latham's Epitaphs in Old Bridgewater, published in 1882, is a book of gravestone inscriptions in the town of Bridgewater, and can be helpful in determining birth and death dates, as well as names of spouses and children. Many of the gravestones mentioned in the book are illegible today, so the book and the cemetery maps it contains, can be invaluable to researchers of the town's original families. Copies are available for purchase at the Old Bridgewater Historical Society's Memorial Building.
Vital Records to 1850 were gathered and published in the early 1900s by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. These books usually detail the dates of births, marriages, and deaths, as well as names of parents and spouses, and the occasional occupation or cause of death. They are readily available online, or can be found at the local libraries and are available for use at the Old Bridgewater Historical Society. They can be found online here:
- Vital Records of Bridgewater, Volume 1 (Births)
- Vital Records of Bridgewater, Volume 2 (Marriages and Deaths)
- Vital Records of Brockton
- Vital Records of East Bridgewater
- Vital Records of West Bridgewater
Copies of the original clerks' registries of vital records can be increasingly found online at both Ancestry.com and at FamilySearch.org as well. These documents were the basis for the bound volumes mentioned above.
Find A Grave is another useful online search tool. Easily searchable by name, this site can help you determine, in addition to location of burial, dates of births and deaths, names of spouses, and family structures. Keep in mind that any information you find here was added by researchers with various skill levels and may not be accurate. Ideally, information should be taken directly from the photographs of the gravestone, but even gravestones have been known to be incorrect!
Town Reports began in Bridgewater in 1847, and in the 1880s for the other towns. Volumes after 1866 contain lists of births, deaths, and marriages. Tax payer lists were printed intermittently, as were resident directories that also list a person's address and occupation. Copies of these are available at the various town libraries, and at the Old Bridgewater Historical Society. If you are looking for a specific year, you may want to call ahead, as most of these organizations do not have a complete set of the books, or they may have microfilmed versions only (with or without a way to view them).
Census records are a great source for determining family structures, ages, and occupations. Although Federal censuses began in 1790 and were done every 10 years, it was not until 1840 that names of family members began to be documented. In addition to the Federal censuses, Massachusetts performed a state census in both 1855 and 1865. Census records can be readily found online at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, AmericanAncestors.org, and more.
We have touched on the main sources used, but there may be others you wish to pursue. Newspaper articles, obituaries, school yearbooks, scrapbooks held at libraries, and more can often be found with a little digging. This may be a great opportunity to visit each of the town libraries and discover their Historical Rooms, as well as your local Historical Societies, and all that they have to offer. You may even get lucky enough to find old photographs of your home and its occupants!
Now that you have spent some time doing research, it is time to start connecting the dots. You may find that you reach a point where you can find no earlier records, and you will have to date your hoe according to the earliest mention of a building. The chances of nailing down an exact date of construction for homes older than 80 years may well be impossible. Even if you can take deeds back to the 1600s, there is no way to easily prove that the house you have today was the same one that was built then. Houses get torn down, or even burn down, and get rebuilt. Older homes could have been moved. Even if the property is the same, the owners may have let the older home fall down while they built a newer home on another portion of the property. Since deeds don't normally provide descriptions of the appearances of buildings on the land being conveyed, you may have to rely on architectural features of your house that are datable.
Even if you can't find the definitive date of construction you were looking for, you should now have a record of the persons that have owned your land, and who took care of the location you call home today. You should have an idea of the lives that little piece of property touched, and a sense of the joys and griefs it saw. Hopefully, along the way, you enjoyed breathing life into your home's past.
What now? Consider turning the tale of your home into a coffee table book, writing a historical article for a local newspaper or Society newsletter, or just gathering everything in one place and passing some of the pride in your home to the next family that comes along. You enjoyed the story; make sure others can, too!