Have you ever been curious about the history and genealogy associated with a house? Here are 10 ideas help you trace the lineage of a home.
Several years ago my family and I had the opportunity to spend one year at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania while my husband attended the U.S. Army War College. Carlisle Barracks is one of the oldest Army posts in the United States – second only to West Point – having originally been a British outpost before the Revolution. We were thrilled when we were assigned to live in the old farmhouse on post, due to the size of our family.
Ask the Neighbors
As a genealogist, I was accustomed to living near the world’s largest family history library in Salt Lake City, Utah, which I visited frequently. But for this year, I wanted to find a different kind of project, unique to our location. Naturally, I was curious about this quirky old house we were living in. I started asking around, and was surprised to find that no one on post really knew the background of the house. In fact, when I asked the housing office about it, they casually replied that it was soon going to be torn down to make room for modern homes. That was all the motivation I needed to make researching its history my special project for the year.
The Historical Society
I put my genealogy sleuth hat on and headed over to the Cumberland County Historical Society, one of the oldest county historical societies in Pennsylvania. No sooner had I walked in and explained why I was there, than I was informed that the farmhouse was formerly an important part of the Carlisle Indian School, which operated on post from 1879-1918. Its significance had been dismissed and forgotten, and someone needed to document its history to convince the Army not to destroy it. I enthusiastically volunteered for the job.
They quickly presented me with my most valuable farmhouse record: a copy of a 1918 Indian School magazine article featuring the “old fashioned farmhouse” which was regularly used as room and board for the student farm laborers, and a classroom for their agricultural lessons. The home had been “built some time before the Civil War and was occupied by one of the first families of Pennsylvania.” On the eve of the epic Battle of Gettysburg, just 30 miles south of Carlisle, Confederate troops had invaded the town, and a party of soldiers had been fed and sheltered for the night at the farmhouse.
My first task was to trace the deed history of the house. I made a visit to the Cumberland County courthouse and was allowed into the back rooms where they keep the original oversized deed books. For someone who is used to seeing land records copied on microfilm, it was a thrill to turn the old handwritten pages myself. Normally, genealogists study deeds to determine familial relationships between grantors and grantees, but this time I was tracking the various owners of the farmhouse. I knew at some point a family had sold the house to the Army. I also knew there was a large spring pond behind the house, and that the small housing development across the street was named “Parker Springs.” Taking this hint, I soon found a record of Andrew H. Parker selling his farm and farmhouse to the U.S. Government in 1887. Cross-referencing the Parker name in the index, I next found Andrew’s father, Richard H. Parker, buying the farm from Daniel Keiffer in 1860. Daniel Keiffer had, in turn, bought the farm in 1855 from Ulrich Strickler, who had owned it since 1825.
Armed with these names and dates, I returned to the Historical Society where the Cumberland County tax books were housed. These old books with their cracked leather covers and yellowed pages were even more thrilling for me to handle than the deed books. Normally, tax records are useful to genealogists for tracing individuals and family groups as they came and went in a county. In this case, I was tracing the farmhouse property through its various owners, watching its monetary value fluctuate over the years. Thanks to very detailed notes from the tax man, I learned that in 1853, Ulrich Strickler’s property included a stone house. Three years later in 1856, Daniel Keiffer’s property contained a brick house. This meant that the brick farmhouse I was living in had most likely been built in place of an older stone farmhouse soon after Daniel Keiffer bought the farm in 1855.
The tax books solved another farmhouse mystery for me. There was a rear addition or “ell” to the house that appeared in the oldest picture of it, taken in 1895. I wanted to know when it had been built. Between 1880 and 1883, the gross value of the Parker farm jumped from $6,240 to $10,300, even though the acreage remained the same, suggesting that it was during this time that the rear wing was added on to the house.
Folklore vs. Fact
As my investigation progressed, I had many conversations with various Carlisle locals, asking what they knew about the farmhouse. The maintenance man who came to fix the old boiler in the cellar said he had heard from a former maintenance man that the farmhouse was used as a social club for the segregated African-American soldiers on post during World War II. I was fascinated by this story, but I also knew that family folklore has often been exaggerated and changed over the years. The wise genealogist takes family stories with a grain of salt, while recognizing that they usually do contain “nuggets” of truth. The same wisdom applies to house histories.
The Local Library
I made sure to include a trip to Carlisle’s public library, which had a special local history room. Genealogists know the great value of these rooms, as they often contain local family records which can’t be found anywhere else. There I found Thomas G. Tousey’s Military History of Carlisle and Carlisle Barracks, which became a foundational source for my study. In it, I learned that after the Indian School was closed at the end of World War I, the Parker farm and its farmhouse continued to serve the post with fresh food and agricultural training. In place of the Indian student farm laborers, “a detachment of colored soldiers” worked the land, and most likely socialized in the farmhouse.
The U.S. Census
Sure enough, the 1930 U.S. Census reported a group of eleven African-American soldiers living together on the north corner of Carlisle Barracks, right where the Farmhouse was. Ten years later, in the 1940 U.S. Census, they were gone. Thus, one of the most-used genealogical sources—the census—had confirmed the folklore, but it had also pointed out the inaccuracy in the story; the farmhouse had indeed been a social center for African-American soldiers on post, but this had happened during the 1920s and 1930s rather than during World War II.
Finally, the census revealed a surprisingly personal connection to my beloved farmhouse. The 1880 U.S. Census showed that Andrew H. Parker, who I knew was living in the farmhouse, had a wife named Mary. Using my superpower genealogy skills, I was able to trace Mary back to her parents and siblings, and I discovered to my great delight that she and I shared the same maiden name—Hammond. Although I have yet to determine if or how our family branches connect, this knowledge adds even greater meaning to my yearlong labor of love.
Genealogy Makes a Difference
Happily, with the historical significance of the farmhouse restored and shared, descendants of the Carlisle Indian School students rallied and convinced the Army to cancel the demolition. Plans are now underway to use the house as an Indian School heritage center, to honor the experiences—both positive and negative—of the thousands of Native children who attended Carlisle and its sister schools throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Remembering our past, documenting our ancestors, and even our historic homes, adds depth and meaning to our culture, and brings people together when they learn of their shared heritage. The availability of genealogical sources is greater today than ever before.
How will uncovering the story of a historic building or home make a difference in your family or community? Legacy Tree Genealogists would love to help you get started! Contact us today to request a free quote.