Teaching > RWU HP224 Preservation Research - Fall 2002

Guide to Research Sources
Adapted from: Researching a Historic Property, National Register Bulletin #39 (part IV) by Eleanor O'Donnell 1991, revised 1998, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register, History and Education,
Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Part 60

When researching a property, both primary (original and archival) and secondary sources should be used. The following list includes both primary and secondary sources.

Material Sources Potential Information Yielded Possible Application to National Register Nomination
Abstract of Title
  • Owner
  • Office of attorney who did title search
  • Title company files

  • Summary of relevant deeds, mortgages, wills, litigation, tax sales
  • Names of owners
  • Dates when property changed hands
  • Descriptions of legal boundaries

  • Possible establishment of "association" with significant individuals
  • Establishment of built dates and alterations
  • Boundary descriptions
  • Historic names of properties
Architectural / Construction Drawings
  • Owner
  • Architectural/engineering firm or successor firm
  • Headquarters of organization or firm that built the structure
  • Recent tax assessor's records
  • Newspaper references
  • Architect/builder
  • Plans
  • Materials
  • Built dates and alterations
  • General construction information

  • Appearance of original building and any major additions
  • Integrity of property
  • Period of significance and significant dates if nominated under Criterion C
Architectural Journals

  • Specialized fine arts libraries
  • Original architectural publications

  • Architectural articles from historic period
  • Architectural biographies
  • Architectural drawings and photographs

  • Architectural description
  • Statement of significance

Building Permits

  • Municipal building inspector
  • City/county records office
  • City/county/State archives

  • Architect
  • Existence of architectural drawings
  • Client
  • Contractor
  • Cost and date of work
  • Alterations

  • Information for Criterion C: significant style or type of design
  • Identification of the architect or builder
  • Material for description
  • Establishment of integrity
  • Built dates
Cemetery Records
  • Cemetery administrators
  • Cemetery offices
  • Churches, rectories, and diocesan offices
  • City hall and courthouse

  • Family relationships
  • Birth and death dates

  • Biographical details of individuals associated with property

Census Records (1)

  • Population
  • Agricultural
  • Manufacturing
  • State archives
  • Federal Records Center, Suitland, MD

  • Residents of property for years census taken
  • Property ownership
  • Acreage, crops, and livestock
  • Types and locations of manufacturers
  • Ethnic backgrounds of residents, ages, and education levels
  • Names of family members
  • Proven association of individual with property
  • Occupations
  • Under agricultural and manufacturing data, potential documentation and justification for Criteria A and D
  • Historic context
Church Records
  • Parish churches
  • Diocesan offices

  • Birth
  • Death
  • Baptism
  • Marriages
  • Biographical details of individuals associated with property
City Council or County Minutes, Ordinances, Etc
  • City clerk
  • Clerk of superior court or county courthouse
  • Ordinances of resolution affecting a property, subdivision, etc.
  • Dates
  • Description
  • Information pertaining to area of significance, e.g., community planning and developmen
Commercial Histories
  • Head offices of companies
  • Local or regional libraries
  • Historical societies
  • Corporate records

  • Histories of local industries and businesses

  • Information pertaining to area of significance, e.g., commerce, economics, and industry
  • Justification for significance of industrial and commercial properties and downtown historic districts
Community/County Histories
  • Local/regional libraries
  • Historical societies
  • Fraternal organizations
  • Information about structures, people, and events: pertinent dates, locations, activities, biographical sketches, etc.

  • Information about events, activities, and individuals for Criteria A, B, and C
  • Association: information that may tie events and activities directly to the property
  • Leads to other sources of information
  • Historic context
Corporate Business Records
  • Ledger Books
  • Client Files
  • Advertisements
  • Corporate/business archives
  • Specialized libraries
  • Present corporation/business

  • Nature and source of items sold
  • Economic base of community


  • Information pertaining to area of significance, e.g., commerce, economics, and industry
Court Documents

  • Courthouses
  • State archives

  • Civil and criminal indices: civil and criminal court actions, divorces, property suits, etc.
  • Voting rolls (may be more easily obtained in smaller communities)
  • Probate records

  • Biographical details of individuals associated with property

  • Clerk of superior court, county courthouse
  • State archives

  • Ownership or title
  • Property value (noticeable change in value could indicate construction, additions, change in makeup of neighborhood, and change in fortunes of the community)

  • Proven association of individual with property
  • Dates of original construction and any additions
Directories (3) and Gazetteers

  • Local/regional libraries
  • Historical societies
  • City directories: occupants of dwelling by alphabetical listing, addresses, and businesses
  • Business directories: lists of merchants, addresses, and advertisements
  • Social directories: names of community's social elite listed alphabetically and by streets; hotel occupants
  • Gazetteers: information on rural areas, businesses, and towns


  • Criteria A and B
  • Association of property with individual

Estate Records

  • Wills
  • Inventories and appraisals
  • Administration of estates,
  • Annual returns and sales


  • Office of the judge of probate/ county courthouse/town hall
  • State archives (prior to 1900)
  • Private records
  • Historical societies
  • Value and apparent wealth and size of dwelling
  • Property changes
  • Ownership changes
  • Rental information
  • Sales of land that may never have been recorded by deeds

  • Family relationships
  • Significant events
  • Clues to other sources
  • Information about building

Family / Personal Papers

  • Letters
  • Diaries,
  • Ledger books, etc.
  • Bibles
  • Published family histories
  • Present owners
  • Past owners
  • State archives
  • Descendants
  • Genealogical libraries and bibliographies
  • Local/regional libraries
  • Historical societies
  • State/Federal archives
  • Ownership
  • Descriptions
  • Photographs
  • Architectural Plans
  • History/events

  • Family relationships
  • Record of significant events
  • Information on significant persons
  • Appearance of original building
Genealogical Records
  • Historical societies
  • State and national archives
  • Local/regional libraries
  • Biographical publications
  • Genealogical publications and libraries
  • "Vanity press" county histories and family histories
  • Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, Genealogical Society

  • Biographies of individuals
  • Family histories
  • Photographs and drawings of home and family members

  • Information about family homes
  • Criteria A, B, C, and D
  • Association of individuals with property and events
Homestead Records (for some Western States)
  • Federal Records Center, Suitland, MD
  • Bureau of Land Management, State offices (for patent numbers)

  • Application indices: When and where buildings and structures were located on homestead, marital status, children, ages, and national origin

  • Proven association of individual with property
  • Information pertaining to area of significance, e.g., agriculture


Insurance Records
  • Owners (past and present)
  • Insurance company offices (sometimes only main or regional offices)

  • Floor plans
  • Dates of construction
  • Increases in premiums that may indicate when a change was made to the structure

  • Appearance of original building and any additions


Interviews and Oral Histories
  • Current or former owners, occupants, and observers

  • Personal recollections about property: its original appearance, evolution, and uses.

  • Leads about verification of appearance of original building and any additions
  • Significance of owner and property
Land Records
  • Bureau of Land Management, Washington, DC 20240 (contact for general material and addresses of State offices)

  • Information concerning properties and people, dates, locations, events, activities, and biographies associated with them
  • Former General Land Office (GLO) holdings, including:
    • Homestead patents
    • Mining district and patented claim records
    • GLO maps and plats


  • Proven association of individuals or Federal agency with property
  • Information pertaining to area of significance, e.g., agriculture, conservation, and exploration/settlement

Maps and Plats (4)

  • Town maps
  • Property plats
  • Private and family maps
  • Land ownership maps
  • "Bird's Eye View" maps
  • Developer's town layouts
  • Tourist maps
  • Landscaping firm layouts
  • Sanborn or Baist Insurance maps
  • County courthouse
  • City hall
  • Printed books
  • Local/regional libraries
  • University/college collections
  • Surveyor general
  • Library of Congress
  • Architect's/landscape architect's firm records

  • Location
  • Boundaries
  • Uses
  • Outbuildings

  • Boundary information
  • Criterion C
  • Integrity of property

Military Records
  • National Archives: Prior to World War I
  • Federal Resources Center, St. Louis, MO: From World War I

  • Pension records, addresses, and status
  • Various materials, including personal letters, family bibles, and marriage certificates

  • Biographical details of individuals associated with property
Newspapers / Sunday Supplements

  • Local/regional libraries
  • State/Federal archives
  • Historical societies
  • Newspaper morgues

  • Advertisements: names of occupant/owner, address of property, and use of structure
  • Society pages: gossip columns; articles pertaining to local social events, ceremonies, weddings, births, and meetings
  • Obituaries: information about owners and architects
  • Articles about local building efforts, architecture, etc.
  • Birth, death, and wedding announcements
  • Criteria A, B, and C
  • Function
  • Description of property
  • Building dates
  • Significance of property and owner
Photographs and Postcards

  • Owners
  • Historical societies
  • Local antique shops and flea markets
  • Local/regional libraries
  • State archives

  • Architectural and landscape features
  • Alterations
  • Associated structures
  • Associated with persons and events

  • Appearance of original building and any additions
  • Integrity of property
Tax Records
  • Judge of probate: city/county courts
  • Tax assessor
  • State archives
  • City/county clerk

  • Description of structures
  • Dates
  • Evolution of property in relation to city limits or county development
  • Drawings and plans
  • Increases in valuation may suggest new improvements or construction

  • Relative value of property
  • Proven association of individual with property
  • Integrity of property


1. Federal census records generally are released to the public seventy-five years after the census is taken.

  • The earliest Federal census available is 1790.
  • Most Federal census records prior to 1880 do not contain house addresses.
  • The regular 1890 census was destroyed by fire. However, some special census schedules are available, including information on surviving Union veterans of the Civil War for certain states.
  • Check the availability of State censuses. More recent and detailed data are available for some states.

2. One caution about deed information: when the deed goes back to the 1700s or early 1800s, you cannot automatically assume that the structure you are investigating is the same one referred to in the earliest deed. The original structure may have been destroyed, and you may be investigating a replacement built at a later date.

3. City Directories: During the later 1800s and the early 1900s, many cities had directories that listed people at their home addresses, and often included occupational information. These directories--if compiled for your community--should be available in your public library or historical society. Having obtained a list of owners from the deed records, you can try find the people in these city directories. In cases where occupations and titles are given, you can see the rise (or fall) in the fortunes of the past owners by noting the changes in their occupational descriptions from year to year.

4. Old maps are important sources of information about the location of a structure and its immediate surroundings at a given date. They are useful for dating buildings and additions. Some city atlases (e.g. Sanborn or Baist) are at a scale to indicate approximate dimensions. They often show the position of utilities, grade levels, types of construction, and the height of buildings. The accuracy of maps varies, and sometimes they depict proposed improvements that were never built, or that were built in a different manner. Even recent maps may contain significant facts about historic properties.