Tracing a House’s History

Uncovering a “Genealogy”

Many current and former residents contact the Monroe County Historian’s Office wanting to know how they can learn more about a house’s past. Depending upon the time frame you’re looking for and how much you already know, there are many different approaches to uncovering a building’s “genealogy.”

If you currently own the home, look for the abstract of title you received at the time of purchase. This traces the title to the property backwards through its various owners, giving you names you can then research to fill in your house’s story. Be aware, however, that in New York, title is given only to the land, so you cannot confirm the date of construction of your home simply by finding the earliest owner. This area attracted numerous land speculators up through the nineteenth century who purchased large parcels of land and then resold them for a profit, without making any improvements.

At times, the deed will include a description of what is on the property, and deeds can be researched in the County Clerk’s Office at 39 W. Main St.. Land transactions from February 1984 to the present are available for searching online via the County’s website. Just visit the County Clerk’s Online Office and follow the simple search instructions. You can search by the name of the owner, and determine whom they bought the property from or whom they sold it to.

For earlier transactions, you can visit the Clerk’s Office and search the Grantor-Grantee indexes. The oldest ledgers are grouped together, covering a varying span of years. To use them, begin with the name you know and decide whether you want to search for the previous or next owner. Then go to the appropriate groups of ledgers, remembering that grantors are the sellers and grantees are the buyers.

For example, if you wished to search John Smith’s apple farm, and his is the only name you have, you could go to the Grantee ledgers, choosing the span of years you think is correct. Look in the front at the index that will direct you to the pages where all grantees whose names begin “Smi” are located. Since Smith is a common name, you will want to look at the right of the page for a property location; if Smith’s farm is in Webster, you won’t want to look at deeds in the City of Rochester. Some property descriptions include original tract names and can be confusing, but you can usually piece together which are in the city and which are in a town or village. If you cannot find the property, check the ledgers from the next and/or previous span of years.

When you locate John Smith, you see “Joseph Jones” listed as the grantor. You now have another piece of your house’s history, and the ability to learn more. Go to the Grantee ledgers again; check the index for the pages for “Jones,” and under “Joseph Jones” look for a property description like the one above. This transaction gives you the name of the seller (grantor) to Mr. Jones. In this manner, you can trace a property back to the creation of Monroe County in 1821. The Clerk’s Office also has microfilm of records from Ontario and Genesee Counties where land transactions were recorded prior to 1821.

If you want to know what happened to the farm after John Smith’s ownership, go to the Grantor ledgers, follow the same process as above, and you will be able to ascertain to whom he sold his property.

You will also see a column marked “Liber.” This is the book number and the page number on which the actual deed transfer was recorded. You can request the microfilm for this, and examine and/or print a copy of the deed at the Clerk’s office using these numbers.

You can also learn quite a bit of information about a house in the Local History Division of the Rochester Public Library on the second floor of the Rundel Building. City directories are available going back to 1827 (there are some gaps in the early years when they were not produced) and those from the 1870s to the present are on the shelves. You can look up a name and find the residence, the workplace and the occupation of an individual throughout most of the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries. Many of the city directories also include street directories in the back of each volume. Streets are arranged alphabetically, and next to the house numbers are the surnames, and sometimes family names, of the residents. By using early directories, you can look up the street your house is on, and discover who lived there before and who were the neighbors. Be aware that the city occasionally renumbered streets, especially in 1884–1885 when many were radically altered to provide consistency. If the numbering in earlier directories confuses you, the 1884–1885 directories include two numbers, the old one and the newly assigned one. If the number of your house changed, it will be noted there. These directories also often note vacant parcels on a street, which can help in trying to date your home.

The Landmark Society of Western New York can also be helpful in providing architectural information that may help to date a structure. Its website, www.landmarksociety.org, is a good place to begin to learn more about them.

Tax assessment rolls can help to date improvements, such as a home, on a parcel since a significant increase in the assessed value demonstrates activity. However, New York State has never required governments to hold assessment records of any kind for longer than 10 years, and most do not have to be held for even that long. Some municipalities do have old records, and you need to contact them directly to discover what may be available. New York State abandoned state property taxes in 1928, and except for large estates, there are no assessment records that would be helpful in the State Archives.

If you would like further assistance with your research, please do not hesitate to contact the Office of the Monroe County Historian, either via e-mail through the Monroe County website or by phone at 585 428-8352.

Visit the Landmark Society of Western New York website.

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