Researching Your Historic Home at the Registry of Deeds
One Good Deed Deserves Another: Researching Your Historic Home at the Registry of Deeds
Adapted from an original article published in the BNA Newsletter, Lowell, c2002.
All houses have a history. Whether your home was built in 1910 or 1960, every house has a story to tell. Every home in Somerville has clues to uncovering the history of our neighborhood and the people that once made it home. There are many ways to research a house. One of the first steps to any hunt for house history is a search of public records. Public records can include property deeds, wills, city tax records, city directories, city maps and local building records. If your home is in Somerville, your first stop should be a visit to the Middlesex Registry of Deeds - Southern District located at 208 Cambridge Street in East Cambridge (617-494-4500, hours: Monday - Friday 8AM - 4PM).
The Southern District office has deeds for the towns of Acton, Arlington, Ashby, Ashland, Ayer, Bedford, Belmont, Boxborough, Burlington, Cambridge, Concord, Everett, Framingham, Groton, Holliston, Hopkinton, Hudson, Lexington, Lincoln, Littleton, Malden, Marlboro, Maynard, Medford, Melrose, Natick, Newton, North Reading, Pepperell, Reading, Sherborn, Shirley, Somerville, Stoneham, Stow, Sudbury, Townsend, Wakefield, Waltham, Watertown, Wayland, Weston, Winchester and Woburn.
At the Registry, you will find all deeds and mortgage documents from the early 1600s to the present, subdivision plans and historic atlases. Deed records at the Registry can help you find out who originally owned your property, what were the original boundaries of the property, how the property was originally divided and much more. Deeds provide a "chain of ownership" from one owner of a property to the next. Deeds do not always tell you who lived in a property (owners sometimes rent), but they are a very useful starting point for any house research. Deeds can tell us more than just who owned a property. Deeds often contain the selling price of the property as in this early transfer of property in Lowell, Massachusetts.
"Whereas we the Sagamores of Penecook, Pentucket, Squamsquot, and Nuchawanack are inclined to have the English inhabit amongst us by which means we hope in time to be Strengthened against our Enemies … in consideration … valuation in goods already received in Coats, Shirts, and victuals...convey all that part of the Main Land bounded by the River of Pisattaqua and the River of Meremack … Passaconaway Runaawitt Wahanqnononawitt Wardargoscum." Doubtful Book 2, Page 123, May 17, 1629
"We, Susan B. Butters and Eleanor P. Butters of Lowell in consideration of Three Thousand Dollars grant to Abel T. Atherton of Lowell the land on the Easterly side of Fairmount Street... The said premises being deeded under the express agreement and condition that the land shall never be deeded or conveyed to any person born in Ireland" Lowell Registry of Deeds, Book 14, page 340, May 5, 1881.
For homeowners, the simplest way to search for old deeds is by the Registry Deed Book and page number. Your current deed should include a previous book and page number from the seller's deed. For example, on my deed the following appears: "conveying all and the same premises to us conveyed by __ by Deed dated April 9, 1971 and recorded with said Registry, Book 1954, Page 537." By examining Registry Book 1954, page 537, I was able to find an earlier deed for my property in Book 1856, page 597. By following each book back in time, a "chain" of ownership is established.
Book / Page
Sept. 12, 1932816 / 545Felix GuilletAnnie H. McGowan
Dec. 8, 1922673 / 273Joseph GuilletClara Guillet
Oct. 11, 1902348 / 484Jesse ShepardJoseph H. Guillet
If you cannot find your property deed number, there are several places you can go to begin your search. The Registry has indexes by the name of the buyers (Grantee Index) and sellers (Grantors Index). If you run out of deeds to search and yet your house seems older, perhaps the chain of deed has been broken by a will. You will need to go to the Registry of Probate (Middlesex Probate Court, 208 Cambridge Street) and look up a father, husband or relative who might have left the property in his will.
The Registry of Deed's also has an online computerized database:
Massachusetts Registry of Deeds Web Site
Some tips on using the Registry. The Registry's Customer Service Center is open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The staff is very friendly and will be glad to help you get your search started. Parking is very limited near the Old Courthouse, so try to get there early or take public transportation. Avoid starting your search on the last day of the month. This is the Registry's staff busiest day - and although staff will do their best to help you - their time will be more limited. Copies at the Registry at .25 cents per page.