I come from a very old, very patriotic New England family. I live in the house my ancestor Asa Williams built. It is the oldest unaltered residence in my city, a Federal-style that started life in 1789 as a half-Cape. Asa, Jr. added the two-story front structure in the 1820s to accommodate his extended family. It’s next to my brother’s house, built by another ancestor, George Read, in the same year. Across the road is the cemetery where multiple family generations now rest. We are the last generation to follow those who spent years building what we now try to preserve. We are also the generation who will sell that out of the family for the first time in 226 years.
Midwife Martha Ballard wrote in her diary about delivering babies in my house, as well as attending an autopsy in my kitchen.
Lengthy histories like ours seem to come with a nonspecific set of obligations. There are house histories longer than mine and family histories more illustrious. The difference is that both of these histories still exist together as they have for so many generations. Our “historic” family is, nevertheless, typical; they lived and worked in the same Massachusetts and Maine towns since the 1630s.
Midwife Martha Ballard wrote in her diary about delivering babies in my house, as well as attending an autopsy in my kitchen. We unearthed an adze head that fits the marks in my kitchen ceiling beams, and a shoe last from Asa’s cordwainer days, along with a canvas bag marked “Federal Reserve Bank of Boston” (it was empty). One upstairs closet still has its original wallpaper, and both of our chimneys are spiral. However, much to my husband’s dismay, we found not one musket, paper bullet or flintlock, and certainly no gold. Not even a measly Continental.
What we did gain with these properties is a massive amount of family memorabilia: artifacts, textiles, stories, Bibles and photographs. We have bins of snapshots, tintypes, daguerreotypes and cabinet cards, all of which demand appreciation, preservation and conservation.
Do I really want to know about my great-grandmother’s hard life homesteading in Kansas, or about the particulars of her lengthy medical records, or the gruesome details of my great-uncle’s death by lightning (with the horse he rode in on)? Do I want to know what future owners of this property might plan for it and its history?
You bet your Ahnentafel, I do! I want to know the stories behind the pieces of corset that fell out of the living room ceiling during remodeling, so that I can better understand how these women lived their daily lives. I want to be able to see into their parlors, kitchens, barns and back-40 acres to understand how they used those strange tools in my shed. Dates and locations are crucial to establishing the correct ancestors in time and place, but they won’t give me my grandmother’s diaries, my great-grandmother’s letters home or my great-great grandmother’s political views on Democrats and temperance. Nor will they give me patience while blocking drafts in a house built before fiberglass insulation or triple-glazed windows.
We cannot un-know, we cannot un-see, so best we un-worry, and enjoy the stories, preserve the photos and block the drafts.
Anyone starting genealogical research, researching a house history, or, indeed, buying an antique home, should ask, “Why do I want to know?” The question goes beyond just who you are (or think you are) to a deeper question of tolerance and acceptance. Are you willing to accept the information you find, as well as its implications? If you look for patriots and find traitors, how will that color your perception of your lineage? What if you find that George Washington never slept in your beloved historic home? Be realistic, be prepared, and be open-minded, so that you don’t miss the fascinating stories of your family or your house in history. We cannot un-know, we cannot un-see, so best we un-worry, and enjoy the stories, preserve the photos and block the drafts.
The history of my house remains with the house, just as the original land grants and deeds remain with the county registries. This house is more than a skeleton of its history; it is a functioning, breathing example of how my ancestors lived, but with 21st century amenities (like indoor plumbing). The history of the family who built this house goes with me, leaving the new owners an opportunity to add their own stories to the continuum. I’ll take my ancestors’ letters, but they’ll keep the fireplace cranny where I found them. Any buyers of this antique home will gain an opportunity, not an obligation, to enhance, appreciate, conserve and preserve its history. I will move on to add other stories to the family thicket.