Not long ago, Brad Richardson offered to help in researching the history of schools and a college in the Vancouver, Wash., area. The researcher he assisted wanted to find historical images of some specific properties, but only could locate a few. Together, they were able to find several photos in the historical collection at Clark County Historical Museum.
The key to their success? Richardson, museum experience coordinator at Clark County, says it came down to thinking through different ways to conduct research for the same information.
“Knowing what you’re looking for and asking the right questions, in the right way, is important,” Richardson says.
Being creative is among the tips he offers those who attend his workshops about researching historical buildings and homes. Oftentimes in the process, residents come to an apparent dead end, but that’s where looking at the project from another perspective – as well as knowing about and how to use the available public research tools – is so valuable, he says.
Typically, those who attend Richardson’s workshops are interested in researching the history of their homes and neighborhoods, finding out exactly who lived there, what the previous owners did for a living and when a building or buildings were constructed. He gears the workshops toward Washington residents, though some of the tools and resources have out-of-state application.
One of the first and most important steps in the research is identifying what information is of most interest, such as the date a property was built, when additions were made, and names and narrative information about previous occupants.
Richardson says some of the best resources to research property history include: public libraries, assessors’ offices, county courthouses, online databases and title companies. Assessors’ offices provide information about deeds and titles, property grantees and grantors. Online databases include Clark County GIS, the Washington Information System for Architectural and Archaeological Records Data, the genealogy site FamilySearch.org, and the federal Bureau of Land Management. These are just a few, and Richardson says there are many online databases available for research.
Clark County GIS is valuable for researchers, for example, because it can provide information about the date a property was built, plat and survey records, and assessment documents. The Washington Information System for Architectural and Archaeological Records Data allows users to search for listed properties via a map or a text query, provide build dates, historic names, and archaeological and historic preservation assessment information.
Sanborn maps are another great resource, Richardson notes. The maps were developed for many decades by the Sanborn fire insurance map company, starting in the 1800s. They provide information about everything from building details and lot lines, to neighborhood infrastructure in cities and towns in Washington and Oregon.
As they conduct their research, Richardson encourages patrons to maintain a spreadsheet of the information they collect, so they can cross check information with multiple sources, if possible. The comprehensive view of data that a spreadsheet provides also allows researchers to revisit and delve more into a piece of information they’ve uncovered in the course of research.
“You might just want to go back and look into something,” he says, likening key facts, such as the name of a past property owner, to pulling on a thread and seeing where it leads.
Richardson, who leads the Clark County Historical Society’s dozen walking tours in and around Vancouver, says growing those tours meant he has become intimately familiar with property research tools and methods, and that it’s important to realize there may be gaps in information in the research resources, particularly hard-copy resources, available today.
“In doing property research, all we have are what people have saved or have donated to save,” he says.
Beyond identifying the information being sought and becoming familiar with the available research tools, Richardson offers these additional tips:
- Be creative in how you conduct research. For example, if you want to create a narrative about a person who built or lived in your house originally, and you come across a name in one resource that matches the address but the trail then runs cold, try searching other resources using alternative name spellings. People sometimes were referred to in slightly different ways – for instance, “Thomas Smith” in one instance and “T. Smith” in another – in public records, newspapers and other documents.
- If you encounter a dead end in research, don’t get discouraged. Take a break and try again later. “Live to research another day,” Richardson says. “It’s all about learning the tools that are available, and taking your best shot” to find the information you’re after.”
He recommends those interested in property research to explore the area’s resources, including the Clark County Historical Museum, the Clark County Genealogical Society, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Two Rivers Heritage Museum in Washougal, North Clark Historical Museum in Amboy, the La Center Museum, and the Oregon Historical Society and Portland city archives in Multnomah County.
Learning how to research properties and bringing that information forward not only makes history come alive for all generations, but it also promotes community stewardship today, Richardson says.
“History isn’t just fun factoids … but people are prone to be better stewards of contemporary history,” he says.
Contact Brad Richardson, Clark County Historical Museum, 360-993-5679, or email@example.com.