Researching the History of Your Pepperell House
Ronald D. Karr, PHC
1. Start with what you know
Begin by trying to gather together everything you know about your house—what previous owners and neighbors have told you, old photographs, anything regarding the story of your house, no matter how unlikely. Some of this information may come in handy later in your search.
2. Check the MACRIS database
Nearly half of the historic (pre-1945) houses in town are listed in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) database.
Most of these forms were prepared by the Pepperell Historical Commission in the 1970s and 1980s, based on knowledge available at the time. If you find your house listed, congratulations! Be aware, however, that many of these forms are not well documented, and are subject to error. In particular, few of the dates are exact.
3. Check the visible evidence
The general appearance or style of your house can often indicate its approximate age. Most Pepperell houses that stand today were built during specific periods, particularly the 1840s and 1850s, 1865-1900, and since 1950. Most new houses were built in a style similar to other contemporary houses, since this was what most people wanted and what builders knew how to build best. Recognizing architectural styles can often indicate the approximate age of a house
In the twentieth century, older styles have constantly been revived. One way of determining whether the house is an original or a revival is to study the foundation. If the house rests directly on the ground or on granite blocks, it’s likely pre-Civil War. If the foundation is bricks, probably between the Civil War and 1900 or so. Concrete blocks suggest the first half of the twentieth century; poured concrete foundations became standard after WWII (although, some older houses rest on new foundations).
Construction details visible in attics and basements (or when a wall is opened), doors, windows, and other features can suggest an age (see James L. Garvin, A Building History of Northern New England, available at the Lawrence Library, for ways of interpreting these clues).
4. Search the title
A comprehensive title search is essential to establishing the history of a Pepperell House. This used to require a trip (or trips!) to the South Middlesex Registry of Deeds in East Cambridge. Fortunately, searches can be done (mostly!) online. Start with your own deed (if you can’t locate it, don’t worry; just check the assessors’ data base.
On your own deed you’ll usually see it indicated where the seller obtained the property in the first place (e.g., “see deed of Ralph Shattuck to Jason Blood dated June 23, 1978, and recorded in the Middlesex South District Registry of Deeds in Book 12242, Page 361.”) To find that deed—the source of your own title--go to the registry site:
Under “Search Criteria,” select “Book Search” and enter the book and page from your deed. This deed will usually have the same property description as your own deed, but with a new source deed. Keep repeating the process as long as you can, being careful to note the buyer and seller, date, and book and page.
Around 1900 or so you’ll encounter a deed that no longer indicates the source of the title. What now? You’ll now have to check something called the “Grantee Index” (grantee=buyer; grantor=seller).
This should give you the source of the title, and eventually you should be able to go back to the 18th century (although remember that your current lot was almost certainly carved out of a larger parcel at some point).
Also, be aware that for deeds earlier than Book 1000, you’ll need to change the search criteria to “Unindexed Property Search.”
5. Check the maps
Unfortunately, deeds themselves cannot confirm precisely when your house was built. Now that you know the previous owners of your house, you can check the maps listed here:
This should enable you to locate your house and confirm the period when your house may have been built.
6. Check the Assessors’ records
The single best source to verify the probable date (or dates) your house was constructed is to check the tax assessments. Go to the Assessor’s office at Town Hall, and request the assessment book for a few years after you suspect your house was built (from 1846 on). The books are arranged by the names of taxpayers (usually, but not always, the owner), and see if you can locate your property. If you find it, it will indicate the assessed value of the house, barn, shop, or other out buildings (the records between 1846 and 1860 are not itemized by building). Then request the volume for the previous year, and repeat until the property is no longer listed. The first year a house appears in the records likely represents the year it was built (or, since the assessments were done in the spring, most often the year previous). The assessors records will indicate expansions (sudden increases in assessed value), as well as the appearance and disappearance of out buildings.
7. Check other sources
Now that you know the owners of your house, why not see if you can find more information on the families who may have lived there in the past? (Bear in mind that the owners may have rented the house to tenants; it is often very difficult to identify them). Standard genealogical sources can provide some of this. The most important of these are the returns from the U.S. Census population schedules. Conducted every ten years starting in 1790, the census attempted to list every U.S. inhabitant. Returns are searchable for every census 1790-1940, but the returns before 1850 are less useful, since they only list names of the head of household. The Lawrence Library provides online access to these returns.
If you run into a brick wall or are looking for even more information, be sure to visit the history room at the Lawrence Library
Volunteer staff familiar with Pepperell history and architecture will be happy to try to answer your questions. Or contact the PHC:
With a bit of luck (and a lot of patience!) you should be able to learn quite a lot about the background of your historic house. Perhaps you can use that research to update the MACRIS form for your house, or even help the PHC prepare a new one!