Delaware Public Archives gives history buffs a chance to delve into something close to home with a seminar on researching homes.

    Margaret Raubacher Dunham knows the history of her own two century-old house in Camden, and she’s ready to help other homeowners research theirs.

    Dunham, a member of the staff at the Delaware State Public Archives, will be holding “This Old House,” a seminar Saturday, Aug. 2, to help novice investigators find out as much about their own homes as possible.

    It can take some time and involves a bit of work, but the satisfaction is worth it, she said.

    “I want to give people a better understanding of what they’re looking for and how to get started,” Dunham said.

    Dunham has updated her presentation given last year and will be providing handouts and other material to help people get started. About 75 people attended the session in 2007, and she’s expecting at least that many this time around.

    The presentation is primarily helpful for people who own homes that are at least 60 years old, she said, and applies to properties anywhere within the state.

Getting started
    The first place to start research is an individual’s own records, Dunham said. A copy of the property’s most recent deed is essential because it lists who last owned the property, and as a bonus it also gives a reference to earlier deeds that shows who had the land before those owners.

    Armed with this information, a homeowner then can trace the ownership of the land – and see how it probably was subdivided from larger parcels throughout the decades. Although there are gaps in some records, it is theoretically possible to find out who owned a property as far back as the founding of Delaware as a British colony.

    “If you don’t know the chain of title, you can’t research any other records,” Dunham said. “You have to know who owned it.”

    Once a researcher has traced the lineage of a property, they then can find out a myriad of new details.

    For example, land surveys include meticulous surveyor’s drawings, the earliest done on parchment, that depict exact boundaries. These documents sometimes mark points from landmarks that no longer exist – the edge of a gate or the back wall of a barn – items that in themselves provide details about the property.

    Some surveys also list acreage, roads and paths on the property, the owners of adjoining lands and sometimes even a drawing of whatever buildings that might have existed at the time.

    Other sources include probate records, wills and court documents for those who died intestate, that sometimes describe properties and buildings. Tax assessments can offer evaluations of buildings on the property, such as “two-story home in middling state of repair,” or even describe how much silverware a person owned, Dunham said.

    Records from Orphans Courts – an arm of state government that no longer exists – even can detail if repairs were needed to buildings.

    The archives also has a series of detailed maps that show additions to Dover and other towns in the state, which give information about neighborhoods and who lived in communities at certain times.

    All of these resources can provide a detailed history of a property that also can illuminate the history of a neighborhood or even an entire community, Dunham said.

    “When they’re done, a lot of times people will tell me, ‘I had no idea there was so much information there about my house,’” she said

    Email Jeff Brown at
If you go...
What: Seminar on researching the history of older homes
When: 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 2
Where: The Delaware Room, Delaware Public Archives, 121 Duke of York St., Dover
Admission: Free
Information: Margaret Raubacher Dunham, 744-5000