Searching Early Massachusetts Deeds from Home — For Free!

Deed Search Image 0 Old OrdinaryIf you are curious about property your Massachusetts ancestors or other persons of interest might have owned, there is a way to locate deeds online. All it takes is a free familysearch.org account and a little patience.

I have been researching The Old Ordinary, the Hingham Historical Society’s 1686 house museum at 21 Lincoln Street (aka “the road to Broad Cove”) in Hingham, and its former owners and have found on-line resources such as FamilySearch helpful.  I’ll use The Old Ordinary as my example for how to search early deeds on-line.

In order to set up an account, go to familysearch.org, where you will be asked to provide an email address, set up a password, and choose a userID.  (Make sure to write these down.) You will also be asked to provide some basic information to start “your” family tree but rest assured that information on any living persons remains private, and you don’t have to continue creating a family tree to do research on the site.

You will get a confirming email which you must respond to promptly, and you’re all set.

FamilySearch menus can be deeply nested. Rather than go through all of the menu items to find the deeds, just use your browser to search for: familysearch massachusetts deed search

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From the menu of results, choose: Massachusetts Land Records, 1620-1986 — FamilySearch.org

Click and on the next screen choose: Browse through 5,766,135 images.

Don’t be daunted!  On the next screen, you are presented with a list of the Commonwealth’s counties. When searching deeds, it’s important to know which county a town was in when it was registered.  For instance, Hingham was in Suffolk County from 1643 until 1803, at which point it became part of Plymouth County.   If I am researching the early years, I need to choose Suffolk County.

I am now presented with a long list of links arranged in two columns in the following order:

  • Deed indexes (grantee), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname in successive volumes
  • Deed indexes (grantor), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname, again in successive volumes
  • Deed books, containing the actual deeds, organized by years and volumes.

(A little terminology:  “grantors” are the sellers and “grantees” are the buyers.)

Deed Search Image 1The grantee and grantor index books help you locate a deed more quickly within a certain set of deed books.  As you will see below,  using them on-line is a little bit more cumbersome than using the physical index and deed books, but you do get to search from the comfort of your home and on your own schedule.

An advantage to researching older deeds is that the index books cover a huge span of years, so you don’t have to know exactly when a property changed hands.  For purposes of my example, I know that Francis Barker owned The Old Ordinary in the mid to late 1700s. He was both a grantee when he bought the property and a grantor when he sold.

To find the record of his purchase, I need the grantee index for the period 1639 to 1799 for grantees whose last names start with B

  • Deed index (grantee) 1639-1799 vol 1-2, A-B

A click on the link brings up image 1 of the index book. Now it’s a matter of jumping around in the book until I find Francis Barker. Surnames are listed alphabetically at the top of the page, and given names are listed in the second column.  I like to jump about 50 images at a time until I get close.  I find that records for Francis Barker start at image 211 and end at image 215.  Happily, the one I am looking for is the first entry, which shows that on 5 Jan 1741 Francis Barker (grantee) purchased from Samuel Gill (grantor) a property in Hingham on the Highway to Broad Cove one acre in size. For the actual deed I am directed to consult Deed Book 62 page 171.

Deed Search Image 3I navigate back to the main page for Suffolk County by clicking at the top of the page and find myself at the long list of index books and deed books,  I look for Deed Book 62 and choose the link for

  • Deeds 1740-1741 vol 61-62

Deed Search Image 2This file of 619 images has two volumes, so Volume 62 probably starts halfway through about image 310.  Now, I need to find page 171.  A little browsing shows that each “page” is actually the front and back of a sheet.  Page 171 is, in fact, on images 495 and 496.  There, you can see “Gill to Barker” in the left margin of the left page of image 496. I can read the deed on my screen and/or download or print it.

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[A bonus is that the document immediately prior to this is the deed by which Samuel Gill—Francis Barker’s grantor—himself acquired The Old Ordinary from Baruch Jordan!]

To find the deed for the sale of the property, I would go back and look at the grantor index books and repeat the process.

Not all deeds were registered in a timely fashion, and some land transfers were not registered at all. Some property passed through wills and other means. But most are listed, and you can often learn a lot about an ancestor by searching to see what land holdings he (or sometimes she) might have had.

Some of the terms in land records are archaic. For help understanding them, see: http://www.directlinesoftware.com/legal.htm

For help in understanding deeds and other property records in general, see: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/U.S._Land_Records_Class_Handout

Happy hunting!

Isaac Sprague and American Botany

isaac sprague poster '16-100dpiA new exhibit opened today at our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum, 21 Lincoln Street, Hingham. Isaac Sprague and American Botany: Art, Science, and Agriculture in the 19th Century examines the life and work of America’s best-known botanical illustrator–and son of Hingham–and places his art in the context of several currents of 19th century social history.  Plus, we have mounted some absolutely lovely botanical prints and and a series of beautifully detailed pencil drawings of the many types of orchard fruits that were once grown in this area. The exhibit can be seen Tuesdays through Saturdays, between 1 pm and 5 pm, for the rest of the summer.  We hope you come and take a look and learn a little more about this Hingham artist.

Main Street, Top of Pear Tree HillIsaac Sprague was born in Hingham in 1811. His family lived in Hingham Centre, in a house that still stands today. The Spragues of Hingham were primarily coopers, part of the woodenware industry that gave early Hingham the nickname “Bucket Town.”  Sprague was mostly self-taught as an artist, recalling that he “always had a fondness for making pictures” as a child. He was “constantly discouraged from doing so by [his] father, who said artists were invariably poor,” but his family did have some creative roots–his Uncle Hosea was a printer and engraver, and another uncle, Blossom, ran a carriage-painting business (visible in the center of this early photo of Hingham Centre) where Sprague was apprenticed as a young man.

No. 11Sprague developed an early love of nature and much of his juvenile work is drawn from the woods and fields around Hingham.  In particular, young Isaac drew and painted numerous pictures of birds.  When Sprague was about thirty, he met the wildlife artist J. J. Audubon, who examined a number of Sprague’s bird drawings and, impressed with his talent, hired him as an assistant. In this capacity, Sprague accompanied Audubon out west to the Missouri Territory and Fort Union on a trip to produce sketches for Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America. This connection with Audubon launched Sprague’s career as a botanical artist.

2011.0.271After his trip west Sprague returned briefly to the South Shore, working as a clerk in a Nantasket Beach hotel until, the following year, he started to work as an illustrator for prominent American botanist Asa Gray, first producing illustrations for his 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard.  Before long he moved to Cambridge, continuing to work for Gray and other Harvard professors, illustrating several comprehensive botanical volumes in the 1840s and 1850s.  (The illustration to the left, of Aesculus Parviflora, is from an 1848 work, Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

Prince Demah, Portrait Painter

Prince Demah, Portrait of Christian Barnes. Hingham Historical Society. Photo (c) James Vradelis

One of our Society’s co-founders, Susan Barker Willard, bequeathed a treasure trove of art, furniture, and documents which she had inherited from her Barker, Thaxter, and Willard family ancestors. Much of it has furnished our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum since the early part of the last century. Two paintings in particular have always been favorites, especially on the fifth grade school tours that are a rite of passage in the Hingham Public Schools.  They are a pair of 18th century oil portraits of Henry and Christian Barnes of Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Henry Barnes had no family connection to our town of Hingham, but Christian had friends and relatives here.  Her mother’s family were Barkers from the South Shore. Henry was a distiller, manufacturer of pearl ash (an early chemical leavener), and trader in British manufactured goods. They were Loyalists and forced to flee Marlborough for England in late 1775 after some violent incidents (including, it has been reported, the tarring and feathering of Henry’s horse). The Barnes portraits are each damaged in the chest area, and the lore is that the portraits—left at their estate—were the victims of Marlborough patriots.

Portrait of Henry Barnes by Prince Demah.  Hingham Historical Society Photo (c) James T. Vradelis

Prince Demah, Portrait of Henry Barnes. HIngham Historical Society. Photo (c) James Vradelis

Members of Marlborough’s financial elite, the Barneses owned three slaves in the early 1770s. Thanks to Christian’s prolific correspondence, we have known for some time that Prince, the son of their slave Daphney, was a talented artist. (Prince’s mother, Daphney, features in a set of letters in our archives. She was the subject of an earlier post in this blog, “A Letter from Daphney.”) In the first letter that mentions Prince, Christian writes, that “Prince is here and I am sitting to him for my picture.”  A month later, in November 1769, she reports that Henry has purchased Prince, with a view towards “improving his genius in painting.”  From there, Christian’s appreciation for Prince’s talent grows.  In an early 1770 letter, she reports that he is

a most surprising instance of the force of natural Genius for without the least instruction or improvement he has taken several faces which are thought to be very well done. He has taken a copy of my picture which I think has more of my resemblance than Copling’s [sic].

(She is referring to John Singleton Copley, a colonial American painter famous for his portraits of 18th century Bostonians.)

The original manuscripts of Christian’s letters are at the Library of Congress, but we are lucky to have, in our Old Derby Academy archives, a set of typescripts made in the early 20th century—also the gift of Susan Barker Willard.  In her letters, among her friends, and even in a set of newspaper advertisements, Christian passed the word about Prince:

As soon as the roads are tolerable I propose going to Boston in order to recommend our Limner to the Publick. I should be glad to have your judgment as to his performance and likewise your advice how I shall proceed with him. He has taken five pictures from the life since his return. Three of them as good likenesses as ever Mr. Copling took. I am in no doubt but he could coppy a picture as well as anybody in the Country.

Christian’s enthusiasm made it impossible for us to stop thinking about Prince the painter—particularly since our two Barnes portraits were painted in the 1770s and were unattributed.  We continued to learn more about Prince and his remarkable life but were unable to connect the dots between Prince and the Barnes portraits. (The paintings are unsigned and when they were restored in the 1930s a heavy layer of masonite was placed over the back of the canvas, obliterating any obvious clues.

Portrait of William Duguid by Prince Demah.  Metropolitan Museum of Art

Prince Demah, Portrait of William Duguid.  Metropolitan Museum of Art

In late 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibit called “Interwoven Globe,” on the 18th century international trade in textiles. The exhibition included a modest portrait of a Scottish textile merchant, painted in 1773 and signed, on a stretcher on the back of the canvas, “Prince Demah Barnes.”

We got in touch with the Metropolitan and were able to share what we had learned about Prince. The Metropolitan invited us to bring our two portraits to its Paintings Conservation Department, where they were examined using x-radiographs and infrared reflectography. The Metropolitan concluded that its signed painting by Prince and our two Barnes portraits were all by the same artist.  We have co-authored an article about the three paintings which appears in this month’s issue of Antiques magazine.

Prince enjoyed a short professional painting career before the Revolution changed the lives of Christian, Henry, and Prince.  Christian and Henry fled and Prince enlisted in the Massachusetts militia as a free man–Prince Demah (no more “Barnes”)–and served as a matross. He died, likely of smallpox or other disease, in March 1778. As “Prince Demah, limner,” he wrote his will, leaving all he had to Daphney.

Prince Demah’s will.  Massachusetts State Archives

These three portraits by Prince Demah are the earliest known paintings by an African-American to be located and identified. It appears that Prince was only allowed to focus on his art for around ten years, but we know that he made other portraits as well—in oils and with “crayons,” or what we call pastels today. The next step: seeing if we can identify any more of his paintings.  As we at the Hingham Historical Society now know, one (or two) of them could be  found just about any place.

The Portico Finds Its Home

Those who have been to our Old Ordinary House Museum—or who have been to the home page of our Society website—have seen the gazebo or summer house in the shape of a small Grecian temple which sits at the top of the Old Ordinary garden.

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As well as being a charming backdrop for garden parties and the occasional wedding, this structure is a genuine piece of Hingham history. Its travels around town over the last two hundred years are documented by correspondence, photographs, and the written reminiscences of the Rev. John Gallop, one of its former custodians–all in our archives.

In the late 17th century, the Thaxter family built a house in Hingham Square, on the present day site of St. Paul’s Church. As added to and improved over the years, the “Thaxter mansion” grew into a large, attractive home, furnished with tapestries, tiled fireplaces, and painted doors—some of which were donated to our Society by Thaxter descendants.

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At some point, prior to the first photographs of the house but almost certainly in the first half of the 19th century, a classically-influenced portico, with a pediment and columns, was added at the house’s front door.

Greek revival architecture was the fashion during the first half of the 19th century, and it sometimes took a more modest form than the Monticello or “Tara” models. Greek-influenced porticos were added to many older New England buildings. In addition to the Thaxter mansion, porticos with columns and a pediment were added to the Old Ordinary itself and (in an architectural mash-up) the English Gothic Old Ship Church.

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The Thaxter mansion was torn down in 1866 to make way for St. Paul’s Church, but the portico was saved. The story is that it was taken away by Hingham artist W. Allan Gay, but in any event, it was installed in the side yard of the Martin Gay house at 262 South Street, where it began its second life as a summer house or gazebo.

The Martin Gay house and its side yard.  (See the portico at the far right of the photograph.)

The Martin Gay house and its side yard. (See the portico at the far right of the photograph.)

Almost 100 years later, during an expansion of the South Shore Country Club, the garden area the Gay property was sold. The portico, which had fallen into disrepair, was threatened with demolition. The Rev. John M. Gallop, rector of the Parish of St. John the Evangelist, saved the portico from demolition. He sought and received permission to remove it. He installed it in the side yard of St. John’s Rectory, on Main Street next door to the church.

Upon his retirement from St. John’s, Gallop donated the portico to the Hingham Historical Society. The decision was reached to add it to the formal gardens on the grounds of the Old Ordinary. (These gardens have a rich history of their own which would take another post to cover.) Still more preservation work was needed, but thanks to Gallop and many dedicated volunteers at the Society, the portico found a permanent home in 1979, not much further than a football field’s length away from where it was originally built.

Installing the portico in the Old Ordinary's garden (1979)

Installing the portico in the Old Ordinary’s garden (1979)