Own an old house in Easton and want to know its history? Well, you’re certainly not alone. Easton has a couple of hundred old homes that date back into the 18th and 19th centuries. But how do you know just how accurate those interesting stories are that you’ve heard about your charming old farmhouse, its past inhabitants and the date of its construction? The short answer: you don’t.
Easton was incorporated as a town in 1845. That means records of house and property ownership and transfers found at the Easton Town Hall begin then. Prior to that date, Easton was part of Weston – and yes, you have probably deduced by the name alone that it was the eastern part of that town. Weston land records are available all the way back to 1787 when it was incorporated. But wait, the people who sold you your house told you it was built in 1740. Where are the land records for that? The answer: probably Fairfield. So, to properly search the chain of ownership for a really old house in Easton, you’ll likely need to visit not one, but at least three town halls. Unless of course your old house is east of North Park Avenue, once known as the Line Road. What line would that be, you might ask? The road marked the line between the Fairfield Long Lots and the town of Stratford. So, that may even mean a trip to Stratford as well.
Following the paper trail of land transfers is more difficult than it may seem. There were no street numbers and in most cases roads were nameless. The roads that were named consisted mostly of the division lines between the long lots and were generally named after the original grantees of those properties. The name’s Burr, Wilson, Morehouse and Jackson all appeared on maps by the mid 1800’s, but the original cross highways – those that ran from west to east, while generally described in historical documents, were mostly nameless until well into the early twentieth century. Deeds simply bore the names of the surrounding land holders and the size of the acreage involved. If the land was bounded by a local road, that road was simply described as the highway. Occasionally, even the neighboring land holders would have only been described as the heirs or descendants of an earlier owner. As you might imagine, tracing the lineage of the land isn’t an exact science.
If you’re not ready to simply give up and go with whatever tales and provenance you’ve heard about your ancient abode, you better be prepared to look at a lot more than a good number of hand-scribed record books that are often difficult to decipher given that the varying styles of cursive writing of days of yore are often made even more challenging to read due to the varying amounts of ink that flowed from the quill pens that recorded the words therein. It is often as much as what you don’t see in those land records that offers a clue as to the age of your house. If you don’t see the word, dwelling house, on an early deed it’s a pretty fair assumption that your home wasn’t even there when the land it now sits on was transferred to the listed owner.
Prior to zoning regulations – and in Easton, they date only to 1941 – accurate records of when a house was constructed simply do not exist. But there are ways to fairly approximate the date that a house was originally erected on your property. The custom of the day in those early years was for a young man taking a new bride to obtain a piece of land and to then build her a house about the same time as they exchanged their vows. If land records show Jacob Jennings purchasing a hundred and twenty acres from Ichabod Burr in 1730, and that deed transfer didn’t include a dwelling house in the description, it’s a pretty safe bet that the land was barren at that time. Church records were about the only other official recordings of that era, so if a quick search finds Jacob Jennings wedding Sarah Hawley the same year Jacob purchased your property, then the first house on your land would have more than likely been erected around the same time. And I use the words first house because there is always the distinct possibility that the original house was replaced during the subsequent years – fire being the largest reason many early homes were replaced with later versions. With no fire departments prior to the 20th century, even a relatively small blaze would have likely turned into a raging inferno that would have consumed the entire structure.
Buying and selling existing working farms in towns such as Easton was somewhat of a rarity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The most likely changes in ownership came when one person died, and members of his family inherited the land and buildings. However, another thing to look for is the division of land within the same family. As children of the owners of large tracts of land married, it wasn’t at all unusual for the patriarch of the family to grant a child several acres of vacant land where they would then build their own house and till their own land. Early maps often show multiple families with the same surname living in the same area. What might have started off as a single tract consisting of 300 acres of land in a 1740 deed may show up as three or four separate smaller farms in mid-18th century non-population census reports, but whose combined acreage add up to the original figure of 300.
Perhaps the best description of the original house and acreage that you now own may be found in old probate records. These can be both thoroughly fascinating as well as excruciatingly difficult to decipher. Many probate records consist of as many as 30 to 40 pages of information, and some recorded proceedings go on for several years. Not every farmer was wise enough to devise his estate through means of a will, and not every heir was diligent in their duty to properly file for probate. I’ve seen many cases where the heirs simply continued to live and work a farm long after the deeded owner had passed. In their eyes, it only became a necessity to finally file for probate when they wanted to legally transfer the property to another person and found they couldn’t do so because they didn’t hold legal title. But despite the tedious lead up to who ended up with what, the descriptions of personal property inventories as well as the various structures and land holdings can turn out to be the most fruitful discovery you might make with regards to your present home and its heritage. Luckily, the State of Connecticut has rather good records of probate proceedings, the largest challenge being matching the deceased with the date of probate and the court in which it was finally adjudicated.
Census reports are also a great source of determining the provenance of your property. Luckily, most census enumerators followed the proper guidelines and neighbors were listed in the correct order. By 1850, the names of all the occupants of most houses were listed, and with a little extra detective work, relationships can often be verified between members of the same household. The non-population census reports from 1870 and 1880 are particularly helpful as they breakdown the acreage use, list the numbers and types of livestock and inventory the previous year’s crop production.
If all of the above sounds like a lot of labor, you’re correct. It is. But the reward of knowing who came before you and how they lived is worth it. And never forget, you’re now part of that long legacy of your old house. No matter how you look at it, that’s pretty special!