Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Research Tools

Even if no one ever reads this blog, I've learned quite a bit about research tools that are available to anyone interested in learning about the past. The process is its own reward, because I get to live out my own little episode of PBS's "History Detectives". My most important discovery was that Google does not have all the answers: good old-fashioned leg work is still an important part of research, even in the 21st century.

The following resources have been very useful in my quest:

Deeds Library, Virginia Beach Circuit Court
Virginia Beach Municipal Center
Building 10, 3rd Floor

Like a scene from Indiana Jones, or Lord of the Rings -- pulling big dusty books off of shelves, turning thick, oversized pages that have yellowed over the years, and reading about people who long ago passed from this world to the next ... very, very cool.

The Deeds Library is open to the public; so as long as you are not packing a weapon or a cell phone (or anything not permitted in a court building) you can walk right in and start pulling books off shelves. Deeds from the last 100 years generally reference the deed that preceeded it, making it easy to follow a title for a particular piece of land through history. The deeds will usually include specific descriptions of the property, and/or reference a plat map of the property (also available in the deeds library). You can pay $.50 per page to obtain a copy of a deed -- most deeds are two or three pages long.

There are three difficulties I experienced with older deeds: (1) before about 1911, deeds were handwritten instead of typed. A handwritten deed that has been photocopied multiple times over the last hundred years does become more difficult to read; (2) older deeds tended to use transitory items as boundary markers: for example, "the oak tree at the back of the lot" or "the rock by the road" or my personal favorite, "to the Smith property line". Those property markers have long since disappeared, making it very difficult to identify property boundaries, or in some cases, which piece of property is being referred to; and (3) old deeds don't refer to previous deeds, so it is very difficult to track a deed history further back. This is why my Woodstock history only goes back to 1877: I have several deeds from Edward Herbert, but I canot identify which deed refers to which piece of property.

Still, you can feel the history in the air in this place. Much fun.

Real Estate Assessor's Office Website

In order to know which deed book or microfilm to start with, you'll need to visit the Real Estate Assessor's Office website:

You type in an address, and the current real-estate information on that property is made available to you. The "Parcel" page tells you the deed book and page number (or, a "document number" if your deed is more recent) and also the map book and page number for your plat map. Once you've located the most recent deed, you can find the previous deed number, pull that deed, find the next previous deed number, and so forth, as far back as the deed history will permit.

There are other interesting sections to this website. For example, under IMPROVEMENTS/VIEW DETAIL, I discovered that parts of my house are actually additions to the original structure. Under "SALES DISCLOSURE" you can find out what a house sold for recently, and under "VALUE HISTORY" you can determine what the city assessment has been for the last few years.

Virginia Beach Central Library

News Flash: the world wide web has not rendered brick-and-mortar libraries irrelevant. Far from it! I've learned to love several of the following resources only available through the Central Library. They are all free, as long as you have a library card:


Once I obtained a list of names from deed records, I entered them into to see what I could find. In the early stages of my research, I tried the two week free trial from home, but that ran out pretty quickly (well, in two weeks to be exact). The Central Library has a somewhat limited edition of, but it has still proven extremely useful. From the names on the deed records I was able to obtain some biographical information about the individuals, but also obtain names of descendants. On several occasions I was able to locate living relatives of people from Woodstock history and then write them letters. I've even received a few replies.

2) America's Obituaries & Death Notices

Sometimes the information obtained through is a bit vague -- there can be several individuals with the same name in the same area at the same time. With this resource, I am able to narrow down the list of search results by correlating names and family relationships. If the death is a recent one, the obituary will often let me know where their descendants live currently, bringing them within reach through a white-pages search.

3) The Virginian Pilot Microfilm Archive

The library has the Virginian Pilot on file all the way back to December, 1865! If I have a date, I can pull that microfilm and find the article. They also have computers attached to these microfilm readers so you can save the article in .TIF format. Bring a USB drive, because these particular computers aren't on the network.

4) Library Staff

Unfortunately, I didn't know right away which Virginian Pilot issue I was looking for! The library staff won huge marks here, because I gave them a search term ("Woodstock" for example) and they came back a few days later with not just newspaper articles, but also photos and other archived items from their local history archive. Extremely helpful group of people.

5) Books on local history

A few books I've found helpful; not on Woodstock specifically, but Kempsville in general:

Amish-Mennonites at Kempsville, Virginia: 1900-1970 by Leon Zook & Leroy Miller

Princess Anne County and Virginia Beach by Stephen Mansfield

Virginia Beach: A History of Virginia's Golden Shore by Amy Waters Yarsinske


Zillow is a real-estate site. You can inquire about a particular house through a map interface -- type in an address, see a map, and click on any of the surrounding houses for information. The most useful piece of information I usually get from Zillow is "Year Built" -- allowing me to tell which houses in my neighborhood were built last year, and which were built in the 40's. Like using rock strata or tree rings to track growth, I use this information to track the growth history of the neighborhood.

City has much of the same information that the City Assessor's website has, but one critical new bit of information it relates is the name of the owner for a particular address. This has proven very helpful in discovering who has been in the neighborhood for a long time (and thus narrowing the list of potential interviewees), or confirming addresses of descendants who may still live in the area. The information is a couple years old, unfortunately, but I have still obtained some useful information.

This website may win the award for coolest historical resource. It contains satellite imagery and USGS survey maps from the past, and allows you to overlay present-day street maps for comparison. They have different periods for different areas. For Woodstock, they have satellite imagery from 2003 and 1963 (which predates most of the subdivisions in Woodstock) plus USGS maps from 1948 thru 2000. You can visually track Woodstock's development from the end of World War II to the present day.


Yes, I started the article by saying Google didn't have all the answers. But Google is still an essential resource, so I mention it here.


1 comment:

  1. Yay research!!!! I enjoy this stuff too. Central Library has been a tremendous resource since the day it opened. Brent discovered some of his family history in their Virginia genealogy books. He was not happy to discover that some of his ancestors had owned a few slaves. Thanks for posting about recently. Our whole family, mom & dad included, have enjoyed using that site.