Kimberli Fitzgerald
Historic Preservation Officer

woman studying books in library

Research Historic Properties

Historic buildings, sites and objects are the tangible reminders of a community’s past. If you are interested in researching the history of your property or the history of Salem, please check out the helpful links below. The City of Salem is currently updating information on historic properties and welcomes your historic photos and information about the people that lived or worked at your property.

Establish the Chain of Ownership

All research begins with the property and the history of its ownership. The initial goal in your research project should be to establish the chain of ownership of the property. Once you have established this chain, locating resources containing information about the history of the home and those who lived in it becomes easier.

To begin your property research, you should have the following basic information available:

  • Name of the Addition to the town plat
  • Lot and block number of the property
  • Tax number of the property

For example, the information you need for the house at 1658 Court Street NE is:

  • Chamberlins Addition
  • Lot 3 and Part of Lot 4
  • Tax Lot 80960-030

Resources to help you find the basic information include:

  • County Assessor's Office: The Assessor’s office keeps a file on each property. Consult the file on your property. You may find photographs and a possible date of construction. Construction dates are not always accurate, and any structure built prior to 1900 is automatically dated 1900 in the file.
  • Title Companies: Gaining access to a title company’s records of transactions on a property will save time in determining the chain of ownership since 1900. Depending on the company and your relationship with them, there may be a charge. Start with the company that you dealt with when you bought your property.

Research Public Records

Once you’ve established the chain of ownership, you are ready to proceed to research your property.

County Deed Vault

Located at the Court House, this deed vault contains public records that provide the sales price for a given property each time it was sold. Using the chain of ownership you developed, you can quickly look up those transactions in the deed records and possibly discover, for instance, that a property that was selling for $200 to $300 suddenly began selling for $1,750 or $2,000. This may mean that a house was built on what was a vacant lot, and this is a good basis for arriving at an approximate date of construction.

The deeds can reveal other helpful information as well.

Also in the vault are the city plat books which include maps and dates of the additions to the original plan as they were added to the city. Most of Salem’s surviving residential architecture is located in one of the additions. Knowing the history of the addition is often a valuable background for unraveling the history of a particular house in that addition.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Available at the Salem Public Library, these are worth looking at as you focus on the context of the property you are researching. These maps show detailed plans of all structures, including outbuildings, in a given neighborhood. The maps were issued and updated at various times, so be sure you are consulting an early or late enough map to include your property.

Sanborn maps help you see how your house stood relative to other houses nearby, and they might provide clues to subsequent changes in the house; i.e., the current porch may differ from the one outlined in the Sanborn, which could suggest it was later remodeled. You may even find that your house was moved from its original location.

City Directories

Also available at the Salem Public Library, these directories are an essential tool once you know the names of the property’s owners. If you know that John Jones owned the property at a certain time, the City directory for that year will verify if he actually lived there and his occupation. It may tell you Mr. Jones’ business address in addition to his residence, so you can begin to sense how he moved about town. Beginning in 1932, the City directories become even more helpful as they now contain a “reverse index” whereby you can locate an address and see who lived there. Before 1932, it is necessary to have the name of the individual to use the City directory effectively.

Biographical Index

Located at the Oregon State Library, this resource indexes information on Salemites of the past, both prominent folks as well as some not so prominent. The index may direct you to a property owner’s obituary and other newspaper or book accounts of the owner and the family. Following up the obituary reference is very important. You may learn when and from where the person came to Oregon, whom the person married and the names of any children, where the person worked, organizations the person belonged to, etc.

Research Specialized Resources

Once you know more about your person, you may find more specialized research sources.

Memberships. If there was an association with Willamette University, Gatke’s Chronicles of Willamette may mention the property owner. If your person was active in a particular church, that church may have books or other resources on its history that may prove enlightening. The same might be true of benevolent and fraternal organizations, such as the Elks, Eagles, Masons, Shriners, Odd Fellows, etc.

The Oregon Historical Society (OHS) in Portland has an extensive collection of biographical information that includes books, scrapbooks, card files, and census data about pioneers and other important personages involved in the development of the Pacific Northwest. OHS also has many maps, related graphics, and photographs concerning early Oregon and its growth. Additionally, they have back issues of Oregon Historical Quarterly which contain indexed articles concerning the history of the northwest, as well as copies of local newspapers on microfilm. Their pamphlet collection, designated in the card catalogue by “PAM” at the top of the call number, includes neighborhood histories, real estate brochures, and many interesting photos. Of course, the open stacks contain many books and publications relating to Pacific Northwest history; the main catalogue is located to the right of the Reference Desk.

The Oregon State Archives in Salem are the archives for Oregon records and documents. Many surviving tax rolls from County Assessor’s Offices are in the archives. Listings are by year and many are alphabetically arranged. By comparing year to year, it is possible to see if the property was taxed for improvements.

Military. If you know who owned the property at the time of World War I, it might prove beneficial to check the loan file of the Military Department in Salem. This file lists veterans loans, and there may be information about the house listed on the records. Photographs are often included.

The Oregon State University Library in Corvallis has an extensive collection of Oregon history books. They also have a microfilm file of various resource materials including older newspapers.

Identify Architectural Styles

Architectural styles are identified by specific features.

The National Park Service Bulletin 39 (Architectural Style Guides and Dictionaries) can help you identify the architectural style of the resource you are researching.

If your resource is a historic residence in Salem, the Grant Neighborhood Architectural Handbook provides additional information to help you identify the architectural style of your resource.

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