Easy ways to research an ancestor’s life or your home’s history

Rose Hansen

Connie Shipley has a famous great-grandfather, architect Emil Schacht, who introduced Craftsman-style homes as well as luxury apartment houses to millions of people visiting Portland during the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Yet, despite her great-grandfather’s renown, Shipley has searched off and on since 1979 for more information about […]

Connie Shipley has a famous great-grandfather, architect Emil Schacht, who introduced Craftsman-style homes as well as luxury apartment houses to millions of people visiting Portland during the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.

Yet, despite her great-grandfather’s renown, Shipley has searched off and on since 1979 for more information about Schacht’s long career.

During her decades of hunting down history, Shipley has seen technology transform her research process.

In the past, she visited the Oregon Historical Society in downtown Portland to sift through city directories and then drove to the address to compare the street view of a structure against blueprint drawings archived at the University of Oregon.

Now she can find most of the information she needs online.

Accessing digital documents and historic photographs from a home computer became even more essential during the coronavirus pandemic when libraries and other research centers were closed.

Shipley, a personal historian who owns Capturing Your Life Stories research and editing services, said staying at home during the pandemic also allowed people time to reflect on their lives. Some want to know more about the past.

If you’re ready to research an Oregon ancestor’s life or a home’s history, here are sources, most with searchable online databases.

The 75-year-old Genealogical Forum of Oregon has the largest genealogy library in the Pacific Northwest.

Among its more than 52,000 holdings are original Multnomah County marriage record books starting in 1855 and a complete set of microfilmed Oregon Donation Land Claim records.

There are also indexes to birth, death and divorce records and old Oregon high school and college yearbooks.

Volunteers organize educational programs, including online seminars, workshops and 150 classes a year to teach people how to trace their roots, said forum president Vince Patton.

The library inside the 1914 Ford Building in Southeast Portland, where Model Ts (“Tin Lizzies”) were made, is temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

But more than a quarter million pages of the nonprofit organization’s holdings have been digitized so far and are available to members at gfo.org.

Membership includes access to subscription databases such as Ancestry.com, Fold3 military records, American Ancestors and History Geo, which links old maps and land records to genealogy research.

When the library re-opens, access will expand to include FamilySearch, which is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as FindMyPast records and Newspapers.com.

Old newspapers can be searched to find obituaries, corporate and club activities, and stories of prominent people to criminals. Scanned editions of The Oregonian from 1861 to 1987 are accessible through the Multnomah County Library with a library card.

The Oregon Digital Newspapers Program at the University of Oregon has a searchable collection of historic Oregon newspapers. Other newspapers accessible online are listed at Historic Oregon Newspapers Online by County, from Baker to Yamhill.

City directories dating back as far as 1882 stored at the Multnomah County Central Library include occupants’ names and home address. U.S. Census records, at the county library and the Oregon Historical Society library, have residents’ place of birth, race, sex, age, marital status and sometimes occupation.

Oregon State Archives staff continue to add to the online database of pre-statehood residents. The Oregon Historical Records Index links to surname, naturalization and probate records.

Oregon Black Pioneers, the only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of Black Oregonians, refers people in need of ancestor research services to the Genealogical Forum of Oregon.

Historian Jack Bookwalter likens researching houses to doing jigsaw puzzles: “You get a little isolated fact here and there and at first you can’t see how they could relate to anything. But then you start to fill in the voids little by little and eventually, the puzzle is solved.”

Bookwalter types in an address at PortlandMaps.com and looks at the Permits and Zoning tab to find historic plumbing permits, which may identify previous owners.

The site also lists the year the home was built as well as the assessor tax ID, which might be needed for other searches.

>View all the tax lots in Oregon at ormap.net and download PDF copies of assessor maps

>Multnomah County property records are at the subscription-based site multcoproptax.com/

PastPortland.com allows you to find addresses before the city renamed some streets and renumbered addresses in the 1930s.

The City of Portland’s archival records start at 1851 and digital photographs, maps, plans and reports can be found at portlandoregon.gov/efiles.

Portland’s Development Services keeps house permits that can extend beyond plumbing to include land-use and zoning records.

The Architectural Heritage Center in Portland has been offering research classes since 1993 and maintains a library with digital resources to aid people with an interest in historic preservation and architecture.

“At the AHC, we frequently receive inquiries from people looking for more info about their houses and always try to point them in the right direction,” said education manager Val Ballestrem.

Ballestrem studies available Sanborn fire insurance street maps from 1867 to 1977, which can be searched through the Multnomah County Library or the Library of Congress, to pinpoint when a house or building was expanded and what was on the property before construction. “They give a good sense of how an area developed over time,” he said.

The Genealogical Forum of Oregon library has microfilmed Multnomah County deeds mostly from the 19th century. More deeds are viewable at the Multnomah County Public Research Room; digital documents since 2002 are at multco.us/recording/research-online.

>Digital maps of original settlement and ownership are at library.uoregon.edu/map/GIS/Data/Oregon/GLO

>U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management has official land status and cadastral plat records online at blm.gov/or/landrecords/

To aid his search, Bookwalter networks with other historians and talks to reference librarians and longtime residents.

“Much of what the old-timers can tell you are merely snippets of information. But they are pieces in that larger neighborhood puzzle,” he said. “When you tie them in with other information, they reveal the bigger picture.”

>Read how to capture oral histories at dohistory.org

Architects design custom homes, which represent a fraction of Portland houses, said Ballestrem of the Architectural Heritage Center.

Well-known builders like Robert Rummer and Kenneth L. Birkemeier were skilled but not licensed as architects, he added.

“Many professional or amateur builders purchased plans from a local company, like Universal Plan Service or a national company like Radford Architectural Company, then adapted them to their building site,” Ballestrem said.

The Architectural Heritage Center library has physical copies of many plan books and digitized house plan catalogs are freely available at the Internet Archive.

Sears, Montgomery Ward and the Aladdin Company, which had a factory in North Portland, made kit houses. “If someone finds ‘Sears’ or another company name stamped on a beam in their basement or attic, they can probably find the house plan in a catalog,” said Ballestrem.

Other sources for clues to the past: Peggy Moretti, the retired executive director of the preservation organization Restore Oregon, found an ad featuring her 1906 Craftsman home being built in Southwest Portland in archives of The Oregonian. An antique postcard of the house found on eBay helped guide the restoration work.

Kimberli Fitzgerald, Salem’s historic preservation program manager and city archaeologist, uses the Oregon Historic Sites database to search historic places, even cemeteries, that have been inventoried by the State Historic Preservation Office or listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

You can download a copy of the National Register nomination form, which describes the building’s original and present state, and includes details of its history and original owners.

Beaverton’s Oak Hills Historic District, a mix of 1960s ranch, split-level and Robert Rummer modern homes with interior atriums, became Oregon’s first midcentury modern historic neighborhood in 2013.Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian

Not all homes on the National Register of Historic Places are centuries old: Beaverton’s Oak Hills Historic District, which includes a mix of 1960s ranch, split-level and Rummer modern homes with interior atriums, became Oregon’s first midcentury modern historic neighborhood in 2013.

If you know the builder or architect of your home, additional information can be found at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University’s Oregon Digital, especially the Building Oregon pages with 20,000 architecture images.

The Oregon Historical Society’s OregonHistoryProject.org has articles on architectural trends and more information about architects at OregonEncyclopedia.org.

Books such as “Classic Houses of Portland, Oregon, 1850-1950″ are a helpful reference, along with Brian Libby’s respected Portland Architecture blog and informative In Search of Portland podcasts.

Also check out neighborhood association newsletters such as Doug Decker’s Alameda History blog, which has sections on builders and designers.

>The American Institute of Architects’ historical directory at aiahistoricaldirectory.atlassian.net/wiki/spaces/AHDAA/overview includes 19th and 20th century architects

>The book “Oregon Style: Architecture from 1840 to the 1950s” by Rosalind Clark has been helpful to many historians

>”Architects of Oregon–A Biographical Dictionary of Architects Deceased–19th and 20th Centuries” by Richard Ellison Ritz is a well-regarded reference book

Architectural historian Diana Painter was the National Register of Historic Places coordinator for Oregon’s Historic Preservation Office for five years. During that time, she worked with many people to document the origins and significance of their residence.

Painter, who owns the consulting company Painter Preservation in Spokane, Washington, said fee-based ancestry databases can help track down descendants of the original homeowner. “But just because you found a person’s name, it might not be the right person,” she cautioned.

She recommends cross checking with other sources such as HeritageQuest, which allows library cardholders to search U.S. Census records and city directories.

The Genealogical Forum of Oregon offers referrals to professional genealogists at gfo.org/resources/professionals.html.

John Doyle conducts informative walking tours of Portland’s neighborhoods. The former gallery lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York suggests people interested in specific neighborhoods look at the Historic Resource Inventory map to locate landmark buildings.

Historian Eric Wheeler offers custom tours of Portland’s neighborhoods through PositivelyPortland.com. He compares the 17-acre Lair Hill neighborhood, at the base of Marquam Hill south of downtown, to New York’s Lower East Side, which also attracted Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants. “It’s serendipity Lair Hill was saved,” he said. “It was slated for demolition.”

The Architectural Heritage Center also organizes walking tours of more than 30 distinct Portland neighborhoods. Private tours can be arranged by calling 503-231-7264.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 includes 81 Oregon interviews of gold miners, teachers, even a circus performer.

Lake Oswego Preservation Society has posted neighborhood histories online and maintains a list of resources of the area’s early architects as well as Lake Oswego Historic Maps and information on the Oswego Iron Heritage Trail and Oswego Pioneer Cemetery.

Lower Columbia Preservation Society has a guide for uncovering the history of homes in Clatsop County along with general tips to find information on dwellings that have been moved.

Northwest Digital Heritage, a new partnership of the Washington State Library, Oregon Heritage Commission and the State Library of Oregon, contributes content to the Digital Public Library of America.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

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