By Christian Cassidy
Many homeowners are naturally curious about who lived in their home before them. Not long ago, piecing together this information would have meant days in a library or archives flipping through street directories and spools of microfiche.
A concerted effort has been made in recent years by historical groups, government organizations and universities to digitize reference material in their collections. The result is that you can now do a great deal of this research in the comfort of your home using free, online sources.
Below is a roadmap of how to piece together a basic history of your home. Some of the web addresses are a bit long, so feel free to visit the online version of this story at www.winnipegrealestatenews.com and the hyperlinks will take you directly to the sites.
Find out what year your house was built
At the Property Assessment Details section of the City of Winnipeg’s Assessment and Taxation website — http://www.winnipegassessment.com/AsmtTax/English/Propertydetails/ — you can look up basic information about any property in the city.
Residential property searches include the “year built”, which is really the year that the building permit was issued. These two years are not always the same, but it gives you a good starting point for your search.
Find out who lived there
Henderson’s Directory were published annually from 1880 to 2000 and are an invaluable tool for finding out the history of a property.
The directory is made up of two main sections. One is a street directory where you can look up an address to find the name of the person who lived there. The other is a name directory where you can take that name and find out their occupation and place of work.
Peel’s Prairie Provinces has digitized many Winnipeg directories up to 1965 at http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/henderson.html. If this is your first time using Henderson’s Directory you, might find it easier to work with hard copies. A complete collection is available at the Local History Room at the Millennium Library.
A few things to note about Henderson’s Directory
The data would have been compiled at the end of the previous year so that the directory could be released at the beginning of the new year. For this reason, the information can be out of date by as many as twelve months.
The directory only list adults who worked outside of the home. “John Smith” may have resided at your address in 1924, but you won’t find mention of his wife or five young children.
For a complete list of family members, you will have to consult census records. Library and Archives Canada’s website contains a searchable index of all Canadian censuses available to the public at https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/Pages/census.aspx
Now that you know when your house was built and have a list of past residents, you can turn to newspaper archives to find out more information.
The University of Manitoba Library’s Digital Collections at https://digitalcollections.lib.umanitoba.ca/ has a large selection of early Winnipeg papers, including the Winnipeg Tribune, as well as local history books, U of M yearbooks, and other reference material.
The archives of the Winnipeg Free Press and some other Manitoba papers can be accessed with your library card at the “Our Collections” section of the Winnipeg Public Library’s website: https://wpl.winnipeg.ca/library/.
Keep in mind that you might find more than you bargained for in newspaper archives. There may be heartwarming stories or war heroes associated with your home and, just as easily, there could be death and tragedy. If this will spoil your enjoyment of your home it may be worth leaving out newspaper searches or have someone else search for you with instructions about what information you don’t want to know.
Other tips for an effective search
When searching newspaper archives or Google you are seeking out period references. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Dozens of Winnipeg streets have changed names over the years. If your street name suddenly disappears from Henderson’s Directory, it will usually note what the new name or spelling is. The Manitoba Historical Society also has a partial list of street name changes at its website: www.mhs.mb.ca.
Henderson’s Directory may list someone by their full name, but that may not be the name they went by in their professional life. Be sure to use old-fashioned abbreviations like Thos for Thomas and Wm for William. It was also common for people to only use their first initials and last name, such as “S. R. Henderson”, and that is likely how they are referred to in newspaper stories until the appearance of their obituary.
Be patient and adventurous. Use common misspellings of surnames, search archives that at first might not seem relevant and, whatever you do, make sure to bookmark your finds or you may never find them again in the tangled web of online databases!
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.