State historical commissions and other groups have a serious duty to preserve our history. They can also be valuable resources for genealogists. As an example, lets look at the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), a part of the secretary of state’s office. The MHC has an incredible job to do, as one can imagine, dealing with a state that has one of the longest histories in the country. The seventeen-member group oversees a large number of state and federal preservation programs whose goal is to protect the “irreplaceable historic and cultural resources of Massachusetts.”
As part of its mission, the MHC provides a lot of information not only to government agencies, but to private groups and individuals. Many people do not understand the difference between local historic districts and national register districts. And there is quite a difference. The first local historic districts were created on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1955, and over the last six decades have grown to number more than 200 around the state. They are the first line of defense in saving important historic buildings, from homes to businesses, from being altered inappropriately or even destroyed. These are created on a local level by a vote of the city council or town meeting.
National Register districts is designated by the federal government. They place “buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts” into the National Register of Historic Places. The NRHP recognizes the historical importance of the area and allows revenue-generating property some tax incentives for preservation and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, however, protection is only limited to those projects involving federal funds. The NRHP started in 1966 in today contains more than 900 National Register Districts in Massachusetts.
The MHC has created valuable online resource called the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS). It is a work in progress, and does not currently contain information on all historic properties and areas, nor does it necessarily include all of the information available for any given property.
If you are trying to find a home where your ancestor lived, MACRIS is a great place to start. You can narrow a search by a specific street address, or just look town by town. One of the resources that MHC staff are working to upload inventories of historic properties. Many date back to the 1970s, and include information on the construction, history, and location of buildings.
I found the inventory form for a house that I lived in as a teenager. The inventory is good, but not entirely accurate. It original claimed the house was constructed around 1840, later corrected to 1800. However, it was likely built even earlier than that. Just reading about it brought back many wonderful memories for me.
Check the states where your ancestors lived for the historical commission (by whatever name it is known in that state). You may be surprised at the information you can find. You may even get lucky enough to find pictures of your ancestral homes.