Dating my Old House (And Discovering That Sometimes It Can Be Done) By Frank Wemple

2020 Republished Article Series > Dating my Old House (And Discovering That Sometimes It Can Be Done) By Frank Wemple

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 42, No. 2, April 2006

When owners of old houses set out to determine when their houses were built, most undoubtedly hope, as I did, to find a deed that contains a statement like “. . . and including my dwelling house that I built in 1803 . . .” or to uncover the diary of the builder that contains an entry like “17th March, 1803: Began construction of my dwelling house.”  Unfortunately, few people are so lucky and I was certainly not one of those few.

When I bought the old Cape Cod farmhouse at 223 Puddin Lane four years ago, the seller told me it was built in 1745.  She gave me a copy of the results of some research done by a previous owner which appeared to prove that the house was indeed built in 1745.  Or was it?  I wasn’t so sure.  I had enough knowledge about old houses to make me think that this one was built later than 1745.  A friend who knows old houses looked the house over and said he was pretty certain it could not have been built as early as 1745 and he pointed out some features that backed up his assertion. 

Historic Cape 223 Puddin Lane
Historic Cape 223 Puddin Lane

I then embarked on some research in hopes of discovering when my house was actually built.  I read a few books about early construction, hardware and techniques for dating early houses.  These sources reinforced what I already knew which was that the design and appearance of houses built in the early to mid-Eighteenth Century differed very little from those built in the early Nineteenth Century and this was particularly true with Cape Cod style farmhouses.  Consequently, it is easy to understand how some people thought this house could have been built as early as 1745.

I also spent many hours studying Mansfield land records and at first I was rather discouraged.  First of all, I had to learn how to decipher the often virtually illegible early handwriting which tended to make my eyes cross and my head ache.  Then I discovered I had misidentified some early owners and had gone down the trail of some property that wasn’t even in this immediate area.  Finally I was able to identify the true deed trail, but I was disappointed that I could find no clue or even a hint about who built my house or when he built it.  

I did determine that there was an earlier house on this site that was built between 1720 and 1723, but obviously mine wasn’t that house.  I knew this house was built on the same site as the earlier house because the cellar walls from the old house still exist inside the cellar walls under the back of the ell which was built at the same time as the main part of the house.  The builder obviously wanted the ell to be bigger than the original cellar foundation, so he dug out around the old walls and built new walls. 

At this point I figured the best I could do was to come up with a period within which the house was most likely built, so I listed all the features that could be assigned to a date range.  These included the roof framing, interior door hardware, exterior appearance and, probably most importantly, the types nails used.  My analysis of these features concluded that my house was most likely built between 1790 and 1820.  It wasn’t a very specific date estimate, but it seemed to be the best I would be able to determine. 

However, I wasn’t happy with such an inconclusive estimate.  Between 1787 and 1850 this house had four owners and one of them had to have been the builder.  There had to be a clue somewhere and I was not willing to give up searching for it.  Actually there were several clues, but at first I didn’t recognize them as such.  There were some things that didn’t make sense in a deed from 1803, but when I first noticed these anomalies and no explanations came to mind immediately, I simply ignored them and therefore I missed what they were trying to tell me.

Between 1756 and 1813, the property was transferred five times.  The details in the first three deeds (1756, 1787 and 1799) were virtually identical.  In all three deeds, the description of the boundaries began at a marker a short distance from the house (the previous house).  Mapping out the property lines based on these three deeds resulted in the same configuration for each one.  Furthermore, each of these deeds stated that there was a dwelling house included and in each one the seller stated that he lived here.  In 1803 the place was sold to Eleazer Coburn of Hampton but that deed has several curious differences from the previous ones even though it is exactly the same property.  These were the clues I had missed:

  1. The first boundary marker was not the usual one near the house, but was at a junction of two roads.
  2. The description of the property boundaries went in the opposite direction from the descriptions in the previous three deeds, but the resulting map is identical.
  3. The property was described as “a certain tract of land” and no house was mentioned.
  4. The seller did not say that he lived here.

Why the different boundary description for the same piece of property?  Why no mention of a house?  Why no mention that the seller lived here?  

Fast forward to 1813.  Eleazer Coburn sold the place to Asa Chapin.  Again, it was the same piece of property, but although no house was mentioned specifically, Eleazer Coburn said he lived here.

Putting all these clues together led me to what is probably the most plausible theory; namely that the older house burned or was otherwise destroyed sometime before Eleazer Coburn bought the property in 1803.  That would explain why the first boundary marker in the deed was different (there was no longer a house to use as a guide to find the earlier starting point).  It would also explain why the deed didn’t mention a house and didn’t say that the seller lived here (there was no house to live in).  Another interesting fact is that Coburn bought the place for $850 in 1803 but sold it just ten years later for $1,800.  That’s quite a difference and this could indicate that there was no house here in 1803, but there was a rather substantial one in 1813.

Now it was clear to me that Eleazer Coburn was probably the builder, but it still wasn’t clear when he actually built it.  Did he build it right after he bought the property in 1803?  Or, did he build it closer to the time he sold the property in 1813?  Where did he live when he was building this house?  Again, the clues were there, but I just didn’t recognize them.  The 1803 deed stated that the buyer was “Eleazer Coburn of Hampton”, so I researched the Hampton land records and vital statistics to see if I could find some indication of when he moved to Mansfield.  I did find that Coburn owned property in Hampton that he inherited from his father, that he married when he was Twenty, that he had four children and that the family later moved to Mansfield, but there was no date for the move.  My early research revealed that Coburn acquired and sold several pieces of property in Mansfield after 1803 and I went back to the town land records to see if there were any clues in other deeds that I hadn’t previously studied too closely.  Again, the last clue hit me in the face!  The first of Coburn’s land transactions after he bought this property was in April of 1804 and that deed said he was “of  Hampton”.  That meant that over a year after buying this place he still hadn’t moved here.  The next transaction was in November of 1804 and it said Coburn was “of Mansfield”.  There it was: Coburn moved his family here sometime between April and November of 1804.  He could easily have built this house within a year to a year and a half after he bought the property.  Most likely he built a good portion of it during 1803 and he probably had it closed in by the winter of 1803; right in the middle of the period in which I had determined the house was most likely built.  I finally had my date.

Despite the frustrations, I had a great deal of fun doing this research and I certainly learned a lot more about old houses.  Now when I hear someone say they can’t determine when their house was actually built, I wonder if there might be some missed clues that could help them narrow down a date. 

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