Saugerties Town Historian Audrey Klinkenberg gets a twinkle in her eye when she talks about how to trace the history of old houses in Ulster County. It’s clear that she relishes the adventure of the search, and her enthusiasm is contagious. The key to learning about the history of your house, she says, is to take it one step at a time, and to trace the history back starting with yourself. “One piece of information leads to the next,” she says, “so if you jump around in time or try to trace the history forward, you might miss a piece of crucial information along the way.”
Step one is to start with the deed to your property. It will name the seller (the “grantor”) along with the page number of the reference volume (referred to as a “liber”), where you can find a copy of the previous deed to the property. The deeds are separately indexed by both grantor and “grantee” (the person buying the land), so all you have to do, according to Klinkenberg, is “follow the grantors and grantees all the way back.”
The records are kept in the County Clerk’s office in Kingston on Fair Street. It requires a visit there to see the documents: the information is not available online, but homeowners can make photocopies.
The deeds offer a wealth of information about the property at the time the document was issued, including a description of adjoining properties, names of neighbors, sometimes even details about the particulars of daily life: like household inventories, what animals were kept on the land, and what crops were grown. Klinkenberg cautions that a careful reading of the information is necessary. “A structure listed on the deed as an ‘appurtenance’ may not be your house,” she says. “It could be a barn or a shed that used to be there, and it won’t help you to learn that a structure was built, for example, ‘by the old apple tree’ when that tree no longer stands on the property.”
Klinkenberg says that the process of searching the deeds gets harder as you go back further in time, too, because “deciphering the handwritten stuff can be difficult, and the language becomes more elaborate and ‘flowery’ the further back you go.” She notes that property used to be surveyed in chains and links, too, which requires an understanding of that archaic practice that was used in Britain and other countries influenced by British practices.
(A chain, for the record, is a unit of length measuring 66 feet or 100 links. This low-tech system of measurement came from an English clergyman named Edmund Gunter, who in 1620 surveyed some land using a length of chain to measure it, and, you guessed it: his chain contained 100 links and measured 66 feet. “Gunter’s chain” was adopted as a system of measurement, and in time, a chain of measurement became synonymous with the original length of Gunter’s. There are 10 chains in a furlong, and 80 chains in a mile. An acre is the area of 10 square chains; i.e., one chain by one furlong.)
In some cases, says Klinkenberg, a search will not yield a previous deed because there isn’t one, as when the land passed from one owner to another through will or probate. In that case, the owner’s name can be found in the records of wills. This is done at the Surrogate’s Court on the third floor of the county office. Those records are not available online, either.
Klinkenberg says that the process of finding the history of your house is often intertwined with learning more about the genealogy of the people who lived there. “Once you know who owned the property,” she says, “you can research them, and that can lead you to more information about the house itself.” One way to do that is to consult the Commemorative and Biographical Record of Ulster County, which can be found in the local history reference room at the Saugerties Public Library. This volume has biographies of prominent citizens of the area from days past, primarily businessmen. If the former residents were farmers, says Klinkenberg, “they’re not likely to be in this book, as it was more of a ‘who’s who’ type listing for the business community of its time.”
The local history room at the library also has books containing the old surveyors’ maps, on which the owners’ names are shown at the place on the map where the property is located. Some homes in Saugerties that predate 1811 will be on maps of “Kingston Commons,” as Saugerties and Esopus did not break away into independence until that year. (Hence this year’s bicentennial celebrations.)
Michael Sullivan Smith, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission as well as the Historic Review Board for the village, is currently at work on a project to develop a way to use computer software to overlay the earliest surveyors’ and tax maps on top of current maps. If this system were available online, it would make it easier for people to compare and confirm precise details about the history of their property. Sullivan Smith says he’d like to see the system made easily accessible to the public, perhaps through the website of the library.
Out of the blue
Sometimes the information needed to research the history of your house can turn up through a bit of serendipity. In 1971, Mary Alice Lindquist and her husband Kenneth had just purchased an old stone house in Saugerties, between Mt. Marion and Ruby, when an unexpected caller showed up one day at their door. Irene Reis (née Hoevenberg) told the Lindquists that she had played at the house as a young girl, when visiting her Uncle Austin and Aunt Margaret Plass Conyes, the last in a long line of the Conyes family who had owned and lived in the house for generations. Reis brought an offering for the new homeowners: a handwritten family tree showing the lineage of the Conyes family.
As it happened, the Lindquists had a family connection to the property, too, of more recent vintage. Sometime around the 1930s, the Conyes had sold the house to German immigrant Johanna Leier, who called it “Red Cedar Farm” and turned it into a boarding house, renting rooms to people on vacation to the Catskills, and Ken had stayed there in the 40s as a young boy on vacation with his family. The Lindquists even have family photos of young Ken playing there, never imagining at the time, of course, that decades later, he and his wife would live there.
The family tree that Irene Reis brought to the Lindquists took the timeline back much further, though, and offered a tantalizing glimpse into the past. They wondered: who were these people who had lived in the house, and what year exactly did the house date to? Through searching deeds and using other methods of genealogical research, Mary Alice has been able to compile a thick notebook of information about the house and the families who lived there. Her quest continues, however, as she has yet to determine the exact year of the house’s construction.
For those looking into the history of their homes, “don’t hesitate to go back to sources you’ve already looked at before,” says Mary Alice. “Sometimes a piece of information doesn’t make sense at the time, but after you learn additional information, it will add up when you go back later – even years later.”
For a while, the Lindquists believed that the house dated to 1792, the year inscribed into a date stone attached to the back wall of their house. Similarities in the design of the carved stone to another in the area led them to believe, however, that the date stone was put up after the house was built, and that the house probably dates back at least as far as 1750, and possibly 1730. The oldest deed Mary Alice has been able to find shows that a Kiersted sold the property to a Dederick (or Dederich – the spelling of names in old documents often varies), who gave the property to his daughter when she married Jacob Conyes (or Conyers).
The people of the past become more than just a name and a date when you start to learn their stories. Mary Alice says that the process of researching the families who once lived in her home has been a fascinating journey. “You begin to feel like you really know these people,” she says, referencing Jacob Conyes (1732-1813), the first of the generations of Conyes to live in the house, a man who fought in the Revolutionary War as a private in the First Ulster Militia, and is now buried in Plattekill Cemetery.
“You meet interesting people along the way, too,” Mary Alice says, “at the places you go to for help with researching. You meet people that you may not have met otherwise, like the people at the Saugerties Historical Society, and Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture.” The Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture is a non-profit organization that documents and preserves the traditional building practices of the Netherlands and the bordering German provinces, a regional style that came over to America with the first Dutch settlers to this area.
Mary Alice has drawn on the expertise of Audrey Klinkenberg for research advice, too. As town historian, Klinkenberg periodically schedules times when she can meet with residents at the library to help with a genealogical or house history search, and with advance notice, she can arrive for a meeting already prepared. For more information, contact the Saugerties Public Library at 246-4317, or visit the calendar at www.saugertiespubliclibrary.org.
For more information about Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture, visit www.hvva.org. For more information about the Saugerties Historical Society or Kiersted House, call 246-9529 or visit www.saugertieshistoricalsociety.com.