THE HISTORY OF YOUR
NEW ORLEANS HOME
Have you ever wondered about the history of your New Orleans home, but don't know where to start in discovering its story? Before you do mental cart wheels trying to figure out which archives you need to dig up in person and where, take a look at all of the free resources available online that you can access from the comfort of your home. You don't need to be an archivist, preservationist or historian. This is a user-friendly guide for curious people from all walks of life.
Will you find out who built your home and when? It is entirely possible. This guide does not replace physical archives where that definitive answer may be. I guarantee that if you follow this guide, you will discover something interesting.
All you need to get started is a comfy seat, a computer, Wi-Fi, a New Orleans library card and a method of note taking. Keep track of everything you find and put it all in a chronological timeline, these are your clues and what will end up building the bigger picture. If you are voracious, you may be able to go through everything in a day. Realistically it may take you a while. The archives aren't going anywhere, so there is no need to rush. You don't want to miss an important detail in your excitement.
TALK TO YOUR NEIGHBORS
Before we get into becoming a master of online resources, ask your neighbors if they know anything about your home. It probably won't occur to your neighbors to offer information without your asking. If you are new to the block, asking your neighbors about your home while they are hanging out on the porch or mowing the lawn is a great icebreaker.
Your neighbor’s information may not be entirely correct. Homes have a way of collecting stories and sometimes they are dead wrong. You are going to have to prove or disprove your neighbor’s stories with concrete research, but it is still a great starting point.
The first thing and most basic thing you can do online is simply Google your address in quotation marks. You will likely see a lot of real estate sites but keep going and you may come across someone(s) who is listed at the address via an old directory or association that they belonged to. You may even come across a biography or find out someone has already researched your home and published their findings online.
LANDMARKS & HISTORIC PLACES
Check to see if your home is a registered landmark on the following websites:
STREET NAME & ADDRESS CHANGES
New Orleans street names have changed A LOT. Sorry, but in the incredibly likely event that your street name has changed in the last 300 years, you need to look up your current street name on the WPA index to find the old name(s).
If your street name has changed, it should be listed on the WPA index along with an approximate date of when it changed. You will need this info to move forward because you will look up the address with the old street name as well as the new one. Keep in mind that people were stubborn about their street names being changed and often two (or more) street names were in use at once.
If your home was built prior to 1900, it is also possible that your numerical address has changed. The Alphabetical and Numerical Index of Changes does not provide exact address conversions for individual buildings, but it does indicate the present hundred block that a given old address corresponds with. This will come in handy later when you research your home using old directories.
Look up your neighborhood/block on the Robinsons Atlas published in 1883. Is there a home on the land where your house is? If so, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is your home, but it could be.
Whether or not your home appears on the map, one of the homes on your block could somehow be related to your home. For instance, a large plot of land could have been later subdivided and developed by the person who owned the land your home was built upon. Perhaps the home was built by close relatives? Quite often, to find the history of one home, a detailed understanding of how the entire block developed is necessary. Track the progress of your block by taking screen shots of all the maps we go through and save them to your timeline.
Your best free online resource is the New Orleans Public Library. All you need is a library card.
To access the NOPL Database go to nolalibrary.org or click the button that says "site" below.
• Click the tab that says "Research" top center.
• Click "Databases".
The first NOPL database we will examine are the Sanborn Maps.
• Scroll down in "Databases" to "Sanborn Maps" and click it.
• You will be prompted to enter your library card number and then be brought to a page where you will click "Browse and Explore."
• Choose "Louisiana", then "New Orleans" and then the oldest date working your way up through to the most recent dates.
Take screen shots of your block and add them to your timeline whether or not your home appears. What we are establishing here is about when your home was built and what your block looked like through the years. Take note of the addresses on your block. After you have compiled everything you can find about your home, you may want to look up those addresses to see if they have any relation to yours.
If you don't find your home or even your neighborhood on the Sanborn Maps, don't worry. It took a long time to build New Orleans and not every neighborhood was mapped or even conceived of when the maps were created.
A nifty trick to sort through the maps quicker than going page by page can be found on the Sanborn Map Index. This index will give you the volume number and sheet you need to find your block for maps 1885 through 1909.
Each volume has a material key on the front page that will also help you navigate the maps and lists the location of landmarks. You will need these key sheets to navigate the maps for the dates 1929 through 1951 which are incomplete, but still worth a look.
NEW ORLEANS NEWSPAPERS
New Orleans newspapers can also be accessed on the NOPL site. Finding an article about your home and/or the people who lived in it is thrilling and not terribly uncommon. Until pretty recently, listing people along with their addresses in newspapers was standard.
Open a new tab in your computer and go back to the NOPL "Databases." This time, scroll down and click "New Orleans Newspapers." Type the address you are looking for into the search tab and use quotation marks to filter out near matches. On the left side of the screen, you have options to narrow your search. I like to choose the articles in order of "oldest" and only in "Louisiana".
Info about your home and the people who lived in it will pop up. Take note of the names, dates, sales/rental advertisements and anything else you find.
Once you have looked at everything listed with your address, misspell your street name. For instance, if your street is Hillary, try spelling it with only one "L" or replace the "A" with an "E". Remember, New Orleanians aren't just creative with our pronunciations, we are also creative spellers.
If you live in a double, search for both addresses
If your street has a directional name such as S. Rocheblave or N. Claiborne, you get to do a little more digging. Search for your address using just “Claiborne”, then “North Claiborne” as well as “N Claiborne.”
For additional information about homes on corners, search through the newspapers using the names of the cross streets. For example, "Carrollton and Cohn", "Cohn and Carrollton", "Carrollton, Cohn." If your home is not on a corner, still search cross streets. It will give you an idea of what was happening on your block through time and may indirectly tell you something about your home.
After you have scoured every reference to your home by address, start searching for the names that you noted. Let's say Sam Smith lived at your address at some point. He could be searched using "Sam Smith", "S. Smith" or "Samuel Smith." Maybe while digging you find out his middle name was Leonard. Search For "Sam Leonard Smith", "Samuel Leonard Smith", "Sam L. Smith" and "S.L. Smith."
Finding obituaries and biographies in the newspapers is helpful, but oh my there are so many Sam Smiths. Which one could he be? Open a new tab in your computer and go back to the NOPL websites Louisiana Biography & Obituary Index.
Look up Sam Smith and you will find a list of dates that obituaries/death notices were published for Sam Smiths. Using these dates, you can cross-reference them with the newspapers and maybe you can figure out which obituary is his and who his family members were. Building family lines is important when discovering your homes story, but more on that later. You may also find out which church Sam belonged to as well as clubs and organizations that are listed in his obituary. Look up these places to see what they were about and you'll get to know Sam a little better.
Are there homes on your block that look a whole lot like yours? Often homes that are identical or very similar were built by the same developer. Look up those addresses too. There is likely a connection to your home.
CITY ARCHIVES & SPECIAL COLLECTIONS DIGITAL COLLECTIONS
City Archives & Special Collections Digital Collections has 40,000 historic digital images of New Orleans available online. Could your home be in one of these images? Look up your present day street name and scroll through the images that pop up. It is a long shot, but what a reward if you do find your home.
CITY ARCHIVES & SPECIAL COLLECTIONS OF THE NEW ORLEANS PUBLIC LIBRARY
City Archives & Special Collections of the New Orleans Public Library are housed on the third floor of the main public library. Fortunately, archivists have compiled an easy guide outlining the resources available. Some of them are digitized and searchable online. If you want to go digging in person, they also provide an excellent and free guide, Sources for Researching the History of Your House.
NEW ORLEANS DIRECTORIES
If you believe that your home was built prior to 1923, take advantage of the 7-day free trial on FOLD 3. It is mainly a historic military archive, which is great because there is a pretty big chance someone who has lived in your home served.
Through this site you can also access New Orleans directories from 1866 through 1923. Start off by typing your address into the search bar and use quotations to filter out near matches.
Although Fold 3 is a great resource, I find that it is not very user friendly. The search engine isn't great and it will miss matches to your address. To get around this problem, you can also go through the New Orleans directories year by year to look up former residents by the names on your list.
Take note of not only who lived in your home, but the occupations they are listed with. If the directory lists Sam Smith as a clerk at Rex Shoes, look up Rex Shoes to see what you can find about the company to get an idea of what Sam’s working life was like.
Also available online through US GENWEB are partial New Orleans directories dating back to 1805. To use this directory page, you will need to know the name of the person you are looking for instead of the address.
Another 7-day free trial you can take advantage of is Ancestry.com where you can learn an astounding amount about the individuals and families who previously lived in your home by looking up the names on your list. The platform is user friendly even if you know absolutely nothing about genealogical research. Putting together family lines is important to your homes story. Usually family connections help to build bigger and better stories. You just may find photographs of former occupants or even the home itself that were added to the site by descendants.
Census reports available on Ancestry can tell you whether or not the head of the household owned or rented the home as well as other information that builds your story. How many kids did they raise in your home? Did they own a radio or serve in the military? Every scrap of information has value. By examining the immediate neighbors on the census reports, you also get an idea of what the block was like and if relatives were living near by.
Some census records can be searched by addresses instead of names using the Census Enumeration District Finder.
Look at vital records such as births, marriages and deaths. Let's say Sam Smith married his sweetheart Annie Jones in 1913. The earliest reference you have found to your home is also dated 1913, so it is logical to wonder if the home was built for the occasion of their union. Perhaps they had 12 kids and by the time they moved to a larger home in 1926, your two-bedroom shotgun was bursting at the seams. Maybe they never moved at all and had 40 grandchildren who threw a party at the home on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. The more information you save to your list, the better your homes story will be.
New Orleans will and probate records are available through the site. Look for the earliest known person/people who lived in your home to see is their will is on file. Lots of times a will tells us when the property was built, who the land was purchased from and who inherited it.
An alternative to Ancestry is Heritage Quest, which is available under the NOPL Databases and powered by Ancestry. Although it is not quite as comprehensive as their master site, it is a terrific and free resource.
Family Search is another free genealogy site and contains many of the same records.
SECRETARY OF STATE VITAL RECORDS
Many New Orleans homes were built by and for people who were enslaved prior to Emancipation. Records of their lives are scarce. The best online database where you may find clues about their lives before they were recorded in the 1870 census is the Slave Biographies Databases.
The Louisiana Secretary of State site offers searchable databases of birth, marriage and death records. If you want to go the distance, you can order these records for a fee.
New Orleans earned the nickname “City of The Dead” for a reason. In our city, cemeteries tell stories which are likely important to your homes story. Find out everything you can about where the people on your list are laid to rest. They are usually with family members, sometimes friends and neighbors.
When was the cemetery established? Which community/neighborhood did it serve? Was the cemetery segregated by race, religion and/or class? Are there any symbols on the headstone or vault face? Are there dates that coincide with wars, epidemics or other historic events?
There are a couple of terrific online resources for locating graves. Find A Grave is the world’s largest gravesite collection. The New Orleans Cemetery Database covers St. Louis Cemetery No.1 & No. 2.
One of the best things about living in the most fascinating city on Earth is the amount that has been written about it. The mind boggles at how many books have been published about New Orleans architecture alone. Some can be read online; many more are available at your local library or for purchase at your neighborhood bookstore.
Friends of the Cabildo has published an amazing series of New Orleans Architecture books. If your neighborhood has been covered by one of the nine volumes, I highly recommend adding it to your personal collection. Your home just may be listed in one of the books. Several volumes are partially available on Google Books.
The Williams Research Center houses one of the greatest historic collections in the country. You can get a glimpse online through their site. Or you can take a trip to their beautiful French Quarter building to seek information they may have about your home or the people who lived in it. Believe me, they have something, but you need to have an idea of what it is you are looking for. People tell me that they feel intimidated by this incredible library. Don't be, the staff is friendly and they truly do want to help you. Get in touch with the staff prior to your visit so that they can best help you with your search and pull the proper materials.
The Louisiana Digital Library is an online library of more than 400,000 digital items from Louisiana archives, libraries, museums, and other repositories. The items in the Louisiana Digital Library are as diverse and interesting as the people and places in Louisiana, with photographs, maps, manuscript materials, books, oral histories, and more documenting the state’s history and culture.
Tulane University Special Collections holds a terrific collection of local records. Some are digitized! You don't have to be a student to access their records in person, you just need to make an appointment.
The largest library in the country also has countless digitized archives available online. Look up maps, photographs and historic American building survey information using the Library of Congress, Digital Collections site.
Every property in New Orleans is listed on the Assessor's site for tax purposes. It won't tell you who built your home or when, but by comparing the property lines on their site map and the old maps you have taken screen shots of, you may find some interesting clues about how your block developed.
By now, the list of information that you have compiled about your home and residents should be pretty lengthy. It is likely that you have discovered who built your home and when. Take a good look at your big picture and turn it into a story. Everyone loves a story and your home has been waiting all this time for you to tell it.
Your generosity is greatly appreciated.
Support Preservation & Promotion of New Orleans Architecture.
If you have found this free research guide helpful, please consider supporting the maintenance and upkeep of the webpage with a donation. The more knowledge our community gathers about our historic homes, the better chance we have to protect them.