2 Replies Latest reply on Sep 21, 2016 9:06 AM by Thomas Richardson

    At what point does circumstantial evidence become proof in historical research

    Jim Barclay

      As the chairman of our local Building Committee I am conducting a review of each of our existing buildings to develop a long-term plan for maintenance.  The General Court of the Province of Massachusetts began to issue grants awarding property in what is now Royalston to various individuals.  In many cases those awarded the land never even visited their property but sold it to others.  People came to this area a few at a time with only six families here by 1762.  I state all of this to point out that the earliest days were somewhat less than organized or documented.  This makes it hard to determine an exact history for many old buildings.

       

      One building, a building used to store a hearse between funerals, is located a matter of yards from the Millers Rivers.  Therefore, it is unlikely to have survived both the flood of 1936 and/or the hurricane of 1937.  But does "it is unlikely" make this a historical fact.  In reviewing numerous photographs as well as home movies of the area I do not see the building but the destruction is so massive in both cases I'm not even sure what I'm looking at.  But does my inability to find pictures of the building make it a historical fact it was destroyed.

       

      The current building is stick built but uses truly dimension lumber that was ripped by a coarse-toothed circular saw.  To me it would appear this lumber would have been milled from the numerous downed trees by a saw mill that would have been assembled fairly close to the current building.  This makes a great story but my belief that this is what happened cannot be considered historical fact.  Several other buildings have similar stories they are telling me.

       

      My concern is that as I document these investigations which are done purely as a tool to develop a long-term maintenance plan, I have no way of knowing where these reports may end up nor can I even imagine how they will be considered 100 years from now.

       

      At what point can we decide part of the history of a structure based on inspections of the existing building?  How can we write a document that will become part of the official town records but highlight the lack of vetted research that went into parts of the report that were not central to its purpose?

        • Re: At what point does circumstantial evidence become proof in historical research
          Lauren Van Zandt

          Hi Jim,

           

          You’re absolutely right- this is a really tough issue that almost everyone doing historical research struggles with!  And there’s nothing more frustrating than having a historic photograph and realizing the building you’re interested in is right outside of frame!

           

          That said, here are some resources that may help you get some clarity on the history of your building and documenting it.

           

          Historic fire insurance maps are a good resource for dating structures.  The most popular maps were produced by the Sanborn Co. and the G.M. Hopkins Co.  The Library of Congress has a large collection of Sanborn maps (https://www.loc.gov/rr/geogmap/sanborn/states.php?stateID=23&Submit=SEARCH) but unfortunately most of them aren’t digitized.  ProQuest has a digitized Sanborn collection (http://sanborn.umi.com/), which you may be able to access through a public or university library.  I also found a link to a collection of digitized G.M. Hopkins maps held by the Massachusetts state government (http://www.mass.gov/anf/research-and-tech/oversight-agencies/lib/massachusetts-real-estate-atlases.html). 

           

          In terms of documenting your town’s historic structures, it may be helpful to look at the guidelines that the National Register of Historic Places uses to nominate buildings for the register (https://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb22/).  Ultimately, you’re probably going to be creating “living” documents for your buildings, which will change as new information may come to light (especially when buildings are altered or renovated).

           

          Good luck!

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          • Re: At what point does circumstantial evidence become proof in historical research
            Thomas Richardson

            Hello Jim,

             

            Lauren Van Zandt makes some excellent suggestions in determining the historical authenticity of your building investigations! It can be difficult establishing provenance due to poor record keeping or natural disasters destroying what your need. Not finding a photograph doesn't necessarily conclude that the structure never existed, but other sources could reference or contain said structure.

             

            In addition to what Lauren mentioned, contacting history organizations or historians that focus on the local history of your area can also provide insight.  Questions like yours concerning the historical validity of local structures might be addressed by a local historian or publications that have an in-depth focus on the historical development of a town or neighborhood.

             

            Thank you for using the History Hub and good luck with your research!