Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Sites - Research Guidelines


Applicants researching the history of buildings in Fairfax County, Virginia will find these procedures useful. These preliminary steps assist in preparing an Individual Property Nomination form. Not all suggestions apply to every site.

  1. Determine the structure's Fairfax County Tax Map (FCTM) reference number. This number is a necessary part of your application. Access the Department of Taxation's Web site. Click on the "view my property" link. Click on the Property Search tab. Click on the "search by address" link. Type your property's address in the blanks provided. The resulting page of information includes a parcel ID, which is the Tax Map reference number. You do not need a FCTM reference number for research purposes; this is only if you are nominating a building to the Inventory of Historic Sites.

  2. Ascertain if there are any family names associated with the property, especially for those structures constructed prior to the twentieth century. Knowing these names will greatly assist you in your research.

  3. Visit Fairfax County Circuit Court Historical Records to determine the history of ownership of the property. The Historical Records department is located in Suite 1600 of the Fairfax County Courthouse at 4000 Chain Bridge Road in Fairfax and is open from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. A staff member is on duty to answer your questions, but you need to do your own research. Once at Historical Records:

    1. Look in the Grantee Index under the owner's name. (The grantee is the buyer; the grantor is the seller). To save yourself some work, search under the earliest known owner of the property. The Grantee Index will tell you what Deed Book (or Will Book) to reference, as well as the page number and date. Keep this information for documentation purposes!

    2. Go to the correct Deed Book and read the deed carefully. At some point it may say, "…and being the same parcel of land…" This will point you to a previous Deed Book or Will Book reference. Follow this trail as far back in time as you can. If you do not find an "and being" sentence, you will need to go back to the Index. When you are reading the deeds and/or wills, be sure to check the acreage, boundaries, mention of buildings, and names (including daughters' married names). This can often tell you how a property changed hands. Some deeds include plats of the property.

    3. Now you have your owners' names. Move on to the Land Tax Books, which are organized geographically. (i.e. A building in the southeast part of the county will be in a different Land Tax Book than one in the northern part of the county.) In some years, the books are also organized by race. Land taxes are recorded under the owners' names. These names are in alphabetical order, but they are not alphabetical under each letter. So all the As are listed together but they're not in alphabetical order. A series like "…Ashford, Azay, Adams, Abbogatz…" is common. Here's what you'll find:

      Owner
      How property held
      Acreage
      Location
      Bearing and miles from courthouse
      Values added on account of bldgs

      How property held: This usually says "in fee," meaning that the owner has clear title to the property. Sometimes it says "life," which generally means that a widow holds her husband's property until her death, when it passes on to one of their children. Property can also be held in trust for someone else.

      Acreage: Number of acres. As you look at the Land Tax Books for different years, keep track of the acreage. Oftentimes parcels are divided off and sold from the original tract.

      Bearing and miles from courthouse: This tells you where your building was in relation to the courthouse. Remember, miles were determined by the existing roads, not "as the crow flies." It helps to know what roads were where. Again, verify that you're looking at the correct entry. If the listed building is north of the courthouse and your building is south of the courthouse, you're not in the right place. Keep in mind that the Fairfax Courthouse moved several times. From 1742 – 1752 it was in the Tysons area, from 1752 – 1800 it was in Alexandria. It has been at its current site since April 21, 1800.

      Values added on account of bldgs: This indicates changes in the status of the property. The value of the property may have increased because a new building was added, or it may decrease because a building was destroyed. Records prior to 1820 do not have this category, but if a property owner's place of residence is given as Fairfax County and he only owns one parcel of land, then he most likely lived on that land, in some structure. It may be the structure you are looking for. However, if in a later year, say 1845, you find that that parcel does not have any improvements on it and $500 improvements show up in 1847, you can be reasonably sure that the house you are researching was built in 1846. Keep in mind that just because a building stood on the site in 1847, it may not necessarily be the same building that is there today. Check tax records in some later years as well. In several cases, a building burned down and was rebuilt.

    4. Personal Property Tax  books can also be a great source of information. This gives you the number of slaves, horses, clocks, carriages, etc owned by each individual. The books for 1815 are especially detailed. In that year, houses worth more than $500 are noted. Also included are mills, ice houses, furniture, portraits, silver, watches, clocks, etc. These tax records also include licenses granted to doctors, lawyers, store merchants, and inn keepers. You can get a sense of the lifestyle of the family you are researching. Note that some of the books are separated by race, one book for blacks, another for whites. The Circuit Court Historical Records Department has personal property taxes through 1919. Later years are not available. The Library of Virginia has personal property tax books after 1930 for only the years ending in 0 or 5. All the others have been discarded due to the lack of information recorded in the more recent versions.

  4. Check historical maps of Fairfax County to see if your property is included. The Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library has many of these maps. Of particular use is a book by Richard W. Stephenson entitled The Cartography of Northern Virginia: Facsimile Reproductions of Maps Dating from 1608 to 1915. Some of these maps indicate locations of dwellings and the names of their owners. If you know that Charlie Abbogatz owned your house sometime in the nineteenth century, and you find his name on G.M. Hopkins' 1879 map, the house may very well have been constructed prior to 1879. Be sure to verify that the location you have found on the map is the same as the location of your current structure. Some people owned multiple pieces of property, so you need to be positive that you are looking at the correct one. Roads, churches, rivers, creeks, and other landmarks make this fairly easy to do. You still can't be positive about the date. Just because Charlie Abbogatz's house is on the map does not mean that is the same house currently on the site.

  5. Sanborn Insurance Maps are a great resource if your structure is/was in a town or city. These maps show buildings and owners and how structures stood on the lots. The earliest date to around 1885, and run into the 1960s. The Library of Congress has a complete collection of Sanborn Maps, as does the Library of Virginia, and the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia.

  6. Mutual Assurance Society files are also invaluable. These insurance policies are an extremely detailed source of information on the plan, building material, dimensions, and lot location. It also gives the replacement value of the building at the time the policy was written. Sometimes there is a sketch of the building's primary elevation. These policies run from 1796 – 1838 and are generally for larger, more upscale homes. You can find these at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Library of Virginia, both in Richmond, and at the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia.

  7. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) began identifying notable structures in 1933 and continues to do so. More than 37,000 historic sites and structures have been surveyed. These files are stored at the Library of Congress and administered by the National Park Service, but you can access some of them on-line. This national treasure consists of measured and interpretive drawings, large-format black and white and color photographs, written historical and descriptive data, and original field notes. Check the National Park Service Web site to see if your structure is listed. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) is available on the same Web site. However, keep in mind that many of the HABS/HAER records were not written by professional historians. It has been my experience that many contain incorrect information, based on oral tradition instead of documented fact. Take some of the information in these with a grain of salt (Washington probably did not sleep there), but use them as a starting point for your archival research.

  8. The Virginia Historical Inventory was compiled by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. People traveled around the commonwealth, collecting information on historic structures and sites. You can find these records at the Library of Virginia and the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. The Library of Virginia now has this information on their Web site.

  9. Finally, check any local histories you can find. The Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library has an excellent collection of local historical information. Their Web site will give you some indication as to what you may find there. Look at newspapers, family histories, census reports, old photographs, neighborhood histories, maps, journals, travel diaries, etc. The information found here can flesh out the "story" of your building, giving you a better idea of how it functioned in society, how its owners lived, and so forth.

Good luck and have fun!

PLEASE BE SURE TO DOCUMENT EXACTLY WHERE YOU FOUND YOUR INFORMATION.

If you would like a more detailed guide to historic research, please visit the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Web site, which contains a 20-page document entitled “Researching Your Historic Virginia Property.”

If you would prefer to hire a professional to conduct research for you, both the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (804-367-2323) and the Maryland Historic Trust (410-514-7600) maintain consultants directories listing professionals in this field.

 


Adapted from Margaret T. Peters, Assistant Historian, VHLC, July 1982.

 

 

 


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