Resources for House History Research in Des Moines

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This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Researching Your Home's History


Polk County Assessor                                                           

What you’ll find there: You can find an approximation of the year your house was built, but it’s often not very accurate. It’s a good starting point. What may be more useful is the map which shows your lot line and the lot lines and addresses of all the other houses in your neighborhood. It can be helpful to compare this modern map to older maps such as the Sanborn Fire maps.

They also have photos for about 10 years back, as well as recent purchase history. You may be able to contact previous owners to ask if they dug up any historical information while they lived there.

Google Maps                                                                              

What you’ll find there: Google maps, especially with the new Google Earth features they’ve added this year, are very useful for comparing your street to historic maps. The satelite views can also sometimes help you identify the remains of old buildings that once stood on your land. Sometimes the outlines of buildings, paths, fence lines, and other structures that are invisible at ground lebel can be seen from a bird’s eye view.

City Directories 

What you’ll find there: The City Directories are a very valuable resource. They are available online at both and through, but I find the hard copies much easier to use. The Des Moines Public Library has a very good set going as far back as [date] and as far forward as [date]. Most of them have two main residential sections: one sorted by last name and one sorted by street name and address. Usually the best way to proceed is to find your address in the streets section, jot down the name that’s there, and then go back to the name section for more details. The name listing will usually tell you the spouse’s first name if married, and the head of household’s occupation. The information included in city directories changed from year to year. Some years show whether the home was rented or owned, whether or not they had a telephone, and both their residence and their place of business. The City Directories are a gold mine for local business advertisements and the sections on places of worship and fraternal organizations are very interesting too.

Sanborn Maps

What you’ll find there: You can access the Sanborn maps from the public library, or from home using your public library card number and PIN. The years available include: 1884, 1891, 1901, 1906, and 1920. The 1920 maps come in three editions: the “original” 1920, reprinted in 1956, a 1920-1950 edition with updated indexes, and a 1957 edition with another new index. The drawings are the original 1920 maps, repackaged and re-indexed in subsequent years, but some editions are better scans than others. For example, the 1920-1950 edition is a clearer scan when zoomed all the way in than the 1920-1957 edition. Depending on where your house is located it may be easier to find in one of the revised editions. The State Historical Society Library has these maps as well, but their collection is duplicated by what’s available online.

Polk County Auditor       

What you’ll find there: Hidden among the historic meeting minutes are links to several useful maps for house history: The original county survey of 1844 showing “Fort Des Moines” at the confluence of the rivers; An 1875 Polk County map, showing the locations of many prominent homesteads with familiar names like Bondurant, Jordan, Ashworth, and so on; A 1918 plat map showing ownership of each plat in the county (very useful!); various county maps from the past 50 years.

What you’ll find there: Easy, searchable access to census, vital records, immigration documents, and an ever-growing online collection of high quality scanned materials. Also, a vast, world-wide network of fellow researchers. It’s easy to find work another researcher has already done and link it to your project. BE CAREFUL, THOUGH. Errors and misinformation in other people’s family trees are very common. Take someone else’s research on Ancestry as a clue, not confirmation of fact. Try to verify any connections you find by other means as well. This is a paid service, but you can gain access through the Iowa Genealogy Society and the State Historical Society. Some of the important records on Ancestry, like the state and federal census, are available for free on other sites, but you may find that the easy-to-use features on Ancestry are worth the cost of a subscription.

What you’ll find there: Iowa-specific genealogy resources. Can be a bit of a needle in a haystack. Many incomplete or badly indexed records, but if you do find your former residents, there’s likely a real person who added them that you can contact for more information. There is also a discussion forum where you can ask specific questions and get help from others with ties to Iowa genealogy.

State Historical Society Libraries & Special Collections

What you’ll find there: The State Historical Library is a vast collection with much variety in how to access the collections. They’re slowly digitizing things, but the best way to use the library is in person at the Historical Building. Always start at the reference desk. Their staff knows the collections better than anyone and you’ll save much time by following their guidance. Have as many specific names, dates, and locations as possible, and be prepared to spend several hours going through actual card catalogs, finding aids, and microfilm. Don’t miss: the historic map collection, the newspaper archive, and the extensive photograph index.

Iowa Genealogical Society                                                   

What you’ll find there: A library with many genealogy books and publications, vertical files with misc. documents and family histories, obituaries, and a dedicated staff. A few resources are online, but most materials are best accessed onsite. Membership fee gets you unlimited access to their library. Non-members can use the library for a fee each visit.

Public Library Newspaper Archives & Obituaries

What you’ll find there: Once you have some names of people who lived in your house you can learn more about their lives by finding their obituaries. You can also search for your address, or people who lived in your house in the newspaper archives to see if any notable events happened at your house.

Iowa DOT Historical Photo Archives                   

What you’ll find there: It’s unlikely you’ll find specific info about your house here, but it’s a great source for historic photos of Iowa. In among the dry, technical photos of roads and bridges, you can see city intersections, transportation vehicles of the day, and some homes and businesses. Good for helping you understand the lives of your home’s former residents.

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