A powerful story by Gilbert Garcia and video by Vianna Davila explore the rich history and slow decline of San Antonio’s East Side.
The video is different from your typical TV news broadcast. You don’t see Vianna talking into a microphone and interjecting herself into the scene. Instead, the video has a documentary-style feel to it. Vianna patiently let images and sound tell the story. Awesome.
One of the cool features of Bexar County’s digital archive is that you can do crazy keyword searches for people like “David Crockett” and other historic figures in San Antonio to discover deeds and other public records filed in their name. Some of these records document important events in the city’s history.
Out of curiosity, I ran a search for “Daughters of the Republic of Texas” and sorted the results by date to look for deeds filed in 1905, when the nonprofit group became the custodians of the Alamo.
I found this deed describing how the Daughters, with the financial help of Texas lawmakers and wealthy benefactor Clara Driscoll, had paid $75,000 to the merchants who owned the Long Barrack on the Alamo grounds. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.8 million in today’s dollars.
The deed says the Daughters were incorporated for “the patriotic purpose of acquiring historic ground and perpetuating the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved and maintained the independence of Texas and cherishing and preserving the unity of Texas.” The deed describes how the Daughters released the property to the state of Texas. The state owns the Alamo; the Daughters take care of it.
If you’re a history buff, you could enjoy hours of nerdy fun finding these kinds of primary documents.
Notice how this record is just a piece of the story. Clara Driscoll helped save the Alamo’s Long Barrack by opening her pocketbook, so her name is in the deed. But there’s no mention of Adina De Zavala, who persuaded Driscoll to join the cause of preserving the Alamo, and later famously clashed with Driscoll about what to do with it.
Note: I’ve updated this post to reflect changes to the county’s search page.
I got some great feedback on my research into the history of my 85-year-old house. Brian Chasnoff told me he spent an hour looking up records for his own house. But Brian and others said they had trouble using Bexar County’s Web page set up by County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff to look up public records. Here are a few tips to get started.
When you visit the site, you have to register for free. Once that’s done you can log in and you’ll see this intro page:
Here you can search foreclosure notices, marriage licenses, business records — life’s important moments, all documented and filed at the county courthouse.
Deeds documenting property sales are also filed at the courthouse. If you want to know more about the history of a property, click on “name” to search by the name of the grantee or grantor. The grantor is the party selling the property, the grantee is the person who bought it.
You can’t look up a property by its address, but you can look it up by its legal description. To find the legal description for a property, visit the Bexar County Appraisal District’s page and click on “Property Search.” You can type in the name of the owner, the address or look up the property on a map.
So if you do a search for “Tedesco John” my house comes up and you can see the legal description is New City Block 1946, Block 24, Lot 28.
Go back to the document search page and click on the “Land info” tab. It pulls up this page:
Type in the legal description for my house and you’ll see all the deeds, tax liens, easements, and any other record filed at the county courthouse in connection to that property going back to 1960.
The search pulls up five documents tied to my property, and you can download digital copies of the records. For example, you can pull up this deed showing that I bought the house in 2003 from Angie and Andrew Millman, and I paid for it with an $87,899 bank loan.
Another deed shows the Millmans bought the house in 1996 from someone named Wilma Nora Boyle. My neighbors told me she was a nice woman who had lived in the house for years.
This search goes back to 1960 [UPDATE: The clerk’s office has since expanded the land records search to 1837. You can now ignore the part in this post about the historical records search], but my house was built in 1924. So how do I figure out who Boyle bought the house from?
Go back to the search menu. Under the application menu, don’t click on “Land Records” like you did last time. Click on “1837-1963 Historical Records.” There, you’ll see a “Grantor/Grantee” search option.
Searching for Boyle’s name turns up the fact that she bought the house from the Ring family. Search for that couple and you see that they, in turn, bought the house from Hortanz Wiegand. Wiegand had bought the house from her husband, G.A. Wiegand. And the very first deed for the property was dated Dec. 9, 1925 when G.A. Wiegand bought the house from the builder, L.S. Busby.
If you own a house, your title company might have provided you with deeds showing the chain of ownership for the property. But you can also be your own title company and conduct your own research for any property. In the past, I’ve written stories about controversial land deals and developments. The two Web sites set up by Rickhoff and the county’s appraisal district let me quickly figure out who owns what, where and when.
And sometimes, these old records simply offer a glimpse at what life was like in another era.
This weekend my cousin and I used Bexar County’s amazing Web site of historical documents to research the history of my stucco house near Woodlawn Lake, which was built in 1924. I blogged yesterday about the racial restrictions that were written in the first deed for my home. The deed prohibited the homeowner from selling or leasing the property to black people.
But the revelations about my house didn’t end there. We also found a notation in another record that shows what it was like to be a woman in the old days.
My house at 1714 W. Summit was originally sold to G.A. Wiegand in December 1925. A year later, for reasons that aren’t explained, Wiegand sold the property to his wife, Hortanz, according to this 1926 deed.
Here’s the interesting part: Check out the disclaimer by the notary at the top of the page:
… Hortanz Wiegand, having been examined by me privily and apart from her said husband … acknowledged such instrument to be her act and deed … and she did not wish to retract it.
In other words: Are you sure you know what you’re doing, little lady?
It’s interesting how the dry, legalistic wording of the public documents for my house are a window to a different time. They offer a glimpse at how some people ranked higher than others in society.
Update: Just found this old law dictionary on Google’s book search and it explains how married women in Texas who wanted to buy or sell property had to be “privily examined” apart from their husbands, in order to make sure the women really wanted to do the transaction, and to make sure they understood it.