Google Earth has a lesser known feature that allows you to view “historical aerial imagery” going as far back as 1950. Before you go rushing off to see what your Grandpa’s car looked like, realize that further back in time you go, the higher the minimum altitude you can view from.
Unless your house was in New York City, chances are it wasn’t a priority for photograph taking satellites 50 years ago. If you try to view satellite imagery on Google Earth from this time period the closest you’ll likely be able to zoom in is at state level.
While researching the history of my local area I stumbled across a fantastic (and free) website that let’s you view close-up historical aerial images that go even further back than Google. In some areas I was able to view aerial images going back to 1940. I can only imagine they got them by compiling a bunch of airplane images.
You can even view as far back as the 1800s in some areas. Obviously there were no satellites or airplanes back then, but the site gives you the ability to cross reference specific points on digital imagery with (in some areas) early 20th and late 19th century maps.
You can try this trick on your house. Find a point of reference in a recent satellite photo (like a tree in your back yard), hold your finger there, and then jump back 80 years to see what was in that exact spot previously. Using this method I was able to find an abandoned road that existed behind my house. Without using this method I never would have known as it was completely overgrown with grass and brush. By talking to older neighbors I was able to confirm its existence (after locating it on historical imagery). We are currently using metal detectors over the area and finding all sorts of interesting objects.
For more information on your land you can talk to the descendants of its historic owners for clues on its history. To find previous owners you can check with your county clerk for parcel records on your property. In my area they allowed me to trace ownership of my land back to the 19th century. This will give you a name which you can cross reference with genealogy and other records to find living descendants who may have inside knowledge about your land. After gathering information, cross reference landmarks they describe with the website I talked about as a guide on where to look for buried artifacts.
For either visual curiosity or strategic research of where to hunt for artifacts from past generations, this is a fantastic site.
To see what your house, land, or neighborhood looked like, click here.
If you are looking for a metal detector, check here.
If researching local history in your area interests you, consider starting an online history museum for your home town.
Image courtesy of porbital / FreeDigitalPhotos.net