Digging into the Dunlaps (a.k.a. please appreciate your local archives)

I am realizing that I have taken a lot of resources for granted on the sole basis that in the past I have studied well-known topics. When you’re dealing with macro-level institutions or well-studied historical figures (or even people adjacent to well-studied historical figures), there’s often a lot of digitized content, previous scholarship, and online resources to draw on.

Turns out it’s kind of difficult to do local history when you’re not, you know, there. Local archives and historical societies often don’t have the time or ability to digitize their content. They’re not the Library of Congress (though even the LoC doesn’t have all their stuff available digitally so…).

This is my short PSA to appreciate your local archives and historical societies while you have easy access to them, and also SUPPORT them!


As much as I may have been struggling and wishing I was back in Beaver County, I have made some progress on researching the Dunlap family and the house. I began first by reaching out to two local historical societies, the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation and the Beaver Area Heritage Foundation, asking after their collections. Fortunately, Brenda Applegate of the BCHRLF was kind enough to send me a deed search she had done in 2016 (it goes all the way back to the 1790s!) on the property that the Dunlap Mansion had been located on, though she warned me that there were things she questioned about the house. With information on hand and in mind, I went digging.

Like I mentioned before, it’s difficult to do local history when you’re not in the area, but that’s not to say it’s entirely impossible. My biggest resource available to me for the property is the Recorder of Deeds Office for Beaver County. Utilizing their online search, I started with the Provich family, who owned the property at the time it was demolished, and started working my way backwards. Some of this story was familiar to me–John and Catherine Provich were the couple that partially restored the Mansion in the 1970s and 1980s. They received the deed for the property in 1977 from Samuel and Rose Feldman. The Feldmans had only held the property for three years after acquiring it from the Veterans Home Association of Bridgewater in 1974. All of this information lines up with the common narrative of the house that I had before, mainly that it was used as an American Legion Post in the 1940s, but otherwise had been a residence.

Going back further, however, things started getting murky. The story I knew was that William B. Dunlap inherited the house when his father, Samuel, died in 1890 and owned it until his own death in 1922. After that, his sister, Anna, inherited the house until her death in 1924, at which point she gifted the house to their household servant, Lena Keller. Sounds pretty straightforward, but the deeds tell a different story.

The first difference that comes up is a pretty big one: according to Brenda’s list, William Dunlap was never in possession of the property. Rather, William’s older brother Joseph Hemphill Dunlap inherited the property from their father in 1883, and conveyed the premises to Anna in 1909. After Anna’s death, she then conveyed the property to a Mary Moore or Lena Keller. Interesting, but I could accept it.

The real interesting part is the stretch of time is after Anna’s death. No matter how much I searched through property records, I could find no mention of a Lena Keller or Mary Moore within the time period that the transfer would have happened. This could mean that the documents don’t exist, or that they just simply haven’t been digitized yet. Either way, a dead end for the moment.

So I went back to the Veterans Home Association to see if I could trace it further back that way. What I found was a mortgage record between the Veterans Home Association and an entity called the Beaver County Trust Company that referenced a deed from 1946–the supposed year that Lena Keller sold the property to the American Legion. But, here’s what’s interesting:

A detail from the mortgage document reading “Beaver County Trust Company, Guardian of Mary Lena Keller, a weakminded person, dated September 25, 1946”

Mary Lena Keller? A weakminded person? Consider myself intrigued.

I turned back to the land records armed with a new possible name and…nothing. Still no digital land records for Mary Lena Keller. Another supposed dead end and another time to switch gears.

Luckily, around the time I hit the dead end on Mary Lena Keller, I also gained access to Ancestry.com and straight up went to town. I was up until two o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday jumping from link to link searching every possible name variation for every Dunlap I could think of. I got ahold of census records from 1870 through 1920, as well as death certificates for Joseph H., William B., and Anna. And while all this information was amazing and helpful for tracing the people, the real puzzle came back to Mary Lena Keller.

Let’s walk through the census records. In 1870, Samuel is still head of house for the Dunlap family. One other non-Dunlap is listed at their address: a Lena Yonda, age 10, birthplace Pennsylvania. Skip to 1880: Samuel is still head of house, but now a Mary M. Chidister is listed as living at the address with the Dunlaps. Mary is marked as black, female, age 18, birthplace Mississippi. Possibly a different person? Let’s go to 1900 (because the 1890 census was lost in a fire). Now, Joseph H. is listed as head of house, and we have a Lena Keller listed as the only non-Dunlap at the address. Lena Keller, like Mary Chidister, is marked as black and female, with a birthdate of June 1866 and an age marked as 33. Lena’s birthplace is listed as Alabama. Let’s keep going to the 1910 census. William is now listed as head of house for the Dunlaps, and a Lena M. Keller appears on the census. Lena M. is marked as black, female, age 40, but with a birthplace of presumably Mississippi (spelled “Missippia” in the census). And finally, let’s move on to the 1920s. William and Anna are the last Dunlaps at the property at ages 83 and 73 respectively. The only other person listed at the address is a Mary M. Keller, black, female, age 60, birthplace Tennessee.

What an adventure census records can be.

I spent a solid hour discussing this with a friend at work and we still don’t have a clear answer to the Mary Lena Keller mystery. The only other document I was able to find was a death certificate for one Mary Lena Keller, dated May 1949. Mary Lena Keller of 1299 Market Street, West Bridgewater had been at a hospital in Beaver County for the previous four years. Female, black, birthdate Dec. 1860, age 88, birthplace Virginia. This checks out when compared to the mortgage record. If Mary Lena Keller had been hospitalized for the last four years in 1949, then the Beaver County Trust Company’s sale of the property in 1946 makes sense. Maybe if I can get back to Beaver County and the Deeds office, then perhaps the rest will fall in line.

So we more or less have the Dunlap and post-Dunlap ownership of the house figured out, but what about before that? The house was supposedly built in the 1840s, but the Dunlaps didn’t acquire the property until, at the earliest, 1865. The common narrative says that James Arbuckle, who sold Samuel Dunlap the property, was the one to build the house. But I spent enough time in the Grantor-Grantee Index for Beaver County to doubt. First, according to the Indexes, one William Davidson and wife sold the lots in question to an Andrew Purdy in 1841. I got lost in the weeds for awhile looking for Andrew, but eventually I discovered that Andrew died in 1850 and his wife, Almira, received his property and eventually remarried to a James A. Sholes (or Shoals). In 1861, James A. and Almira P. Sholes granted the property to James Arbuckle. A mortgage record exists from James Arbuckle to Samuel Dunlap from 1865 for the same property, but none of this tells me who built the house–or at least when the house showed up on the property. Unfortunately, the online records for Bridgewater outside of the Indexes only go back to the 1940s, and none related to the Dunlaps or any other associated names, so I can’t yet verify the information in the Indexes.

Regardless, I am so excited! This is more information than I thought I’d be able to find in my current situation, and now I can develop a game plan for the next time I’m in Beaver County. For now, we’ve had enough of land records, so here’s a few photographs:

Top: William B. Dunlap Mansion circa 1892 // Bottom: (from left to right) John McClymonds, William B. Dunlap, and Anna (possibly Nancy) Dunlap, Mary Lena Keller in background. Images Source: Beaver County Genealogy and History Center.
Mary Lena Keller and Nancy (possibly Anna) Dunlap in the gardens. Image Source: Jeffrey Snedden.

Soon I plan to start experimenting with the digital reconstruction side of this project, so stay tuned for more updates!

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. So very interesting! I can’t wait to continue reading on what you find out! I am anticipating the digital reconstruction side!!

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