Overview of Urban Research
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Research Strategies
- 3 Library and Internet Sources
- 4 Internet Search
- 5 Printed Materials
- 6 City Research Guides
- 7 State Guides
- 8 Multi-City Reference Tools
- 9 Obscure Collections
- 10 Indexes
- 11 City Directories
- 12 Telephone Directories
- 13 Street Directories
- 14 Genealogical Societies
- 15 History
- 16 References
- 17 External Links
From a colonial society of small farms and villages, the United States grew rapidly into a nation dominated by massive urban centers. Early settlers, many of whom had been city dwellers in Europe, congregated in seaport towns along the Atlantic Coast. The larger colonial towns became government centers where brisk commerce attracted a continuous influx of immigrants. Most ports became hubs for milling, shipbuilding, and other manufacturing activities.
In the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, the populations of the major cities increased dramatically. New York was a city of approximately 33,000 in 1790; there were 800,000 people on the island of Manhattan by 1860. Philadelphia’s count of 28,000 people in the 1790 census had leaped to more than 565,000 by the 1860 enumeration. Brooklyn (not yet part of New York City), with a population of 5,000 in 1790, was home to more than 265,000 by 1860, distinguishing it as America’s third-largest city.
Climate, geography, and the focus on agriculture dictated a slower growth pattern for Southern urbanization. Yet New Orleans had a population of nearly one thousand as early as 1727, and Charleston was the largest Southern metropolis, with a population of ten thousand by the time of the American Revolution.
Urbanization was not limited to the Atlantic Coast; it expanded inland with new frontiers. The cities of Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis flourished along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. With the introduction of steam navigation and the opening of a canal system, the Great Lakes cities of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee sprang up. Even in states and territories where the population was sparse, the extent of urbanization was remarkable. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City played important roles in the development of the Far West. By 1860, Houston, Galveston, Austin, and San Antonio had also become important cultural, social, and economic centers.
Very early in the process of developing a family history, you will probably encounter the problem of locating information about ancestors who lived in a large American city. The United States today is very much an urban nation—73.5 percent of the population lives in cities—but the trend began well over a century ago. More than 50 percent of the population lived in urban areas as early as 1920. Moreover, many specific ethnic groups had higher percentages of urbanization than the general population. By 1910, approximately 72 percent of the foreign-born lived in cities. The economics of migration, as well as the personal goals of the migrants, many of whom hoped to make a fortune and return home, necessitated settlement in urban centers, such as New York, Cleveland, and Chicago. There, burgeoning industries welcomed common laborers, ethnic clusters offered a familiar setting for the homesick, and cheap housing and food let migrants accumulate savings.
Since the publication of the second edition of The Source, many relatively new Internet-based sources and services have become available, making it easier to begin preliminary urban research online. However, few or no changes were made in this chapter in cases where traditional sources remain the best starting point.
Research among the maze of metropolitan records reveals the confusing variety, color, and bustle of the urban surroundings new to the immigrants. Much of the genealogist’s knowledge in the use of these resources must be self-taught. No two cities were born of a common history, nor were their political natures, commercial interests, ethnic makeup, or geographical locations ever identical. Research sources readily found in one city may be closed to access or have been destroyed in the next. The experiences of the African American, the German Jew, the Irish Catholic, and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant frequently differed, and those differences dictate the types of records to be used.
Despite their differences, cities have one thing in common: a reputation for being difficult to research because of their multilayered bureaucracies, the sheer volume of records created by enormous populations, and a lack of printed indexes and access to sources. The advantage is that urban areas often include the resources, human and financial, to preserve and to disseminate information about the past. Also, city governments require more information from their residents than do their rural counterparts.
Historical societies, libraries, and universities collect manuscripts, newspapers, rare books, and similar materials from which sociologists, demographers, urbanologists, and social historians can draw. It is no accident that some of the most dynamic contemporary research is occurring in urban-related topics: the resources are vast.
Many of the sources mentioned in this chapter are further detailed elsewhere in this book. This chapter is specifically designed to identify problems unique to city research and to offer strategies and sources that clarify bureaucratic jurisdictions and make searching massive volumes of urban-created records more manageable. The publications, websites, and organizations cited in this chapter are not comprehensive; they provide examples of the wide array of resources that are available for urban research.
Geography matters! Perhaps more than in any other phase of genealogical research, it is important to gather as much identifying information as possible about the subject of a search from relatives near and far. Knowing the approximate part of the city, a street name, an occupation, or the name of a church or school can make all the difference when it comes to finding people in city directories or census or any other records, particularly when common names are involved.
As cities grew in population and geographical dimensions, their borders and jurisdictions changed. Larger towns annexed other towns over the years, and if you are not aware of such historical facts, there is a good chance that you will overlook desired information. For example, Boston was divided into various wards, and boundaries were redrawn as new areas were added. To add to the confusion, Beacon Hill, East Boston, Fort Hill, the North End, South Boston, the South Cove, the South End, and the West End are the informal names of sections. Brighton, Charlestown, Dorchester, Roxbury, and West Roxbury were annexed by the city of Boston in the 1860s and 1870s, while Hyde Park did not become part of Boston until 1912. Sections of present-day Boston are still called by the names of the former towns. Prior to annexation, each town kept its own records. Other towns in the Boston vicinity remain separate municipalities to the present day, including Cambridge and Somerville (both in Middlesex County) and Brookline (in Norfolk County). Information about boundary changes can be elusive but may often be found in some of the online library and historical sources described later in this chapter.
Different cities and counties have different record-keeping practices, and it is critical to know of these distinctions. Deeds for Rochester, New York, for example, are kept at the county level, but Baltimore and St. Louis deeds are kept at the city level. There may be different access policies and charges among the city, county, and state levels. Most vital records for Illinois have been microfilmed up to around 1915 (depending on the county). In some cases, microfilmed copies of vital records are easier to obtain through the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church) in Salt Lake City or through the Illinois State Archives or one of the local archives. Some of the more heavily used record collections are being digitized and made available online at federal, state, county, and local archive websites.
Because the offices of heavily populated cities and counties are frequently hard to access, and because city and county bureaucracies are typically difficult to work with, it may be far easier in some instances to consult indexes for cities at the nearest Family History Center of the LDS Family History Library. Many genealogically important city records have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah. The society is microfilming on an ongoing basis, so if records or indexes are not yet available, they might be in six months or a year. It is wise to stay informed. Chapter 2, “Computers and Technology,” in this volume provides more suggestions on how to keep up with this rapidly changing area of research.
Library and Internet Sources
The basic approach to urban genealogy is similar to that followed for any other research problem. Every genealogist begins with certain facts and progresses to the unknown. If tradition says that an individual emigrated from Germany and settled first in Baltimore, educate yourself on the background and existing materials for research in that city.
Guides have been published for many major cities. Such guides outline in broad terms the location and accessibility of sources, eliminating some blind alleys. With the growth of the Internet since the second edition of this book was published in 1997, much of the most basic finding-aid information formerly found only in printed guides or periodical articles has been published on the Internet. As a result, the best way to start research about an unfamiliar urban area is by reviewing the website of the public library or libraries serving that area, supplemented by an Internet search for other historical and genealogical resources about the area. These Internet sources cannot entirely replace published guides and other finding aids, but they do make it possible to begin preliminary research at home or at your local public library.
Most large public libraries now have websites and online catalogs that typically include or point to the most significant resources about the areas the libraries serve. No matter where you live, you can find general information and guides to sources about most any urban area by starting with a public library website and online catalog. To find links to libraries, try one or more of the following sites:
- Google: Put the name of the city and “public library” in the search box.
- Libweb (Library Servers via WWW): Maintained by Thomas Dowling, updated daily, and hosted at SunSITE, the digital library at the University of California, Berkeley, with mirror sites at several other universities.
- LibDex (The Library Index): Maintained by Peter Scott, updated several times each month, and includes links to many library-related organizations and services.
Many urban areas have more than one major library with significant family history resources. In the St. Louis area, for example, both the St. Louis Public Library (city) and the St. Louis County Library have major genealogical collections.
The typical public library homepage will have a link to the library’s catalog as well as links to many other resources for family history research in the community. For example, the current homepage of the Cleveland Public Library includes the following relevant links:
- The Library Catalog: Search the catalogs of the CLEVNET consortium, including thirty-one library systems in nine counties throughout northern Ohio.
- Databases & Links Library: The links library points to a number of genealogy-related sites including other Cleveland Public Library pages, the Cuyahoga County Genealogical Society, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Cleveland, The Western Reserve Historical Society, the Ohio Genweb Project, and several national and ethnic-related sites. There are also links to databases that can be accessed at or through either the Cleveland Public Library or the CLEVNET consortium, with icons distinguishing the databases that can be accessed only at the library from those that can be accessed from outside the library by library card holders.
- Cleveland Necrology File: Search Cleveland death notices online.
- Property Research in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County <www.cpl.org/property-research.asp>: Includes a long list of links related to real property in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County and can be found throughtommie?? “Library Services” in the “Library Info” pull-down menu.
- Genealogical Research at the Cleveland Public Library <www.cpl.org/libraryresources.asp?FormMode=Exhibit&ID=6>: Not shown as a link on the homepage but can be found on several subordinate pages.
In response to the overwhelming interest in family history and the resulting number of requests in past years, city libraries often published pamphlets describing their genealogy and local history holdings, hours of operation, and research policies. In recent years, many of these brochures have been discontinued because the information is available on the libraries’ websites. If you live some distance from the public library in the area of an ancestor’s residence and don’t have Internet access, any large library should have a current issue of the American Library Directory, a reference volume with essential addresses and telephone numbers for other libraries across the country. Some libraries will even supply lists of researchers, though none of the institutions will specifically recommend or guarantee the quality of the work of individuals listed. If a library is unable to provide a list of researchers, you may wish to contact the Association of Professional Genealogists, P.O. Box 40393, Denver, CO 80204-0393, or the Board for Certification of Genealogists, 1307 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036, for assistance in locating a professional researcher in a particular city.
Since library websites vary in the amount and location of information posted, it is often wise to search the Internet for other sources and links related to genealogy and history. This will often locate resources that are hard to find on the library’s site, including many of the types of resources discussed later in this chapter. Continuing with Cleveland as an example, select the [www.google.com/advanced_search advanced search] at Google. Type “cleveland” in the box labeled “Find results with all of the words,” then type “genealogy genealogical history historical” in the box labeled “Find results with at least one of the words.” The first several relevant results include:
- The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History is sponsored by Case Western Reserve University and includes the complete contents of two books by David D. Van Tassel and John J. Grabowski: The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996) and The Dictionary of Cleveland Biography (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1996).
- The Cleveland Digital Library is sponsored by the Cleveland State University Library and has links to other sites with full text or images of publications, documents, maps, and photographs relating to the history of Cleveland and northern Ohio.
- The Cleveland Memory Project is another Cleveland State University Library site and has online versions of books and documents from the library’s own holdings.
- First Maps of Cleveland and the Western Reserve.
- Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society.
- Resource Directory to Cleveland’s History, part of the website of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District.
Since Cleveland is in Cuyahoga County, repeating the search for “Cuyahoga” instead of Cleveland will produce a similar list of useful sites.
Other geographically oriented Internet resources include:
- The USGenWeb Project: Websites related to every state and most counties. Some include indexes, transcripts, or scanned images of source documents.
- Ancestry.com and RootsWeb.com message boards: Message boards for every state and county.
- GenForum: Message boards for every state and county.
- RootsWeb.com mailing lists: Mailing lists related to each state, most counties, and some other geographic subdivisions. RootsWeb.com has two search engines for finding older messages: http://searches2.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/listsearch.pl and http://archiver.rootsweb.com.
This same approach can be used for Internet searches related to any urban area.
Despite the wealth of information that has become available on the Internet, traditional printed guides, indexes, and collections remain indispensable sources for family history research. They often provide a historical context and depth of understanding of resources that goes far beyond the typical Web page. The most comprehensive guide to printed genealogical records and finding aids is the companion to this book, Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.
City Research Guides
A number of genealogical and historical guides for specific cities have been published over the past several years, and more are in the development stages. One of the best currently available is Genealogical Resources in New York: The most comprehensive guide to genealogical and biographical resources in New York City and Albany, edited by Estelle Guzik. Though published by the Jewish Genealogical Society, the volume is by no means limited to Jewish sources. Archives serving the metropolitan area, bureaus of vital records, city clerks, offices, civil, county, and federal courts, genealogical and historical societies, and libraries with genealogical holdings and special collections are but a few of the topics discussed in the volume. Adding greatly to the usefulness of the guide are geographical and mailing addresses, telephone numbers, hours of operation, and directions for driving or reaching the various facilities by public transportation. The material is organized geographically so that researchers can coordinate their visits to facilities within a particular area. An earlier but still informative volume is Rosalie F. Bailey’s Guide to Genealogical and Biographical Sources for New York City, 1783–1898. Even if New York City is not your area of interest, this work’s forty separate categories of records with select bibliographies will give you an analog for the city in which you are interested. Not all of these will apply to every research problem, but knowing of them can stimulate innovative approaches when other paths seem closed.
Those with Chicago research problems will find help in Loretto Dennis Szucs’s Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research. It covers many genealogical sources and research strategies from vital records to Chicago communities and neighborhoods, occupational and business resources, and miscellaneous sources and addresses. The volume includes a chronological list of 107 major historical events that affect research in the area. A glance at the chronology pinpoints important changes, such as the incorporation of the city in 1837, the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848, the cholera epidemic and bank panic of 1849, and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed almost all government-created records. “Archives and Manuscript Collections,” “Historical Societies,” “Gazetteer of Cook County,” “Genealogical Societies,” “Cemeteries in the Metropolitan Chicago Area,” and collections of the Family History Library and its local Family History Centers, the Newberry Library, and the National Archives—Great Lakes Region in Chicago are among topics described in the eleven appendixes of the book. Specific information is provided where the researcher is likely to confront a forbidding bureaucracy.
Robert W. Barnes’s Guide to Research in Baltimore City and County provides important details about genealogical information in archives, libraries, repositories, maps, biographical sources, cemeteries, ethnic histories, newspapers, occupational and political sources, and some hard-to-find city records. As the author points out, “Knowing where to look is an important part of the researcher’s job. It is extremely frustrating to drive to the Court House at Towson only to find that the records being sought are some ten miles away in Baltimore City, or thirty miles away in the Maryland State Archives.” Compiled by Connie Stunkel Terheiden and Kenny R. Burck, Guide to Genealogical Resources in Cincinnati & Hamilton County, Ohio is another important guide to a specific area. The guide includes maps and sources most needed by the family historian, including details about cemeteries, census, churches, court records, funeral homes, land records, libraries, surname files, and how to obtain vital records.
FamilySearch now publishes free genealogical research guides in FamilySearch Research Wiki. Guides are available for:
- New York City and its Boroughs: The Bronx, Brooklyn (Kings County), Manhattan (New York County), Queens, Staten Island (Richmond County)
Unfortunately, there are far too few guides yet available for specific cities, but some statewide compilations may be very helpful where city guides are lacking. Carol W. Bell’s Ohio Guide to Genealogical Sources is a notable example. For instance, if Cleveland is an area of interest, addresses of courts, historical and genealogical societies, and other useful information concerning the city can be found under the heading of Cuyahoga County. Additionally, consulting the county lists can reveal which vital and probate records had already been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah at the time of the guide’s publication. Under the heading “Miscellaneous,” there are also land, marriage, Bible, cemetery, church, and other records for the city, available on microfilm at the Ohio Historical Society and the Western Reserve Historical Society. The guide, of course, details valuable collections that will facilitate research in other Ohio counties and cities as well.
Roseann Hogan’s Kentucky Ancestry: A Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research is an in-depth study that will facilitate research in any city or rural area in Kentucky. Seven chapters of this work provide historical background and methodology for using both standard and unique sources in the state. Chapter 8 inventories records by county. There are also a number of constructive tips on city records, including the fact that, despite irregular reporting of vital events in the state before 1910, more uniform registration began in the cities of Lexington, Louisville, Newport, and Covington almost twenty-five years earlier. Hogan alerts readers to the fact that Kentuckians have filed more than five hundred thousand delayed birth certificates, which typically are completed in order to obtain Social Security benefits, and that there is a possibility that even if no official certificate can be found in Frankfort, a certificate may have been filed with the Social Security Administration or other government agencies.
If you have research to conduct in Atlanta, Savannah, or any other Georgia city, Robert Scott Davis Jr.’s Research in Georgia is particularly helpful. The volume emphasizes the Georgia Department of Archives and History. Yet another essential guide for a southern state is North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, edited by Helen Leary.
FamilySearch staff and community volunteers have prepared detailed guides for each state. They have been published in the FamilySearch Research Wiki and are constantly being updated:
Multi-City Reference Tools
Another extremely useful urban tool with a somewhat unlikely title is The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy, by Arthur Kurzweil and Miriam Weiner. Whether you have Jewish ancestors or not, this work has substantive chapters on city resources in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
One of the most important reference works is the third edition of Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, edited by Alice Eichholz, which covers all U.S. states and their major cities. The state chapters open with historical segments and proceed to summarize vital, census, land, probate, court, tax, cemetery, church, and military records; local history; maps; periodicals, newspapers, and manuscripts; and archives, libraries, and societies. Each chapter concludes with a table that lists county and town courthouse addresses, dates of formation, parent political units, and the beginning dates of vital and court records. Outline maps showing the counties and county seats complement the chapters on each state.
A number of rather obscure city-focused collections and indexes are available in various archives, historical agencies, and libraries in the United States. An increasing number of such collections and indexes are being made available on the Internet.
A New York City example is the Emigrant Savings Bank, established in 1850 by members of the Irish Emigrant Society. The bank ended up serving thousands of Irish immigrants who fled to America following the infamous Potato Famine. The bank kept many volumes of records, including an Index Book; a Test Book; a Transfer, Signature, and Test Book; and a Deposit-Account Ledger. Microfilm copies are available at the New York Public Library, and Ancestry.com has scanned images of the Emigrant Savings Bank collection with the index that provides the given names and surnames of depositors, their account numbers, account dates, and years and places of birth, if given. One of the great features of this collection is that, in most cases, it identifies the exact place of origin (county and townland) of the immigrant depositor. In addition, each indexed individual is linked to the image on which he or she appears, where more information may be available. While the majority of the emigrants found in this collection will be Irish, you may occasionally find emigrants of other nationalities as well.
The bank kept an index of all individuals recorded in its volumes. This book will usually provide the name of the depositor, the date of the record, and the individual’s account number. This book will also refer you to a Test Book or a Transfer, Signature, and Test Book.
The Test Books cover the years 1850–68 and contain a variety of details about depositors and their family. Information that may be found in this set of records includes the date of the record, the name of the depositor, account number, occupation, residence, and other remarks that could include names of other family members, immigration information, or birth or residence information in Ireland.
Transfer, Signature, and Test Books
These books existed from 1850–83 and were used primarily for recording changes made to an individual’s account information. Examples of such a change could be a new signature, a change in address, or a change in the account holder. Information that may be found in this set of records includes the signature of the account holder, the date of the record, the account number, the individual’s residence, occupation, year born, birthplace, and family relations.
These records are arranged by account number and contain an account history for each individual, recording typical transactions such as deposits and withdrawals.
Many valuable finding tools have not been published, nor are they available on the Internet. The Baltimore City Archives has, for example, a WPA-compiled name index to the municipal records for 1756 to 1938. The Douglas County Historical Society (Omaha, Nebraska) has the Omaha World-Herald Clipping File, a subject and biographic file with four hundred thousand subject files (including more than 5 million clippings from between 1907 and 1983). The Oregon Historical Society has several biographical sources important for searching cities in that state. A vertical file consisting of newspaper clippings includes four thousand subjects on state and local history and fifteen hundred biographies of prominent Oregonians. Also covered are historic structures, ethnic groups, cities, counties, and Portland neighborhoods. A separate Biography Card File was put together from books, scrapbooks, and newspaper clippings, among other things.
A decided advantage to conducting research in a metropolitan area is the availability of printed directories for most cities, large and small. There is scarcely a more satisfying or more productive adventure in family history research than finding an ancestor in an old directory, discovering his or her occupation (or multiple occupations), and knowing exactly where in the city he or she lived. The enjoyment grows if you are able to track families for significant time periods. The attached image is from an 1872 directory for Brooklyn, New York. In the past few years, many historical city directories have been placed online. Some sites have images of the original pages, and others have transcripts or abstracts. Some provide free access, while others require a subscription. Directories provides an excellent, in-depth description of this important source. However, there are certain concepts and strategies that bear highlighting here.
While directories of residents may date back to a city’s earliest days, no directory is all-inclusive. Because the motive behind the printing of most of these books was to sell advertising, the listing of residents was selective. Stephen Thernstrom cites a study of Newburyport, Massachusetts, city directories. “Volumes purporting to list every family in the community were published in January 1849 and January 1851. These have been compared with a list of all laborers resident in Newburyport taken from the Seventh United States Census. Fully 45 percent of the laboring families found by the diligent census-taker in September and October of 1850 cannot be located in either directory.” Thernstrom concludes that, in addition to inadvertently missing many of the city’s transient population, “the compiler of the directories either did not know about or did not choose to include many working class families in his volumes.” Similar conclusions have been made in studies conducted in other cities. Yet, genuine efforts seem to have been made by some of the publishers. The compilers of the Chicago 1844 Directory stated on the first page of the volume:
- It has been the design to include in this Directory the names of all persons and all firms in the City, to arrange them alphabetically, and in every instance to give the correct spelling. There may be cases however, where names may have been accidentally inserted in the wrong connection, and cases also of incorrect orthography—particularly where persons have been unable to spell, and the names have been written from the sound. Immediate measures will be taken to procure the names of all persons who have accidentally been omitted in this volume; a complete list, corrected from time to time, will be kept at the General Intelligence office, where the public can at times get information in regard to the names, business, and residence of every inhabitant of the City. Persons finding themselves excluded and persons coming to the City hereafter, are requested to call at the above place and have their names enrolled. Very few of our buildings are numbered, the necessity, however, of this can be avoided, if persons occupying buildings permanently, will put themselves to the trifling trouble and expense of putting their names on their doors.
Scanned images of a 1903 reprint of this 1844 directory can be found at Old Directory Search. Transcripts of the nonadvertising data in the directory are posted on a number of websites.
As cautious as publishers claimed to be, however, it is clear that immigrants were consistently omitted from the commercial publications—particularly those immigrants who did not speak English. Frequently, entire ethnic neighborhoods were left out of city compilations. Some groups, such as the Poles in Chicago, independently published city or community directories in their native language to offset such gaps.
Cities often had several directory publishers—Chicago had three in 1871. Consult all of them, for each may contain unique details. Richard Edwards’s Edwards’ 1871 Chicago Census Directory lists not only names, occupations, and addresses of individuals but also provides a ward number; the number of males, females, and total in residence; as well as the birthplace of the head of household. John Gager’s Gager’s 1857 Chicago Directory includes the birthplace and years of residence in Chicago with the usual information. One publication lists “Miller, Emma, widow,” and one by another publisher in the same year adds “Emma, widow of James.” Limiting a search to one directory increases the chance of missing precious clues.
A year or so after Alexander Graham Bell invented the articulating telephone, telephone directories began to appear in cities across the country. In 1878, Chicago had its first published telephone book. It listed mostly business establishments; the remainder were the handful of private citizens who could afford the luxury. Most of the population has been vastly underrepresented in telephone directories—even in later years. As late as 1900, only seventeen people per one thousand had a telephone; by 1920 that number had risen to twenty-three per one thousand. Having a telephone then, as now, did not guarantee inclusion in a telephone book; many elected not to be listed.
Several Internet services now offer searchable current telephone directories. Some may also offer older directory information, such as the “1994 Phone and Address Directory” from Ancestry.com. Most large libraries seem to have discontinued maintaining large collections of telephone directories, but many may still retain older directories for the area served by the library. The Library of Congress has an online guide to older directories: “Telephone and City Directories in the Library of Congress: Non-Current (Old),” maintained by Barbara Walsh at http://www.loc.gov/rr/genealogy/bib_guid/telephonnoncurr.html.
One of the frustrations in research is finding incomplete information in a source—for example, a beautiful old portrait that bears the name and street address of the photographer but gives no city, or a candid shot of a group of people on the porch of a charming old house at 4124 Trowbridge Street, or a letter that states, “Your brother remains close to the shop in the city but has taken up new quarters on Madison Street.” Such information is ultimately useless if the town name remains unknown. The Street Directory of the Principal Cities of the United States, originally published by order of the postmaster general in 1908, is an alphabetical listing of streets, avenues, courts, places, lanes, roads, and wharves to which mail was delivered, with references to all the cities and towns where these street names appear. City directories frequently included street guides.
Street names in many cities have changed over the years. These changes are often difficult to track. For New Orleans, the New Orleans Public Library offers an online Alphabetical Index of Changes in Street Names, Old and New; Period 1852 to Current Date, Dec. 1st 1938 (updated 2002), based on a 1938 WPA compilation, and New Orleans Street Name Changes (updated 2003) with changes made since 1990.
Genealogical societies at the national, state, and local levels offer educational programs and publications with a strong focus on the locality served. The Dubuque County-Key City Genealogical Society (P.O. Box 13, Dubuque, IA 52004-0013 <www.rootsweb.com/~iadckcgs>), for example, publishes such titles as A Guide to Microfilmed Records at Carnegie-Stout Public Library, Dubuque, Iowa; lists of Dubuque city directories, 1856 to 1983; newspapers for the area; an obituary file; and probate and marriage index information. Other society publications are an Index of Churches and Cemeteries of Dubuque County, Iowa; Burial Records of Dubuque City Cemetery, 1854–1875; Declarations of Intent to Become a Citizen, Dubuque County, Iowa; and Roots in Dubuque County, Iowa: A Genealogical Resource Book.
To find the name and address of the genealogical society in your area of interest, use an Internet search engine, such as Google, or consult The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book, by Juliana Szucs Smith.
The importance of understanding the history of any geographical area in genealogical research cannot be overstated. Basic historical overviews of most cities can be found in encyclopedias or on relevant websites, but for a better understanding of what types of records may exist or what it was like to live in the times and places of our ancestors, the ever-increasing number of urban studies that are becoming available are among the most encouraging aspects of city research. Online library catalogs and Internet search engines can help you find books on the history of the area, but online sources are almost never an adequate substitute for a well-written published history. If a descriptive volume on the city in which you are interested is not on the shelf of your local public library, a large city or university library may have it or be able to borrow it for you through interlibrary loan.
Brooklyn, U.S.A.: The Fourth Largest City in America, edited by Rita Seiden Miller, is an example of a work that provides a sociological view of the city from its original inhabitants to mobility patterns of residents in the 1970s. Discussions of topics and author’s notes on subjects as diverse as Kings County in the American Revolution, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Brooklyn Dodgers, neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and even a chapter titled “Kings English: Fact and Folklore of Brooklyn Speech” provide rare insights into Brooklyn as it was in an ancestor’s day, as well as providing precious clues for finding record sources.
Pictorial histories of American cities are enjoying a revival of popularity. Major booksellers in most urban areas usually have significant local history sections where any number of contemporary works can be found. Anyone with Chicago roots can gain a wealth of knowledge about the city from Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, by Harold Mayer and Richard Wade. Photographic documentation is especially useful in describing the physical growth and settlement patterns in cities. One thousand photographs and illustrations and an extensive local history bibliography make this well-documented Chicago history volume especially useful. Panoramas can give you a good idea what the city looked like at the time your ancestor lived there. Figure 20-4 shows the destruction of San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. Typing a city’s name plus “panoramic photos” into a search engine many produce similar results.
A valuable aid for laying the groundwork in any city research is John Buenker, Gerald Michael Greenfield, and William J. Murin’s Urban History: A Guide to Information Sources, an annotation of 1,921 scholarly works covering eleven broad topical areas. Pertinent information on every major city is listed in it. Many of the sources cited are standard metropolitan histories; others are contemporary works with bibliographies that are potential gold mines in themselves, pointing to the original sources on which the author based his or her study. Such references can lead directly to manuscripts, special collections, and other hidden tools.
County and municipal histories, long used by family historians, can also provide critical information for furthering city research. Kory L. Meyerink has a lengthy discussion of the value and use of these histories in chapters 17 and 18 of Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records. While the greatest number of these histories was published in the 1880s and 1890s, dates vary from one locality to another. The two-volume Kings County History 1683 to 1884: The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, N.Y. From 1683 to 1884, by Henry R. Stiles, is one of several Kings County histories. It focuses on Brooklyn, which was then the third largest city in the United States.
A helpful, though by no means all-inclusive, source is P. William Filby’s A Bibliography of American County Histories. To learn if there is a published history for Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, you can consult this bibliography (arranged alphabetically by state and then by county) to see that there are several entries for Wake County, one of which is a 1902 publication titled Historical Raleigh with Sketches of Wake County and Its Important Towns, by Moses N. Amis. As with any other source, it is important to read Filby’s preface, in which he explains the criteria used to determine a book’s inclusion in his work: “Books beginning with titles such as ‘Historical and Biographical’ . . . can contain a history of the county and consist in the main of biographies, yet they are often the only histories available.” For this reason, Filby included them in his bibliography. On the other hand, he chose not to include books with such titles as “Biographies of Prominent Men . . .” or “Portrait and Biographical Histories . . .” As Filby points out, these histories must be used with a degree of skepticism, because publishers made up their costs by including only the most flattering biographical sketches of prominent citizens who were their patrons for such projects.
Another bonus for city research is that many histories were generated to appeal to various segments of the population. Not only will you find volumes that focus on counties or cities but also those defining local political parties, wards, industries, ethnic groups, neighborhoods, religious groups, and fraternal and social organizations. These groups and others provided additional opportunities for less-prominent citizens to be included in a printed source. Consequently, if your ancestor was not mentioned in a standard city or county work, there is still the possibility of his or her inclusion in one of the smaller histories that frequently included biographical sketches. Most local histories are in noncirculating reference sections of libraries, so it is usually necessary to travel to those special collections.
Many of these county and specialized histories, including the biographies excluded by Filby, have been reprinted, indexed, transcribed, or even scanned, often by individuals or small genealogical and historical societies. Copies may be difficult to find using traditional library catalogs or basic Internet searches. The bibliographies in chapters 17 and 18 of Printed Sources can help, but tracking down recent reprints or indexes may require writing to the appropriate local society or posting messages to a mailing list or message board related to the area.
- Raymond A. Mohl, ed., The Making of Urban America, 2nd ed. (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1997), 3-20.
- U.S. Department of Commerce press release, 1993; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 11-12.
- Charles N. Glaab and A. Theodore Brown, A History of Urban America (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
- Eibhlin MacIntosh and Richard C. Wade, "The Irish in Boston," Irish at Home and Abroad 1, no. 3 (Winter 1993-94).
- Kory L. Meyerink, ed., Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998).
- Estelle Guzik, ed., Genealogical Resources in New York: The most comprehensive guide to genealogical and biographical resources in New York City and Albany (New York: Jewish Genealogical Society, 2003).
- Rosalie F. Bailey, Guide to Genealogical and Biographical Sources for New York City, 1783-1898 (New York: the author, 1954; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000).
- Loretto Dennis Szucs, Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996).
- Robert W. Barnes, Guide to Research in Baltimore City and County, 2nd ed. (Westminster: Family Line Publications, 1993).
- Connie Stunkel Terheiden and Kenny R. Burck, comps., Guide to Genealogical Resources in Cincinnati & Hamilton County, Ohio (Hamilton County: Ohio Genealogical Society, 2001).
- Carol W. Bell, Ohio Guide to Genealogical Sources (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988).
- Roseann Hogan, Kentucky Ancestry: A Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1993).
- Robert Scott Davis Jr., Research in Georgia (Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1981).
- Helen Leary, ed., North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History (Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996).
- Arthur Kurzweil and Miriam Weiner, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1997).
- Alice Eichholz, ed., Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, 3rd ed. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004).
- Steven Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1990).
- Chicago 1844 Directory (Chicago: Norris Publishers).
- Richard Edwards, Edwards' 1871 Chicago Census Directory (Chicago: Richard Edwards, 1871).
- John Gager, Gager's 1857 Chicago Directory (Chicago: John Gager, 1857).
- The Street Directory of the Principal Cities of the United States (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1973).
- Juliana Szucs Smith, The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book, 2nd ed. (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2003).
- Rita Seiden Miller, ed., Brooklyn, U.S.A.: The Fourth Largest City in America (New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1979).
- Harold Mayer and Richard Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).
- William J. Murin, Urban History: A Guide to Information Sources (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981).
- Henry R. Stiles, Kings County History 1683 to 1884: The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, N.Y. From 1683 to 1884 (New York: W. W. Munsell and Co., 1884).
- P. William Filby, comp., A Bibliography of American County Histories (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985).
- Moses N. Amis, Historical Raleigh With Sketches of Wake County and Its Important Towns (Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton, 1902).