Sources for Urban Research

From Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Urban Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Urban Research
Urban Research Using Census Records
Urban Research Using Vital Records
Urban Research Using Newspapers
Urban Research Using Religious Sources
Urban Research Using Land Records
Urban Research Using Maps
Urban Research Using Naturalization Records
Urban Research Using Court Records
Urban Research Using Business Records
Sources for Urban Research
List of Useful Urban Research Referencs

This article originally appeared in "Urban Research" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and John M. Scroggins, MA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Neighborhood Sources

Anyone who reads a city history will immediately realize that only a small fraction of the population gains municipal recognition. A citizen prominent enough to be found in a major printed historical source will easily be found in other likely sources—land, census, church, probate records. For most urban ancestors, however, an often-productive search area is the neighborhood. Usually, the neighborhood will have its own library, where a researcher can expect to find more information on that immediate area, including local histories (sometimes still in manuscript form) and even neighborhood newspapers. Community newspapers allowed a great deal of space for local events and personalities ignored by big-city newspapers. A local library may also be the place to begin a search for school records, which are sometimes dispersed rather than in compact collections. The school records themselves are usually kept at the municipal level, but the library can provide area school addresses and district jurisdictions.

City neighborhoods and districts may have their own historical societies and museums, which are often affiliated with the public library. Even if they are not, the local librarian may know about them or they may be listed on the library’s website. Neighborhood historical societies, usually run by volunteers, are open at irregular hours and are rarely listed in telephone directories; but when they exist they can be gold mines of information about local residents and may have community photographs, scrapbooks, and personal mementos.

In 1976 the U.S. bicentennial prompted many communities and neighborhoods to investigate their heritage. Old-timers were interviewed, relics came out of attics, and basements gave up documents. Indexes of newspaper obituaries and cemeteries were compiled. Published local studies went to neighborhood libraries and often to university and community college libraries.

Check the main branch and the website of the city public library, the municipal library, and the city or county historical library for neighborhood sources as well. If the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood has changed or if the old neighborhood no longer exists, then the central repository for the city is the logical place to search for needed information. When searching major libraries for neighborhood information, you should check not only listings of the neighborhood itself but also its surrounding neighbors, especially if they shared a district or area name. The dominant nationality of a neighborhood may also be the key to locating information. Some examples include Germans in Old Town Area, South Side Irish, and Poles of the Milwaukee Avenue District. Still other neighborhoods were settled by mixed ethnic groups that shared a common occupation in a particular part of the city. The garment district, the stockyard area, the steel mill area—all might be classifications in a library card catalog. Modern urban studies frequently focus on specific bibliographies of master’s theses, dissertations, or books that can help further searches.

Photograph archives and graphics departments maintained by some libraries may provide photographs of cities, neighborhoods, streets, business establishments, and ancestral homes. The Graphics Department of the Chicago Historical Society catalogs its photographs by street address as well as subject (landmark, neighborhood, event). To draw from this collection, you need to know the changes in the names of streets and in the city’s numbering system, but such efforts usually add a valuable graphics dimension to the family history. Ask reference personnel for street directories and other such finding aids.

Ethnic Sources

Nowhere is the recent dramatic increase in interest in genealogy more evident than in ethnic research, along with a parallel increase in research guides and tools. A good starting point is chapter 4, “Ethnic Sources,” by Loretto Dennis Szucs in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records. Genealogical societies nationwide are bringing sophistication to the collection, preservation, and use of ethnic materials. The microfilming projects of the Genealogical Society of Utah and the Family History Library have brought the records of the world to our doorsteps. Lubomyr Wynar’s Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Organizations in the United States, the first comprehensive guide to major organizations created by various communities, demonstrates the pluralism of the American city.53 Ethnic presses and organizations are primary indicators of a particular ethnic group’s social structure, but interdisciplinary efforts by colleges and universities are also important. For more recent information on ethnic organizations in specific areas, search Google for “ethnic organizations” plus the name of a city or state.


The settlement house was an institution that served a grass-roots clientele in urban areas. Numerous settlements sprang up in working-class neighborhoods, where they sought to reach a maximum number of residents with programs ranging from citizenship classes to ethnic musical societies. Like the unions, papers of settlement houses contain membership lists and minutes of meetings. They also have a wealth of information about happenings in the neighborhood in which they were situated: the daily pulse of life on the surrounding streets, ethnic conflicts, the drive to attain success. Settlements reached only a small proportion of those who resided in the overcrowded tenements beyond their doors, but the larger ones often had two thousand members on their rolls at any given time. For information on resources related to settlement houses, see Ken Middleton, “Settlement Houses,” American Women’s History: A Research Guide, 2003.

Municipal Records

By definition, a municipality is a town or city of any size having the powers of local self-government. Cities have, in most cases, been responsible for preserving and storing their respective histories. The great volumes of material amassed by most municipal governments demand that records be stored off-site. Often, state archives step in to save these amazingly detailed records. The Minnesota State Archives, for example, has records for more than one hundred of the state’s municipalities.

The records include such administrative information as city council minutes, annual reports, correspondence and subject files; financial records, including payroll registers and registers of receipts and disbursements; municipal court and justice of the peace dockets; cemetery records, including burial registers and lot owner records; police jail registers and registers of tramps lodged in jail; death records; scrapbooks and newsletters; and poll lists and election registers containing the names of persons who voted in elections. Notable among the latter are Minneapolis registers of electors for 1902–23, which contain significant genealogical information. Some municipal records include information about the registration or licensing of saloon keepers, peddlers, and others. Names of city council members appear in the minutes, and names of city officials and staff can be found in payroll registers and annual reports.[1]


The National Archives

Unique city sources are often found in the regional system of the National Archives. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, in The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches, point out several of these obscure urban collections.[2] Millions of files from cases heard in the U.S. courts in cities all across the nation have been preserved. Landmarks in history and events that shaped the lives of otherwise unknown citizens have been preserved. The National Archives—New England Region in suburban Boston, for example, has court records for the area that relate to such diverse matters as admiralty disputes, infringement of patent and copyrights, mutiny and murder, illegal manufacturing or sale of alcoholic beverages, and many others. The region also has the original copies of naturalization records of the federal courts for the six New England states dating back to 1790. Federal court records at the National Archives—Central Plains Region in Kansas City provide firsthand accounts of life in urban centers in the “Wild West.” Few people would think to look for a Philadelphia source titled “Registers of Aliens, 1798–1812.” Available only at the National Archives—Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia, it is a list of individuals who came before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania during the Quasi-War with France. Significant information regarding individuals involved in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 can be extracted from materials in a number of record groups at the National Archives—Pacific Sierra Region in San Bruno, California. Some of the least known yet genealogically rich city records are described in The Archives. For more information about National Archives holdings, check the online “Research Room” <>.

State Archives

State archives, by their nature, collect, preserve, and make available some of the very best city sources. Almost every state has as its mission to protect those public records of historical value that are created by state agencies and local units of government. These sources are principally in manuscript (unpublished) form. Also available in most state archives are microfilm copies of some federal records as they relate to the state served, such as federal population schedules.

Most state archives will provide a descriptive brochure upon request. The State Archives of Michigan, for example, in its brochure lists a wealth of genealogical materials that are essential to city research in that state. In addition to the federal population census schedules, the Archives of Michigan is typical of other states in having a collection of federal agricultural, manufacturing, mortality, and social statistical censuses. As is the case with most other state archives, Michigan’s holds the state-created censuses as well. Tax assessment rolls, Michigan military rosters, Civil War grave registrations, and photograph files are among other rich sources listed. As a courtesy to its patrons, the Michigan Archives brochure also suggests genealogical sources in Michigan state facilities.

Frequently, the quickest and easiest access to records is through state archives. The New Jersey State Archives has a continuing run of statewide registrations of births, marriages, and deaths beginning in 1848, with indexes through 1923 for births and through 1940 for marriages and deaths. The New Jersey State Archives and 262 other repositories in the state are described in New Jersey Historical Commission’s New Jersey Historical Manuscripts: A Guide to Collections in the State.[3] To find websites for state archives, consult Joe Ryan, comp., “U.S. State Historical Societies & State Archives Directory,”. The Alabama Department of Archives and History <> offers regularly updated pages to assist family historians as well as links to its Civil War service, newspaper, map, and photo databases.

County Archives

A large number of county archives scattered around the United States focus on original records generated by county and city agencies. In the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Archives <>, for example, are Cleveland records of birth, marriage, death, naturalization, and divorce; and coroners’ case files, voter lists, township and ward maps, atlases for the city of Cleveland, probate estate files, registrations and charters of religious and other societies, journals of Cuyahoga County justices of the peace, county surveyors’ records, Cleveland city directories, and more.

Municipal Archives

Municipal archives do not exist in every American city, but those that do exist often preserve unique information that can add interesting details to any family history. Philadelphia has the oldest city archive in the United States, its archive being established in 1952. For the researcher with research interests in the city, an essential guide is John Daly’s Descriptive Inventory of the Archives of the City and County of Philadelphia. There is a more limited online guide to genealogical resources at[4]

The Municipal Archives for the City of New York (New York City Department of Records and Information Services was estab-lished to maintain, catalog, and make available historic New York City government records. Of particular genealogical usefulness is the large collection of vital records for the city (boroughs). While the New York state census records are as yet not available for all years on microfilm or in all offices, the Municipal Archives does have them for Brooklyn (Kings County) for 1855, 1865, 1875, 1905, and 1915. A special New York City Police Census taken in Manhattan and the western Bronx in 1890; almshouse records covering the years 1758 to 1953; some court records from 1808 to 1935; coroner’s records for several of the boroughs spanning the years 1823 to 1918; photographs (including 720,000 photographs taken about 1940 of every house and building in all five boroughs); some fifty thousand volumes of voter registrations; real estate valuation records; and more make the New York City Municipal Archives a very important research stop for anyone with roots in the northeastern metropolis.

Special Archives

There are also significant institutional archives that preserve and make available original records that have survived in no other form. For example, historical documents acquired by the University of Massachusetts, Boston, reveal stories of poverty from an era before the existence of public welfare programs and detail much about the life of the poor in nineteenth-century America. The archive’s collection consists of photographs, yearbooks, and personal dossiers on students and administrators of an institution known as the Boston Asylum and Farm School for Boys that was located on Thompson’s Island in Boston Harbor. The Archives Department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is the only repository in the area that concentrates on preserving the records of private social welfare agencies. Many of these agencies were started in the nineteenth century in response to social upheavals that proved damaging to American family life. The department also has collections relating to twentieth-century community organizing, social movements, and the history of Dorchester, Massachusetts. Like many other institutional archives, the Archives Department is open to the public (by appointment only).

State Historical Societies and Libraries

State historical societies and libraries should not be overlooked because of the rich collections they catalog for cities and for statewide compilations that include cities within the state. The California State Library, for example, holds approximately 640,000 index cards covering 1.2 million items from such sources as newspapers, manuscripts, periodicals, and county histories in the California Information File. Among the treasures at the Connecticut State Library are most of the state’s probate estate papers from before 1850 (fewer from 1850 to 1900) and state census records, including a 1917 Connecticut military census that included males ages ten to thirty along with automobile owners, aliens, and nurses. Also at the Connecticut State Library is a master index of individual names compiled from tombstones in more than two thousand cemeteries in Connecticut that was compiled by the WPA. Obviously, there is urban material to be gleaned from all of these collections and others across the country. To find state historical societies, consult Joe Ryan, comp., “U.S. State Historical Societies & State Archives Directory,”, and for state libraries, “Libraries on the Web; USA States."

Statewide Projects

Statewide projects are ongoing in almost every state. They comprise yet another important source to be considered in tracking urban dwellers’ records. Unfortunately, some of the projects have elected to leave large metropolitan areas out of their compilations or have left them until last, due to the enormous amount of time and effort required to enter the millions of names into the computer databases. Such projects may often be found by contacting the state or local genealogical society or by using Google or a similar service to search for the name of the state or city plus combinations of keywords such as “genealogy” or “genealogical,” “project” or “projects,” and “register” or “registry.”

Hundreds of thousands of marriages have been entered to date in a pre-1900 Illinois Statewide Marriage Index, a continuing joint project of the Illinois State Archives and the Illinois State Genealogical Society that is now online at Similar projects are underway in other states. In an effort to replace the missing 1890 federal census, California State Genealogical Alliance volunteers transcribed and computerized names from the voting lists for California for 1890, now available in book form and on CD-ROM as the California 1890 Great Register of Voters.[5]

Urban research is often intimidating, but, given the vast array of records described in this and other sections of this volume, it is often the most exciting and fruitful dimension of family history research. It pays to stay informed through membership in genealogical organizations. The potential for successful research and great satisfaction in the results is growing daily.


  1. Minnesota Historical Society Library and Archives Division, Genealogical Resources of the Minnesota Historical Society: A Guide, 2nd ed. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993).
  2. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988).
  3. New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Historical Manuscripts: A Guide to Collections in the STate (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1987).
  4. John Daly, Descriptive Inventory of the "Archives of the City and County of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Department of Records, 1970; supplement, 1980).
  5. California 1890 Great Register of Voters, CD-ROM (North Salt Lake, Utah: Heritage Quest, 2001).

External Links