Using Death and Probate Records with Directories
When you know that an ancestor died in a large city, you can use his or her presence in a directory to approximate the date of death. This makes voluminous city death and probate records much easier to search. It is often easier, however, to estimate the date of a man’s death because, unlike a recently widowed woman, a widower will not be designated as such. Take care with this method: an individual’s nonappearance in a directory does not always indicate death. Sometimes a person disappears for a year or so and then mysteriously reappears at the same address. More likely than not, the ancestor was there all the time. Remember how the source was compiled. It is best, therefore, to check directories for several years after an individual’s first disappearance to determine if that ancestor died or moved away. Beginning in the twentieth century, however, some directories list a date of death for an individual who had died since the last directory was compiled if that information was provided to the publisher, usually by a related person residing at the same address.
Unless a death date is provided or a man appears in one directory at a particular street address and his widow appears at the same address in the year following, you should not assume that you will find a death or probate record in the year immediately following his disappearance. This is especially true where older individuals (particularly widows) are involved. They may still be alive and living with children. It is also possible that a “widow” was actually a divorcee—particularly in the nineteenth century—and that her husband’s death will not be found prior to her appearance as such in the directory. Nevertheless, even a date with which to begin a death or probate search is valuable.
James Renwick and Ellen/Helen Gibson were married in Scotland in 1814. They had three known children: Andrew, born 1815; Alexander, born 1818; and Marion, born 1820. Sometime between 1820 and 1833, they immigrated to New York City (Manhattan). We first found James in the 1833–34 New York City Directory at 406 Washington Street. In the 1850 Manhattan census, Ellen was living alone, presumably as a widow. A search of Doggett’s New York City Directories 1845–46 and 1846–47 revealed the following entries:
|Renwick, Alexander, stonecutter, 400||Renwick, Ellen, widow James, boarding, 400|
|Washington Renwick, James, boarding 400||Washington|
In 1845–46 there was also a James Renwick, professor, living at another address. We can draw several conclusions from these entries. Additional research showed that Alexander, the son, was a mason by trade. The Alexander Renwick who appears at 400 Washington Street was a stonecutter. Thus, it is probable that the James Renwick also residing at that address is the ancestor. We verified this conclusion with the 1846–47 directory. Although neither Alexander nor James appears, the entry for “Renwick, Ellen, widow James, boarding 400 Washington” indicated that James had died sometime between 1845 and 1846. We knew from previous research that Alexander had moved to Pittsburgh by this time.
Manhattan death registers also exist for this time period. These records are arranged alphabetically by the first letter of each surname for each year. To search the entire 1840–50 decade would have been tedious and time consuming. A search in the 1845 death registers quickly yielded this entry:
- 5 June 1845
- James Renwick, age 59
- 400 Washington St.
- Disease of Heart
- Place of burial: Scotch Presbyterian Cemetery
- Sexton: C. A. Stewart
As it turned out, this record quickly and efficiently provided the only mention of James Renwick’s age at a given date.
- Doggett’s New York Directory 1833–1834 (New York: John Doggett Jr., 1834), 505.
- 1850 U.S. Census, New York City, New York County, New York, ward 5, folio 125, dwelling 937, family 1837, NARA microfilm M432, roll 537.
- Doggett’s New York City Directories 1845–46 and 1846–47 (New York: John Doggett Jr.), 302, 326.
- Entry for James Renwick, 5 June 1845, Manhattan Death Register, vol. 14, 1844–45. Available on FHL microfilm 447,550.