Feb 7 2013
As you embark on the journey of learning about your ancestors, you will likely find yourself with one or more ancestors who seem to be deliberately hiding from view. Often they are the ancestors with a common surname who lived in a city or other urban area didn’t belong to a specific church, or own land or real estate and who moved a lot.
Census records are the starting point for most searches especially for families who owned property and stayed in the same location over time. But if your ancestor did not own property, the years in between the federal, and if you are lucky to find them, state census enumerations provide lots of opportunities for your ancestors to hide from your view.
In a recent project, I have been using city directories to document and track families with the same surname living in the city of Pawtucket, Providence, RI. My goal is to look for possible previously unknown familial relationships and to narrow down dates of birth, death and parentage for known individuals in the target family group.
The City Directory
City Directories are yearly publications that identify the heads of almost every household in the cities they enumerate. They are extremely useful for filling in the years between federal and state census records and that tough to bridge gap between the 1880 and 1900. Long available at local libraries, and sometimes on microfilm, they are increasingly available on-line making them a useful tool for the distant researcher. City directories are an original record created at the time the families were living in the area. They list the names and addresses of home owners and often include occupations. Occasionally you will find an entry for the spouse’s name. Directories have been printed for hundreds of years and the entries are even listed in alphabetical order!
During the 19th century most urban areas had one or more publishers producing an annual city directory. You will find that the larger cities may also have versions separating residential and business listings. Mid-sized and smaller cities are often found combined into a single metropolitan area directory containing several towns.
Designed for business – useful for genealogists
Directories were not produced by local government. They were meant to be a tool for business owners to identify potential customers and a place to advertise business services. This means that not every resident was captured in the directories each year, but at a minimum, they did usually capture all of the homeowners of the city and many times all heads of households and residents in the household. Often you will find entries for single women who owned small businesses or who were widows or employed by the city in occupations such as teacher.
As the popularity of directories grew, so did competition. Luckily for genealogists, the competition means that you may find competing directories for the same towns and years so be sure to research all versions available to you when researching a specific time and place. If your ancestors were not in the first directory you consult, they may be in the competitor’s directory.
More than a name and address
Data in directories is as varied as the publishers who created them and they often vary from year to year as to the information in each listing. Over the years as popularity increased, competition between publishers fueled the addition of extra information in the directories in an attempt to create demand for one company’s directory over another’s.
Examples of this extra information can take many forms. You may find compiled lists of all the soldiers serving from the town during the Civil War years, or a complete list of birth and death records for the year.
I have found entries that included a notation if a person left the city, even noting their new town of residence. Often if a person died within the year, their date of death will be included in the directory in the listing after their name. In some cases occupation is included and may state that the person works within the town, but has a residence in another town.
Maps and street listings can be invaluable in understanding relationships of potential family members. By locating the streets of your ancestor’s residences on the map and comparing it to others with the same surnames in town, you may be able to determine if they actually lived close to one another even if their listings were on different street names.
Errata lists are useful to locate names of persons who came to the area just before publication or of families who had recently moved. Many directories contain information on the history of the towns that can contain genealogical information about prominent citizens. You may also find lists of churches and the names of clergy; local city officials and the offices they held as well as fraternal and social organizations with listing of the office holders. Maybe your ancestor was the local postmaster or fire chief.
Finding the information- Index Page and the Publishers Introduction
When searching a directory on-line, go beyond an index search for a specific person. Once your target individual is identified from the index lists, go to the database to browse the pages before and after the address listings.
Genealogical information can be contained in many different areas of the directory. The first thing you should look for is the Index page. It may take scrolling through several pages of advertisements but eventually you will find a page that tells you where the miscellaneous information is located. As you scroll through the pages, watch for a Publishers Introduction page and make a note of the month and year of issue as part of your source entry. Some directories list multiple years in the title to avoid becoming “out of date” prematurely, making it more important that you search out the year it was issued or submitted to the Library of Congress if you want to determine an entries value as a source record.
Locate the sections for maps and the page describing how the publisher used abbreviations and what they mean. Space limitations in the address section prompted liberal use of abbreviations many of which are not self-explanatory. You will want to know that [CF] stands for the village of Central Falls or that [h.] indicates that the person is the home owner of that address and [b.] is describing that the person is a boarder at the address.
Analyzing the data
Directory entries are not just a list of name, address and occupation. They often tell a lot more when taken in context and when compared across several years.
If you take the time to input the entries into a spreadsheet, it becomes easier to sort the data by different fields to uncover patterns and suggested relationships. Sorting by address for example can show when a property changed hands from one family member to another or narrow the year a person died or married. Some directories use the term boarder for any adult child living in the parents’ home not just to describe an unrelated person renting a room in a dwelling owned by another family so sorting by address may point out a child living with parents.
- Entries over a span of years at the same address may indicate the home was owned by the family suggesting research in land records.
- Occupations provide clues to other records that might be available for research and may help distinguish two individuals of the same name.
- A previously unknown person living in the household of someone you do know about may indicate a relationship to the home owner that deserves further research.
- A male with a different surname, living in the household in one year but gone the next year may be a clue to a pending marriage for a child. Is a daughter also missing in the second year? Perhaps the single male is now a son in law living at a different address with the missing daughter.
- Did someone appear in one directory but not the next and then re-appear in subsequent years? Was this a war time indicating that perhaps military records should be consulted?
- Does a woman “boarder” appear and then disappear? Perhaps she married or died during the year.
- Does a man disappear from the listings and a woman is now listed head of household at the same address? Perhaps her husband died or she remarried signaling a death and property transfer suggesting a check of property and or probate records should be your next step.
It is my hope that this information reminds you to go back and look at City Directories again and to look for the first time if you have not used this valuable tool in the past.