Finding Genealogical Clues in City Directories
June 29, 2018
City directories are an often underutilized resource in genealogy research. Initially, researchers may think city directories refer to telephone directories, but telephone directories are relatively "modern" directories.
Early directories were created shortly after the Revolutionary War and were created for craftsmen and salesmen to be able to contact potential customers.
Six (6) Reasons To Use City Directories In Your Genealogy Research
1. City Directories, which were created yearly, provide a way to track an ancestor year by year. When an ancestor appeared in an area and/or when an ancestor left can be tracked by their appearance/disappearance in the directory.
2. Directories are a great alternate resource for areas suffering significant county record loss.
3. An ancestor's wife's name are often included next to the husband's name. (This varies area to area over time.) In the 1917 Rochester, New York directory, a wife's first name was placed in parenthesis next to her husband's name.
4. Clues to an ancestor's death date can be narrowed down by the appearance of his widow. In this 1917 Rochester, New York example, Mary Little is identified as the widow of William Little. William Little died prior to 1917. Research into earlier directories can help narrow down William's death by tracking when he disappears and his widow Mary appears.
5. An ancestor's street address can be found. Mrs. Lucy B. Armstrong of Columbus, OH in 1874 resided at 256 E. Rich.
6. An ancestor's occupation can be found listed. In the example below, the Salem [MA] Directory published in 1850 by Henry Whipple, occupations for individuals are listed.
Tip: If you ancestor lived in an area too small to have its own directory, check the nearest town that did have a directory. Smaller towns were sometimes included in a neighboring town's directory.
Don't Stop At The City Directories
City directories are only one type of directory that genealogy researchers can use. A variety of directories have been created over time and are useful in our research.
- State Business Directories
- Mercantile and Professional Directories
- Church Directories
- Telephone Directories
- School Directories - These do not typically include students, but rather teachers, janitors and school board members and anyone associated with the running of a school or a school system. The 1883 Directory of Public Schools of the City of Harrisburg, PA is one such example.
- Alumni Directories
- Society Directories - The Numismatic Directory for 1884 lists names and addresses of coin collectors!
Where To Find City and Other Directories
Directories of all types can be found in a variety of places. The 7 places below are a good place to start.
- The Big Genealogy Databases: MyHeritage, FindMyPast, Ancestry.com
- Local and University Libraries
- Google Books
- United States Online Historical Directories
- The New York Public Library Digital Collections
Take time to explore the directories for the location and the time period of your ancestors!
Lisa Lisson is the writer, educator and genealogy researcher behind Are You My Cousin? and believes researching your genealogy does not have to be overwhelming. All you need is a solid plan, a genealogy toolbox and the knowledge to use those tools. Specializing in southern US research and finding those elusive females, Lisa is passionate about helping others find resources and tools to confidently research their genealogy. Lisa can be found online at LisaLisson.com , Facebook and Pinterest.
Great post! Directories are also useful to see who else was living at the same address. I've often tracked nephews/nieces/cousins/widowed daughters this way.
Posted by: Jackie Corrigan | July 02, 2018 at 07:56 AM
Excellent information. Many thanks.
Posted by: Charlene Key Sokal | July 03, 2018 at 07:50 AM
City directories for Indianapolis, IN were absolutely essential in identifying a 3x great-grandfather. I input data on addresses and occupations in a spreadsheet to identify which George/Henry/George Henry Stumpf/Stumph was mine; there were 4! I didn’t have a verified birth or death date for him, just my 2x great-grandmother’s birth and death dates, his daughter. I included the names of known and suspected relatives in the spreadsheet. Analyzing the linkages, I determined which was the probable father. Now I have to find other documents to solidify my identification as l still don’t have firm birth or death dates needed to get records for those events.
Posted by: R. Gruner | July 03, 2018 at 12:05 PM