I admit it – I spent part of my life being bitter that my family was big-city only. As a kid, I had no farm to spend the summer on visiting Grandma and Grandpa, no chickens to feed, no front porch to sit on, no cows to milk.
It didn’t get any better once I started dabbling in genealogy. My city-dwelling family didn’t leave much of a personal trail in their big-city paper, and they didn’t own land so the trail ran short there, too. It seemed that all my family did was work all day (but they didn’t own the business), go home at night, and go back to work again the next day. They didn’t bother to run for public office, commit a newsworthy crime, or arrive in America early enough to be mentioned in published histories.
They were needles, mundane ones at that, in really big haystacks. Did I mention that I’m allergic to hay?
But over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate everything that comes with big-city ancestors. And watching Who Do You Think You Are? last Friday, when Susan Sarandon found her grandmother – a woman who remarried, changed her name, and tried awfully hard to separate herself from earlier events in her life – in records from in and around New York City reminded me of a handful of reasons why I now like searching for city-dwelling ancestors. Here are just a few:
Big cities (and smaller ones, too) often had city directories, which offer me a chance to find names, addresses, and business and employer info to fill in the 10 years between censuses. And census records in cities often included street addresses, which means I can sometimes get a look at the old house today — even online.
Big cities had the resources necessary to do odd things, like take photos of every residence for tax records. New York City did just that between 1939 and 1941 – I used my grandfather’s street address from his 1934 naturalization record to order that tax photo from the city, which gave me a look at the house my mother was born in (something she’d not even seen).
Big cities mean you’re never alone – especially when researching. All I have to do is look up and down a census page to see how many other people are researching family on the same street. You can tap into those family historians via Member Connect or look for professional researchers who can help you research and obtain local records at Expert Connect.
I know now that there are so many reasons it’s fun to search for family lines in big cities (BTW, if you have tips or stories about researching a city-dwelling family, post them in a comment below). And once I got over the needle-in-a-haystack feeling, I discovered that while searching for my city relatives, I found a family or two that farmed, too. Who knew I’d be so connected?
If you missed the Susan Sarandon episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, you’ll definitely want to catch it online at NBC.com – while you’re there you can also watch unaired bonus scenes as well as other episodes you missed. And be sure to watch this Friday night (8/7c) for the season finale, as filmmaker Spike Lee comes face to face with a cousin who descends from the slaveholder who once owned Spike’s family.
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