City directories are incredible sources. In many cities, they were published annually, which can give us a lot of detail about our ancestors. Here are six things to look for in city directories.
1. Your Ancestor and Other Family Members
Sure, you’re going to look for your ancestor, but look for other family members, too. Some of them may have lived nearby, others across town. Then follow the family year-by-year to note changes in occupation, living arrangements, even deaths of a head of household. Add it all to a timeline so you can keep track of the family’s comings and goings.
2. Streets and Maps
Street names can change over time. So can house numbers. To get a real look at your ancestor’s neighborhood, look for street directories inside city directories. In some cases you may even find maps of the city or town. Street directories will typically give you cross streets, which you can use to orient you on modern day maps. This sample lists the right and left side of the street and the house number that corresponds with each intersection.
You may also find a reverse directory that lists residents by address, as well as cross streets. Use these to look through the neighborhood when searching for your ancestor’s name just isn’t working. It’s also a good way to see who is living nearby.
3. Churches and Clerics
Religious records are incredibly valuable for discovering dates, places, and family relationships. For the years before states were required to keep records of births, marriages, and deaths, churches may be the only place to find that information. Use city directories to find the churches nearest to your ancestor and churches that may be affiliated with his or her ethnic background.
If you find the name of a cleric on records associated with your family, research the cleric in city directories, too. Use his address and compare it to the address of local churches to determine church affiliation. Also look to see if the directory you’re viewing has a list of churches and synagogues that includes the names of clerics.
Check city directories for cemeteries near where your relatives lived. They may point you to burial locations, possibly even a family plot, where you’ll find details about more than one family member. This directory from Mobile, Alabama in 1890, gives the cemetery locations and even the name of the sexton.
Look at the ads carefully. You may discover more information about a family member’s business or place of business, names of photographers, banks, organizations and other details that could appear elsewhere in your family’s history. Advertisements were a big source of revenue for directories and this Buffalo directory calls its index of advertisers the “Honor Roll.” Page numbers in the final column will take you directly to the ad.
6. Historical Information
City directories often included histories of the area, some with images of the city, too. That same Buffalo directory from 1939 includes an Introduction that spans 21 pages with photographs of the city and its landmarks, and sections on early history and settlers, historic sites, street names, statistics, and more. There are even sections outlining the history of several ethnic groups in Buffalo (Polish, German, Italian, Irish, and Jewish). All of this can give you a little more background on your family and their home life.
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.