Alternate Records Can Open Doors, by George G. Morgan

Placing your ancestors in a specific location at a specific point in time is essential to ensure that you are searching in the right place for other records about them. Regular national census enumerations have been created every ten years in the United States since 1790; in the United Kingdom, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Wight since 1801; and in most areas of Canada since 1871. Other colonial, state, provincial, and local censuses also have been taken at other times. However, as you already know, genealogists use census records more often than any others to establish ancestors’ locations. But what about those intermediate years between enumerations, those enumeration periods for which census records have been lost, and the census records that have been destroyed?

It is essential that you recognize that there are many types of alternative records that may be used to establish an ancestor’s location at a specific given point in time. For Americans, this is especially important because, with the loss of 99.99 percent of the 1890 U.S. federal population census records, other substitutes must be used to locate ancestors during that twenty-year gap between the 1880 and 1900 censuses. The types of alternate records most frequently used in these cases include city directories, telephone directories, professional and trade directories, alumni directories and yearbooks, tax lists, religious membership rolls, and numerous other types of annually created records. Using a sequence of local directories and other materials that are published annually may help you learn when your ancestor arrived in an area and when he or she moved away or died. Directories often include addresses, and even occupations, that can point your research in new directions to other evidence sources.

Ancestry has long recognized the importance directories in genealogical research and has amassed an impressive collection of various directories in their databases collection. The most recent addition to the collection for researchers in the British Isles is the British Telecom telephone directories archive, a growing collection of digitized telephone directories from 1880 to 1984 for BT and its predecessors. This collection debuted at in fall 2006 and will grow until the entire collection is digitized and online. What a tremendous resource this is and will be for genealogists and other researchers!

While it would be impossible to compile a complete collection of city directories for every location, the existing collections at Ancestry can certainly be used to help you locate your ancestors and relatives, especially in between and in lieu of census records. And, if a location where your family lived at a particular time is not included in these electronic databases, you can certainly contact the libraries and archives in the local area and region to determine if there are printed copies still in existence.

In addition to city directories, Ancestry has added such impressive collections as the UK and U.S. Directories, 1680-1830; the U.S. Public Records Index, 1994 1984 to present; and U.S. School Yearbooks. The chronological span of available directory- and membership-type records and the geographical coverage bring rare and difficult-to-access materials into your research options.

Some good rules to remember when you are searching the collections are:

  1. If you don’t get any matches with an exact search, try broadening your search by including less information in your search criteria.
  2. Try the Advanced Search options and fill out as much information as you can to refine your set of best matches.
  3. Using the “Exact matches only” search, remember that you can use the Soundex spelling option to look for alternate spellings and to help overcome indexing and spelling errors. You already know that names can often be misspelled in historical records. Soundex allows you to search for a surname that “sounds like” the one you’re looking for. Try this even if you think the spelling is obvious. Remember, even Smith can be “misspelled” (e.g., Smithe, Smyth, Smythe).
  4. Use a wildcard search to locate and view all words that begin with the same stem. (Remember that the general search does not allow wildcard searches.) You can use an asterisk for up to six characters. For example, a search for “fran*” will return matches such as Fran, Franny, Frank, Frannie, and Frankie. Use a question mark for a single character. For example, a search for “Weather?y” will return matches such as Weatherly and Weatherby.

As you can see, the absence of census records isn’t always the disaster it might seem. There are always alternate records to check at Ancestry and in various record repositories. Sometimes the most innocuous of records, such as voter registration records, jury lists, and dog licenses, may provide evidence that your ancestor really was in a certain place at a particular time. Keep an open mind and familiarize yourself with alternate types of records. Your creative thinking may just open another research path for you.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Visit George’s website at for information about his company, speaking engagements, and presentation topics. You can also listen to George and Drew Smith’s “Genealogy Guys” podcast at

3 thoughts on “Alternate Records Can Open Doors, by George G. Morgan

  1. used to have a lot more city directories than it has now. They used to have the City of Detroit directory (R.L. Polk)for 1920-21 which was a fantastic resource because it covered the renumbering of all the city addresses that occurred in Detroit during that time. But took it down (along with a good many other city directories) at one point… must be a couple years ago now. That’s when I gave up my subscription to I’ve heard rumors that they plan to launch a separate “package” of city directory databases, presumably for an additional cost. Have you heard anything about the possibility of that? I sure would like to see that Detroit directory back online!

  2. Another alternative for the U.S. censuses are census records from the states. State Census Records were often produced between the ten years between federal censuses. They are another source to use between 1880 and 1900. States that had censuses include New York 1855-1925, Michigan 1884, 1894, Wisconsin 1846-1905, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Kansas. Indexes and images of the censuses in these states have been put on

  3. In the paragragh before the rules there is One small typographical error that might make a difference to somebody
    is that the U.S. Public Records Index goes from 1984 to the
    present, not 1994. The link works great in any case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *