Tips from the Pros: Comprehensive Directory Coverage

From Paula Stuart Warren

If city directories exist for the places where some of your ancestors resided, be sure to check every year possible. This may mean checking multiple libraries and collections, online and off. If you have only checked a few years here and there, what might you be missing? Perhaps the year in which the oldest son has the designation “USA” after his name, meaning he was in the military service. Maybe the years you’re missing contain clues as to the death date of the head of the family, tell that Uncle Horace moved to St. Louis, or give the name of the railroad grandpa worked for instead of just the term “laborer.” For the middle son, Clarence, it might tell that he attended Kansas Wesleyan University. What have you missed? Round up those missing years and find out!

15 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Comprehensive Directory Coverage

  1. Being new at genealogy searching…I’m not familiar with city directories. You mention “checking multiple libraries and collections, online and off.”. All my researching to date has been on-line. How do I go about inquiring of libraries on-line if they have city directories?

  2. I found people in Dayton, Ohio but you’d never know it by the Federal Census, only 2 families showed up. Fortunately, the Dallas library had Dayton city directories from 1862-82 and I found many families I was seeking. One man who was there in the 1860’s and died in 1903 did not appear in the 1870, 1880 or 1900 census.

  3. I recently reviewed about 40 years of Meriden, CT city directories on line, many of these years between 1880 and 1900 (covering the 1890 census gap). Some of the gems gleaned from this process include: dates of death: relationships (John X of an address died in year A, and in year C directory, Mary X (widow of John) appears at that address. James X married Linda Y; locations (Herbert X removed to Wallingford); compiling common residences for same surname over time that can be compared to known family units in later census records. This was particularly helpful to bridge the 1890 census gap, and identify members of the family unit.

  4. Thank you for these comments. I did not know that “USA” after a person’s name in the directory meant they were in the military. I haven’t started searching them yet, but was planning on starting next week. Now I’ll be armed with just that little bit more knowledge.

  5. Many directories are on Ancestry, particularly those standing in for the lost 1890 census. The family history libraries also have a number of them covering a wide variety of years. I have examined the ones in Camden, New Jersey and Paterson, New Jersey and found them fascinating. You can frequently tell approximately when someone becomes a widow which is very useful. The occupational detail is priceless. I could view my folks as they moved from New York to the New Jersey area, one member of the family at a time, brothers sharing in the photography business, another going into furniture. They add so much to your research.


  6. When using city directories, it is helpful to remember that often there were multiple publishers in a particular city. Not all directories contain the same information…we’ve found family members in one directory, but not another…an occupation listed in one directory, and a more specific occupational description in another. Some libraries will only have one publisher…be sure to vistit other libraries to check their resources, too!

  7. My city has almost a full run of city directories dating from the 1860’s. I was tracking one woman who was a widow (it named her late husband), married for a short while, and again appeared with her first husband’s name. This gave me a clue to check divorces rather than deaths for the second husband.

  8. If you are researching a rural area, don’t give up on directories. Check for counties, too. I checked the city directories website (thanks for the address, Sharon) and found that directories exist for my husband’s family’s home of St.Lawrence County, New York; my great-grandmother Erdmann’s Dodge County, WI and the place of her homestead with my great-grandfather Krueger, Brown County, SD. Now all that I have to do is track down copies!

  9. As a 20 year retired employee of the Polk City Directory may I give an opinion on directories. We were supposed to interview the householder at every residence or leave a paper for them to fill out & return. When we were unable to get any response for a period of time & ready to leave the area we could speak to neighbors so I suggest that informstion that seems to be wrong or off should be verified by other items.

  10. Pingback: 24-7 Family History Circle » Using City Directories, by Juliana Smith

  11. Bill,

    Where did you look at these directories for Meriden Ct.? My grandparents were from there. Thanks for any help~


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  13. In the old city directories (1920s and 30s) of Cohasset and Boston, Mass, I come across “r” often. What does this mean? SOmeone said rear, as a street or house location, but that doesn’t seem to make sense, as it’s followed by a relative’s name. Could it be related to, or something? Residing with? Thanks!

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