Last week, I took off Friday to work with the PTA at my daughterâ€™s school. Once a month we hold a popcorn sale and itâ€™s typically an all-day event. As I worked with one of the volunteers that Iâ€™ve just recently gotten to know, we made small talk. The conversation turned to how we ended up in this area of northwest Indiana and I mentioned that I had spent a number of years living in Chicago. Turns out she grew up in Chicago too.
This wasnâ€™t particularly surprising since weâ€™re relatively close to that large city, but when we began talking about neighborhoods, what we learned had us staring at each other in disbelief. Turns out the two-flat I lived in when I first got married was her childhood home! Considering the fact that in 1990 there were 1.5 million parcels of real estate in Cook County, what are the odds that years later two people who lived in the same parcel at different times would be fellow PTA board members working together at our childrenâ€™s school in a different state? Iâ€™m still getting goosebumps!
Itâ€™s interesting how all of our lives intertwine in strange and wonderful ways. I reflected back on the time we spent in that house, the neighbors, and the life changing events that took place there. We rented the bottom floor of that house when we got married, and my daughter was born during the years we lived there. I started a garden in the yard (and quickly learned that while morning glories are beautiful, they can quickly overtake a nearby vegetable garden). We survived the heat wave that came over the summer of 1995 with a kiddy pool in the back yard, and I remember sitting out back talking with the neighbors upstairs, in the coach house in back, and next door. Although we only spent three years in that house, that period reflected an important time in my life.
When my friend first realized we had shared that address, we were in disbelief. She kept saying, â€œYouâ€™re lying! That canâ€™t be true.â€ I jokingly responded that I had proof in the form of my daughterâ€™s birth certificate, and in a box of old bank statements bearing the address that I had just dug out of a file cabinet I was cleaning out.
The conversation was a reminder of how important it is to document our trail through addresses. If for some reason my personal history didnâ€™t survive the years, for a future family historian researching my life, knowledge of my relatively brief stay in that house would be helpful in locating several important vital records, and in separating my Smith family from the countless other Smiths in the area. Because I didnâ€™t live there during a census year, that knowledge would have to come from other sources.
Knowing your ancestorâ€™s address can be an important key to locating other records. Letâ€™s take a closer look at where to find addresses and how they can be used.
As todayâ€™s Weekly Planner suggests, itâ€™s a good idea to put together a chronology of addresses at which your ancestor lived. This information can be found on birth, marriage, and death records, probates, naturalizations, censuses (beginning in 1880), directories, military records, licenses, voter registrations, and any number of other sources. Home sources–those found in old files and in the attic–may be particularly helpful. I found my grandfather’s address inside the cover of his copy of â€œJulius Caesar.â€ Other home sources could include letters, postcards, subscriptions, and even personal belongings.
Map It Out
Once youâ€™ve assembled the addresses chronologically, map them out. Historical maps can be found in the new Ancestry Store and I have one of 1866 Brooklyn and New York City that I use frequently in this capacity. I make photocopies of appropriate sections of the map and then label the maps with points of interest. By comparing the maps of various families, you can see where they lived in proximity to one another.
Plot churches in the area on the map along with their founding (and closing) dates. This can help you to determine what church the family may have attended and thus, where to find church-related records, Note the enumeration districts for the address to locate the family in census records when indexes fail.
Iâ€™ve had some important breakthroughs on several family lines by following them year-by-year through directories. There are a growing number of directories online and they can be extremely helpful in locating your ancestors and tracing them through the years. The Family History Library and other large libraries with genealogical collections may also have directories on microfilm. Check online catalogs and research guides to see where to find directories for your ancestorsâ€™ neighborhoods.
Directories in database form often add the ability to search by address. Sometimes it is in the form of a field for address, and other times you can add a street name and number to the keyword search field. Often several related families lived together at one address, and this can be a great way to find parents, in-laws, siblings, and other collateral relatives. For example, a search of the 1888-90 Brooklyn (N.Y.) City Directories at Ancestry for Huggins turned up my great-great-grandmother with this entry:
- Ann Huggins, widow William, 92 Rapelye
A search for 92 Rapelye gave me a more thorough look at the household and also listed:
- Terence, Christopher, 92 Rapelye, stevedore
Christopher Terrence was the spouse of her daughter, Mary. Knowing the couple also lived there will prompt me to check church records and other records in the area. Since I know that Mary lived with her mother in 1881 and worked as a dressmaker, I can also follow her through the directories and using these entries, possibly narrow down her year of marriage.
You can also try looking for surrounding addresses to see if neighbors may have also been family. And donâ€™t overlook those business addresses. You may find relatives (or future relatives) working in the same place as your ancestor.
Do You Have the Right Family?
Knowing your ancestorâ€™s address can help you to determine whether you have the right family–particularly helpful when youâ€™re working with common names and are working in large cities.
Whatâ€™s in your ancestorâ€™s address? A lot! Browse through the records you have collected and start noting those addresses. Youâ€™ll be amazed at the doors they can open.
Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.
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