Posted by Jeanie Croasmun on April 27, 2010 in Who Do You Think You Are?

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 – 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.

Jeanie Croasmun

Jeanie Croasmun has been working at while futilely attempting to prove the horse thief story in her family history for over seven years. During that time, she learned enough about her family to determine that the story is likely a great work of fiction. But the search continues ...


  1. Your family sounds awfully like mine, so I was especially connected to this. Thanks for the positive turn, I missed the episode and your words have given me renewed fervor. Thanks!

  2. Pat Secord

    I agree – those City Directories are great. They fill in the blanks between census reports and often confirm info on other documents!

  3. On May 15th I shall be presenting a short talk at the Ontario Genealogical Society Conference in Toronto. Subject: The Toronto 1861 Census–an annotated transcription.
    The 1861 census of Canadian cities was unique in obliging the householders to fill in the return themselves. It was not an enumerator-at-the-door operation unless the family was illiterate. As a result we have portraits of individual families and households.
    As the transcriber it was a great look into a city in January 1861. I hope those who can come to listen will see how much can be found in a nineteenth century urban census.

  4. Linda Mulhall

    Thanks for this article! I want to add another possibility for viewing homes online: ‘Google maps with street views’ is excellent! You can target a particular house then move up and down the street as well as view 360 degrees from any point. Rural areas are not covered nor are houses tucked back off the street. I was searching for my great grandmother’s house in San Francisco and discovered that the house number had changed since a photo of my mother was taken on the front steps.

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