“What’s in an Address?” by Juliana Smith

Last week, I took off Friday to work with the PTA at my daughter’s school. Once a month we hold a popcorn sale and it’s typically an all-day event. As I worked with one of the volunteers that I’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 wasn’t particularly surprising since we’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 children’s school in a different state? I’m still getting goosebumps!

It’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, “You’re lying! That can’t be true.” I jokingly responded that I had proof in the form of my daughter’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 didn’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 didn’t live there during a census year, that knowledge would have to come from other sources.

Knowing your ancestor’s address can be an important key to locating other records. Let’s take a closer look at where to find addresses and how they can be used.

Locating Addresses
As today’s Weekly Planner suggests, it’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 “Julius Caesar.” Other home sources could include letters, postcards, subscriptions, and even personal belongings.

Map It Out
Once you’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.

I’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 ancestors’ 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 don’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 ancestor’s address can help you to determine whether you have the right family–particularly helpful when you’re working with common names and are working in large cities.

What’s in your ancestor’s address? A lot! Browse through the records you have collected and start noting those addresses. You’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 [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

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12 thoughts on ““What’s in an Address?” by Juliana Smith

  1. While chatting with a neighbor about our genealogy research, we both discovered we had an ancestor who fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto….each of us was shocked to learn her ancestor was kin to my ancestor…further research shows we are 6th cousins!!! We have been neighbors for 10 years before we discovered this!!! You really never can tell who you’ll discover in your family tree…..and have fun doing it!

  2. I worked as a civilian scientist for the US Navy for ten years. My wife worked for an organization that did contract work for the Navy. We both had to have security clearance which required a very complete history of our addresses going back to when we were born. I had a relatively small number of residences but my wife’s family moved a lot and that was difficult. I have often wondered what kind of information the Navy and/or the FBI was able to dig up on us. Was it all right or did they make mistakes?

  3. Talk about co-incidence. How about the situation whereby 30 years after you vacate a premise you determine that the new member to your staff had the same bedroom you had vacated immediately prior to her occupying it. In april, 1953, my family moved and a new family occupied the house. The oldest girl in that family immediately claimed what had been my bedroom. Thirty years after that she came to work in our office and became a member of my staff. You can imagine the hilarity when, upon discovering that detail and breaking out into laughter about it, I innocently told another staff member that she and I had shared the same bedroom.

  4. My grandmother was born in NYC in 1894. A guy that I work with his grandmother was born in NYC in the house next door to my grandmother (not the same year tho).

  5. I, too, had an interesting experience with addresses. I never knew how my parents met, and since both had been deceased for several years, it was too late to ask. When I looked up my mother’s family on the 1930 census, and finally located my father on the same census (his name was oddly misspelled), I discovered that they were living next door to each other five years before they married!

  6. I couldn’t agree more with the author about the value and importance of City Directories – especially in the online, searchable format. In 2007 Ancestry should work to significantly expand their online collection of these Directories and not be satisfied with the few they currently have available to serve in place of the lost 1890 Census.
    An easy and rapid start to such a project could be made by licensing the already digitized collection of many City Directories previously available through Primary Source Media/Thomson Gale. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, this expanded collection of Directories was previously available on Ancestry, but was deleted for unknown reasons.
    How about working to get it back and even expand it, Ancestry?

  7. Millions of people would have lived in Chicago – my mother’s aunt Martha Woodard (died there 1976), her daughter Tasma (died there 1996), both ladies were born in Ulverstone Tasmania Aussie in 1880 & 1918/1920.

    Tasma was mar’d to the TV personality Johnny Coons, but I can’t find their descendants (after a lot of enquiring letters) – maybe they just don’t want to be found.

  8. I live in St. Louis, MO and once was traveling by plane from
    here to Boston and had to change planes in Pittsburgh. Once
    seated on the new plane I struck up a conversation with a lady
    seated next to me and as friendly people do I asked where she
    lived and she replied New Jersey. She asked where I live and I
    replied St. Louis. I said to her I only know one other person from New Jersey and she replied I only know one other person who lives in St. Louis! She then named that person she had
    grown up with and that lady turned out to be a very dear friend of mine! Once she named the mutual friend, I replied
    “O I know her and her middle name is….and we are very good
    friends! You should have seen the surprise on both of our faces!

  9. The house I grew up in has had four different post office addresses. It may seem to others that my family lived in four different places, but in fact it was just one. We received mail through the post offices of New Garden, Landenberg, Avondale and Toughkenamon and never moved once.

  10. I loved the story about living in the same flat. I have a story that gives me goose-bumps, and makes me grateful.

    I teach students about the hazards of using tobacco. For years I successfully inspired by students to live a healthy life-style using a pamphlet that showed pictures of the dental problems of tobacco-users. It was getting dog-earred and worn from constant use, so one day I I flipped it over to looked for an address to order another one. The photographer was listed as Dr. Leonard Jewson. I was stunned. That was the family name that I was concentrating on at the moment. I Googled the good doctor, managed to contact him, and sure enough, it turned out that we were both related to the Jewson’s of Terrington, England. Our shared passion for keeping young people healthy encouraged both of us. This North Carolina dentist started to send me, a respiratory therpist in Toledo, OH, additional information that I could add to my presentations. I feel honored and proud to be related to him.

  11. There are no coincedences. While working on my Norwegian family in SLC Library a man volunteered to help me and he ended up being related. I wouldn’t have known how to read those farm books without him and ten years later we still correspond.

  12. Pingback: Family History - Where They Lived Tells Us More About How They Lived

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