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Using Gazetteers and Atlases for Genealogical Research

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City Directories: Home Sweet Home

The availability of city directories varies. Larger cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and New York have directories extant from the early or mid-1800s and some from even earlier. Small towns may at first be included in the directories of their neighboring cities but probably had their own in later years. Very rural and sparsely settled areas might have all the towns in the county in one volume.

Want to know if there is a city directory online? Go to www.citydirectoryrecords.com. Remember, no directory listing online is complete—find two or three others, too, but this one will get you started.

It is unlikely that within a county, the city directories are all housed in the same repository. In mid- and large-size communities, each has its own library and maintains a set of its own directories. After you establish where in the county your family lived, determine if the town has its own collection. These directories will not only place your ancestors in the county or town at specific times, but may lead you to the old home, perhaps still standing.

Additionally, watch for the following:

  • Others of the surname listed at the same address; they are relatives.
  • Widow's listing, giving her deceased husband's name and occupation.
  • Individual's first listing in the town, to indicate arrival or coming of age.
  • Individual's last listing in the town, to indicate departure from the area or death.
Lineage Lessons

Do not assume that the spouse died in the same year that the surviving spouse is first listed as a widow or widower. It may take a year or two for the directory listings to reflect such events. If a husband is shown in several editions with his wife, and then shown alone, he is likely widowed (though they could be separated). Watch for subsequent issues that might reveal the name of a new wife.

If the directory has a reverse listing by street address (called a householder's index), check for neighbors. Some may be married daughters (families often lived in close proximity). After you learn their occupations, you can follow your ancestors from job to job. Even the date of death might be pinpointed within a year or two if the husband and wife are listed in one directory, and if in subsequent directories only one appears as a widow or widower. If the whole family disappears from the directory entirely and does not reappear in subsequent issues, they probably moved from the area.

Another useful section in the city directories is that of businesses. If your ancestor was a tailor, examine the business listings of tailor shops. Also examine the advertisements. They are charming, and you may be rewarded with your ancestor's ad entreating the public to purchase the finery he or she offers.

Learning with School Records

If you know what school your family attended, and it is still in existence, contact them for school records. They may be reluctant to furnish records from their files but sometimes will if sufficient time has elapsed. If the school is no longer standing, try the county department of education. If you do not know which school they attended, examine the city directory for the appropriate time period and determine which schools are listed on nearby streets.

Tree Tips

To locate schools that may have existed in your family's neighborhood, obtain a detailed street map of the town and use it together with the city directory and telephone book.

She Grew Roses; He Went to Lodge

Clubs, lodges, and fraternal organizations may still hold records of your family. Some have national headquarters and will answer inquiries if an SASE is included. The published county history, previously discussed, may give some information on the organizations that existed when your ancestors first lived in the area. Determine if any are still in existence. Many have websites.

If your ancestor was a member of the Chamber of Commerce or other civic organization, get in touch with them. Even if they don't maintain records of past members, they may remember them and offer some recollections. They may have retained newsletters or minutes of their organization that can add pizzazz to the life history you are building.

The women might have joined garden clubs, knitting circles, reading circles, and church-affiliated groups. Try to find them. It will give you a glimpse of their personalities to know their interests and hobbies.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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