Throughout the United States and Canada, many major cities, and even some smaller ones, have been tracking the information of their residents for centuries. In fact, in some of the older major cities you can find records that date back to the 1700’s.
This is a great source of information if you’re trying to build a family tree. However, these directories can be overwhelming, particularly if you’re looking at a major metropolitan area. Here are a few key strategies to break it down into manageable steps, and to be able to use city directories to locate accurate genealogy information.
1. The Direct Approach
Often a first approach is to search for what you know. For example, if you know your ancestor’s name is Charlie Smith and you know they lived in Manhattan then you’ll simply begin looking for Charlie to see what you can find.
Typically, directories are organized by surname and time period. However, remember that some surnames are also occupations and it can get confusing. What you’ll find, hopefully, is who your relatives were married to, birth and death information, and hopefully because many people lived close to their families, extended family members.
2. Search by Resemblance
There are varying spellings for surnames due to changes over time, typos, and some folks just not knowing how their name was spelled. Try looking up names that sounds like your surname too.
Consider using Soundex. Soundex is a phonetic coding system used to group together surnames that sound alike, but have different spellings. For example, SMITH/SMYTH/SMYTHE would all have the same soundex code. This information and tool can help you uncover hidden family surnames.
3. Search by Address or Street
If you know where your ancestor lived, you can also search the directory by address or street. This information will tell you if there was anyone else living at that address, which can be key to filling in gaps and holes in your information.
Because family often lived in close proximity, you can also try looking for surrounding addresses to see if neighbors may have also been family.
4. Search by Occupation
Occupation, in addition to often being connected to a surname, can provide valuable information. For example, if you know there was a family run business, you can search the directory for this business and find out who worked there, if it was passed from generation to generation, and other useful information. Every piece of the puzzle provides clues.
City directories probably won’t be the ultimate solution to solving your genealogy puzzle… but they can be a great source of information, clues, and a way to fill in the gaps or confirm some of your information.
Check with your local library and the Archives for these directories. In doing a Internet search for city directories, I discovered some now available on CD. Depending on your budget, this might be of interest to you.
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Internet Specialist by trade and passionate about my family's history, I set out to try and reconnect the many lost connections with my paternal family.
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What is Genealogy?
Why is Genealogy Important?
What to do When You Have a Common Surname
Do I Need The Help of a Professional Genealogist?
How to Find Free Basic Genealogy Information