Examining City Directories to Discover New Avenues of Research
Censuses and vital records are the backbones of genealogical research. Finding ancestors on every census and discovering their vital records can help a researcher begin to identify an ancestor and the familial relationships for that ancestor. Land and probate records are also valuable sources. But what happens when a search of these records doesn’t yield many results? Additional (and often less-used) records can then be examined with the goal of finding clues that will lead to more information about the ancestor. I recently finished a project where I relied heavily on city directories to help find new avenues of research. I will first describe city directories and how to use them, then use my research as an illustration.
What are city directories?
City directories were created for salesmen, merchants, and others interested in contacting residents of an area. They are arranged alphabetically into lists of names and addresses. They were typically published annually, and can include the following information:
– Name and occupation of head of household, usually men and female widows, although single employed females were later included
– Sometimes the name of spouse, often in parentheses following name of husband
– Names of children once they become employed outside the home
– Street name and house number of residence
– Work address, if employed outside the home
In addition, many directories provide a street index, which lists every house on the street in numerical order with the head of each household. This can be helpful in building a FAN club for your ancestor. Neighbors are often relatives or witnesses to life events. Non-related neighbors often married each other.
The Value of City Directories
City directories can be especially helpful when researching ancestors that resided in large cities where many people rented, rather than owned, their homes. Large cities were often homes to new arrivals or temporary residents that may have moved in and out of the area between censuses. City directories can also be used as an aid in finding elusive ancestors on censuses. Perhaps an ancestor’s name was indexed wrong so they don’t come up in searches of the indexed census. A city directory can provide an address which, when paired with a map of the city, can help you determine which portion of the census to manually search in order to discover your ancestor. When trying to match with a census year, look in the city directory for the year following the census, as directories were generally published one year after the city was canvassed.
Searching City Directories
Where can you find city directories? Many libraries and historical societies have city directories in their collections. Many have been microfilmed. The ancestors I was researching lived in Brooklyn, and I discovered that the Family History Library has Brooklyn City Directories for every year from 1822-1913 on microfiche. I found this record set by performing a keyword search for “Brooklyn City Directories” in the FamilySearch Catalog.
If you are unable to travel to the repository where city directories for your locality are held, there are a number of directories that have been digitized and are available online. Here are a few online resources to help you get started:
– Ancestry has a collection of city directories called U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. The database is searchable, but you can also browse by location and year.
– Fold3 also has a collection of digitized City Directories for thirty large metropolitan areas in twenty U.S. states.
– Check university and local libraries in the area you are researching. Many have digitized collections of city directories.
Searching indexed databases may not be your best bet when trying to find ancestors in city directories. Names were often misspelled and the spelling can vary from year to year. Because the directories are arranged in alphabetical order, it is easy to browse through them and find your ancestor. Once you find the ancestor in the alphabetical list, don’t forget to go to the street index to see who their neighbors were. Another helpful thing to remember is that abbreviations may vary from directory to directory. For example, “r” could mean “renter” or “rear.” Look for an abbreviation guide somewhere in the directory so that you don’t misinterpret the abbreviations.
A Case Study
For my research project, my objective was to seek additional information on William Trainor, born in 1841 in New York State to John Trainor and mother Grace Dugan. William Trainor emigrated to Australia about 1855. Family lore states that William arrived in Australia on a private ship commandeered by his uncle.
Previous research had not uncovered any vital records in New York about William or his parents. However, three John Trainors and two William Doughan/Dugans were living in Brooklyn, New York at the time the 1840 census was enumerated. In addition, a Grace Dugan was listed as the wife of Patrick McDermott and mother to Roseanne McDermott on a baptism record that was located. My objective in using city directories was to identify these individuals and determine whether any of them were possible relatives to William. Here are three ways I was able to use the directories in my research:
To Identify a Person and Link Him to a Family
A William Doughan and a William T. Dugan both appear on the 1840 census in Ward 6 in Brooklyn. William Doughan is 40-49 and William T. Dugan is 20-29 on the census. William Doughan lives alone, and William T. Dugan appears to have a wife and small children. From this census, we also learn that William Doughan was a learned engineering professional and William T. Dugan was employed in manufacture and trade, but no other details about their lives are provided. Perhaps they are father and son. A study of Brooklyn City Directories revealed only one of these men, a William T. Dugan who was a sailmaker, residing in or near Brooklyn Ward 6 from 1840-1852.
In 1852, William T. Dugan’s occupation changed to merchant or shipping merchant, depending on the year.
While more research is needed to prove William T. Dugan’s identity and connection to John Trainor and Grace Dugan, the information found in city directories has provided a valuable clue that fits with family stories. Perhaps William T. Dugan is Grace Dugan’s brother and William Trainor’s uncle. His occupation as shipping merchant makes him a good candidate for an uncle who commandeered the private ship that carried William Trainor to Australia.
To Distinguish Between Men of the Same Name
According to the 1840 census, three John Trainors were living in Brooklyn, one in Ward 6 and two in Ward 2. The proximity of John Trainor in Ward 6 to the William Doughan/Dugan’s of Ward 6 led to the hypothesis that John Trainor of Ward 6 is the husband of Grace Dugan and father of William Trainor. Looking for additional clues in the city directories could provide clues that might confirm or eliminate one or more of these men as candidates for the ancestor in question.
The only John Trainor appearing in the Brooklyn City Directories from 1838-1851 was a grocer on Jay Street. An 1840 map of Brooklyn shows that his address on Jay Street near Prospect is in Ward 2.
By looking in directories from these years, it was easy to see that John Trainor, grocer lived in the same house from 1838-1851, likely in an apartment above his grocery. He disappeared from the directory from 1852-1854, but in 1855, an Ellen Trainor, widow, was listed at the same address where John had lived for the prior decade. I hypothesized that John died sometime between 1852-54 and that he was married to a woman named Ellen. His presence in Ward 2 (some distance away from the Doughan/Dugan men) and his wife named Ellen helped eliminate this John Trainor as a candidate for the John Trainor I was researching from Ward 6 who was married to a woman named Grace. The absence of John Trainor in Ward 6 in the Brooklyn city directories led to the hypothesis that he was living temporarily in Brooklyn when the 1840 census was enumerated and that I needed to look for him in other places.
To Hypothesize a Relationship
The third way I used city directories in this project was to formulate a hypothesis about a relationship. A Grace Dugan was listed as the wife of Patrick McDermott and mother to a Roseanne McDermott in 1846. Could John Trainor have died prior to 1846 and Grace remarried a Patrick McDermott? Searching for Patrick McDermott in the Brooklyn City Directories revealed his residence in Brooklyn Ward 6 from 1843-1847. Plotting his residence along with the residences of William T. Dugan on a map of Brooklyn revealed that they lived just two blocks from each other in 1843-1846.
Perhaps Patrick McDermott was a friend or acquaintance of William T. Dugan, who introduced the man to his widowed sister. Again, more research is needed to prove these relationships, but using the city directory provided proximity and made this hypothesis worth investigating.
More research is needed to prove or disprove these hypotheses, but city directories helped provide promising new avenues of research for this project. How have city directories helped in your research?
Kimberly Powell, “Using City Directories for Genealogy Research,” ThoughtCo. (https://www.thoughtco.com/city-directories-for-genealogy-1422322 : accessed 7 August 2019).
Lisa Lisson, “How to Use City Directories in Your Genealogy Research,” Are You My Cousin (https://lisalisson.com/how-to-use-city-directories-in-your-genealogy-research/ : accessed 7 August 2019).
Juliana Szucs, “Tips for Researching in City Directories,” Ancestry (https://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2009/08/31/tips-for-researching-in-city-directories/ : accessed 7 August 2019).
FamilySearch Wiki, “City Directories,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/City_Directories : accessed 7 August 2019).