Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | 5:04 p.m.
By 1940 more than half of all Americans lived in cities.
When you discover your ancestors moved to a city, you will find an excellent research tool in city directories. The earliest U.S. city directories were published in the late 1700s—Philadelphia (1785), New York City (1786), and Boston (1789). They provide the name of a working person or widow, occupation, residential address, and sometimes business address. They also offer city and ward maps, church listings and demographic data; they reveal local elected officials, charities, and voluntary boards, and they occasionally provide criss-cross rolls. Examples below demonstrate how we can "mine" city directories for more than just the name, occupation, and address of our research target.
According to the New-York Weekly Museum of April 9, 1791, Ezekiel Dodge married Catherine Swartwout "On Thursday last, by the Rev. Mr. Foster." I do not know where Dodge married, but by pursuing the Rev. Mr. Foster in the New York City directory, I discover that in 1789 under "Ministers of the Gospel," the city's only Baptist Church was led by the Rev. Mr. Foster. The directory of churches at the beginning of the volume uncovers Ezekiel Dodge's Baptist affiliation.
Francis Johnson died in New York City at age 65 without will or administration in December 1825. I want to know if his widow, Dorothy, survived him. Longworth's American Almanac New York Register and City Directory 1828-29 reveals that "Dorothea" Johnson, "widow of Frans." operated a boarding house at 42 John Street. The entry tells me that Dorothy survived her husband and made a living for herself in her widowhood. If I can follow Dorothy, widow of Francis, through city directories until 1850 I might establish that the 85-year-old Dorothy Johnson enumerated in the 1850 census is my research target.
The 1866 Brooklyn, New York, death certificate of Mrs. Betsey Hopkins states that the 58-year-old woman born in Brewster, Mass., died at 73 4th St. Brooklyn. The certificate does not provide enough information for me to link this Mrs. Hopkins to her husband William Hopkins and son John Wing Hopkins, documented in Massachusetts vital records. However, Lain's Brooklyn City Directory for the Year Ending May 1st 1867 shows that John W. Hopkins, carpenter, resided at 73 4th Street. The pairing of the addresses provides the necessary link between Mrs. Betsey Hopkins and her son, John Wing Hopkins.
Philadelphia city directories helped me prove Almira (Kelly) Lippincott's relation with her daughter, Clarinda Foust (Mrs. Hiram H.). Beginning in 1870, Almira Lippincott, "wid. Bevan," "wid. Charles," or "wid Charles B." appeared at the same address where Hiram H. Foust resided. Although Almira disappeared from city directories for several years at a time, she reappeared always at the address of Hiram Foust. Almira Lippincott's 1903 death certificate reported her death at 1712 Willington, which was the address of Hiram H. Foust in Gopsill's Philadelphia City Directory for 1903; the city directory thus connected Almira Lippincott her to her daughter, Mrs. Hiram H. Foust.
Los Angeles City directories allow me to track the officers of the Eldorado Gold Star Mining Company elected annually by the stockholders from the company's first entry in 1910 until its final corporate entry in 1929. I also search the personal entries of the officers each year to find their residences and occupations, thereby allowing me to compile a skeleton history of the corporation and its officers that I can use for further research.
City directories aid urban research in unexpected ways. You will find guides to city directory collections at City Directories of the United States of America, Cyndi's List, and the Family History Library as indexed by Marie Taylor.
Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2360 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].