City Directories and Genealogy

Whether your genealogy research emphasizes family trees and dates or expands into the realm of family history, you will find that city directories are an essential tool. While the United States Census records provide family insights in 10-year increments, city directories can fill in many of the years in between. The older ones typically included an address, occupation and often spouses.

You can use city directories to add details and color to your family history, or use them to determine where your ancestors lived in the years between the census.

You also may make discoveries as I did when researching my great-grandfather’s uncle John Bruce who we knew lived in San Francisco and worked in the ship building industry starting before the Civil War. What a surprise to find in the 1856 directory that both John and his brother Martin had arrived, were working as ship caulkers and living at Isthmus House. [See story]. The directories helped me picture John’s life through 1905, the final entry that I can find for him. And added a brief yet exciting chapter to Martin’s life as well.

Where can you find city directories that you can search via the Internet?

There are websites that can guide you to the city directories you need, both free and subscription:
> Cyndi’s List: http://www.cyndislist.com/citydir.htm
> Online Historical Directories: http://sites.google.com/site/onlinedirectorysite/
> US City Directories: http://www.uscitydirectories.com/

I am excited about the many directories online and easy to use, free, at Internet Archive: Digital Library found online here: http://www.archive.org/

That’s where I found dozens of San Francisco directories, helpful to my search for the life of John Bruce. I have found a good number of Atlanta and Chicago directories there as well, helpful for filing out details on other branches of my extended family. And checking now, I find city directories for Boston, Brooklyn, New York City and more.

While no Milwaukee directories are found there, the Internet Archive does have the 1891/1892 Wisconsin Gazetteer and Business Directory that can be helpful. And Caspar’s guide and map of the city of Milwaukee: directory of streets, house numbers and electric car lines for 1904, a treasure for understanding city locations before many street names were changed so they matched east and west of the Milwaukee River. With engravings and listings, this guide also provides a lively look at Milwaukee 106 years ago.

You may find transcribed city and town directories on websites for those locations. Especially helpful to me are the early Milwaukee directories transcribed and posted at Links to the Past: http://linkstothepast.com/milwaukee/ctydir.php

Also invaluable were the transcribed directories for New Holstein and Calumet County, Wisconsin. These include:
> 1893 Patron Directory: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~calumet/14.htm
> 1905 City and Rural Directory: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~calumet/cd1905.htm

Finally, there are many city directories on subscription websites such as Ancestry.com, and I use those as well. You also can find them the old-fashioned way, in microfilm format from your area Family History Center. It was the 1866 Milwaukee Directory read on microfilm that finally confirmed a link in my Bradley family lineage that seemed to be correct. [See story].

No matter how you obtain them, make sure city directories are a key part of your genealogy research strategy. Best wishes for your family history research, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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