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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Gold Rush & Genealogy

As is the case for many American families, we have relatives whose lives were changed by the Gold Rush to California in the mid-1800s. Brothers John and Martin Bruce were not miners, but instead were attracted to the Gold Rush boom town, San Francisco. Here is their story along with the genealogy resources that helped us find them.

Gold Rush: Prelude and Impact

On July 7, 1846, California was claimed for the United States during the Mexican-American War, and the town called Yerba Buena was similarly claimed two days later. On July 11, 1846, the American flag replaced the California Republic flag at Sutter’s Fort, a sign that California was joining the United States. The following year, on January 30, 1847, the town of Yerba Buena, founded in 1835, was renamed San Francisco.

Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848, at the lumber mill on the American River owned by Captain John A. Sutter. The gold discovery was published in the San Francisco newspaper The Californian in March, 1848, but gained little credence. Then, on May 12, 1848, gold fever was set off in San Francisco when merchant Sam Brannan from Sutter’s Fort waved a bottle of gold dust and yelled: “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River.” > See Source.

Population then surged in San Francisco, climbing from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 by December 1949. The Gold Rush boom town was off and running. And the United States moved quickly to bring California into the Union, making it the 31st state on September 9, 1850. > See Source No 1 and Source No 2.

The wealth being created was the major lure for miners and others. The value of gold exported from California in 1854 was $51,429,101, while in 1855, gold exports were valued at $44,640,090. Also in 1854, the United States opened the San Francisco Mint and in its first year turned $4 million in gold bullion into coins. > See Source No 1 and Source No 2.

Many opportunities for work and wealth developed. In 1855, a bill to develop a line of steamships running between San Francisco and Shanghai, China, was under consideration in the state’s House of Representatives. And Gov. John Bigler pushed for legislation to gain for San Francisco the benefits of the whale trade in the Pacific. San Francisco would become, for a time, the largest seaport and international trade center on the West Coast. Building and repairing ships would be essential to the city’s economy. > See Source.

Off to San Francisco

With its glitter of gold and opportunities for work in the ship building industries, San Francisco drew the two Bruce brothers, Martin and John, from their home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

They were born in Cammin, Kreis Cammin, Pomerania, on 27 March 1833 and 10 March 1835, respectively. They were two of the four sons of Martin Friedrich Bruss and Maria Sophia Stiemke Bruss. Oldest son Wilhelm or William was born 25 September 1829 in Cammin, but died as a youth. Next oldest was Augustus F. Bruss, born there 27 December 1830. Martin and Maria Bruss and their three sons left Cammin, just inland from the Baltic Sea in Pomerania, with the Old Lutheran migration and came first to Buffalo, New York, and then on to Milwaukee in the fall of 1839. > See Source with Bruss entry at bottom of page.

The traditional occupations for Bruss men were sailing, ship building and ship caulking, and they pursued this work in sailing on the Great Lakes and working in Milwaukee’s shipbuilding industry, according to books written by descendant William George Bruce.

About 1849, Maria Sophia Bruss died in a cholera epidemic in Milwaukee. Martin Friedrich Bruss remarried and was recorded in the 1850 Census with his new wife and sons Martin and John. He then died about 1854 as only his widow was listed in the 1854-1855 Milwaukee Directory. In 1855, older son Augustus married Apollonia Becker, a young woman of 18 years newly arrived from Zemmer near Treves or Trier in southwest Germany.  He settled down in Milwaukee to establish a career as a ship’s carpenter and to have ten children with Apollonia.

In 1855, brothers Martin and John were thus on their own, young single men who needed to make their way in the world. They chose to go west. About this same time, the three brothers chose to Anglicize their surname to Bruce, and that is how they appear in records after that.

In his memoirs — I Was Born in AmericaWilliam George Bruce wrote this brief synopsis of the three brothers: “While still a young man, Martin F. Bruce went south and located at Pensacola, Florida. This was before the Civil War. John went to California. Augustus F., who later became the father of William George Bruce, remained in Milwaukee.” That Martin also went to California, if only for a short time, was a new discovery in our family history.

Working as Ship Caulkers

Two brief entries in Colville’s 1856 San Francisco Directory reveal the presence of both of the brothers in the growing city. The listings on page 25 are as follows:
> John Bruce, caulker, brds Isthmus House
> Martin Bruce, caulker, brds Isthmus House

They were pursuing one of the traditional occupations of the Bruss men, calking or caulking ships, a process of making them watertight. And they both were living at Isthmus House, a residential hotel on First Street between Market and Mission streets, the address given on page 108 of the directory. Isthmus House, established about 1851 by Nathan Hellings, was about six blocks in from the Embarcadero, the site of the city’s wharves on San Francisco Bay.

These brief scraps of information are all we have to tell us  that the brothers journeyed together to San Francisco in the Gold Rush boom era. But it is enough to evoke a glimpse of their lives as young men in the sprawling landscape of mid-18th century America.

Their Lives Diverged

By 1857, Martin Bruce had moved to northern Florida to work at the Pensacola Navy Yard. He met William Ollinger and they founded Ollinger & Bruce drydock and ship repair business. Martin married William’s sister Margaret Ollinger, they had two sons and three daughters, and lived out their lives in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Martin died February 20, 1894, and is buried in the Bagdad Cemetery, Santa Rosa County.

John Bruce worked as a ship calker in San Francisco for many years. City directories on three occasions listed the firms John worked for, including, in 1873, Middlemas and Boole, Shipwrights, a firm founded in 1869, and then in 1878 and 1885, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, founded in 1848. John never married. He lived at several different multi-unit dwellings in the same area of downtown San Francisco his whole life.

The last known records for him are the 1904 California registered voter listings, showing him as aged 66, living in San Francisco at 560 Howard, 2nd floor, room 45, and the Crocker-Langley 1905 San Francisco Directory, page 357, listing him as John Bruce, calker, r. 560 Howard. We have not yet found the date of his death or where he is buried. But we now know much more about his life, thanks to the Gleanings entry in the recent Whitman County Genealogical Society newsletter that alerted me to the San Francisco directories on Archives.org. My thanks to the editor!

KEY SOURCE

Dozens of San Francisco directories in the span of years from 1850 to 1982 can be found online free at the Internet Archive at this URL: http://www.archive.org/ Use the search term San Francisco directory and Media Type as Texts to find all of them. The 1856 Directory published by Samuel Colville can be found here. Choose the Read Online format for a digital book allowing you to flip through the pages. Note that the Bruce entries are not in alphabetical order by first name, John appearing after Martin.

Published in: on November 21, 2010 at 5:52 am  Comments (1)  
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City Directories

Most family history researchers focus their early work on census records. Census records do contain a wealth of information and cover rural areas, small towns and cities.

However, if your ancestors lived in one of America’s cities, there is another resource that deserves your equal attention, namely city directories. Here is a lively example of how they can help you fill in your family’s story and answer puzzling questions.

I recently sent a cousin the family history that I had discovered — building on the great work my sister did when she and and her husband lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and their son was a baby. The cousin emailed a question I too had wondered about:
 
“Why was Beatrice Jane Bruce born in Cambridge, Massachusetts?’
 
I never thought I could find the answer — until Ancestry.com put hundreds and hundreds of city directories from the 1880s and 1890s onto its Web site.  The directories help fill the gap caused by the loss of the 1890 census records in a major fire.

In those days, before people had telephone numbers, city directories included name, address — and occupation. So I wondered, would there be one for Cambridge, Mass., for 1896 and would Bea’s father Martin P. Bruce be in it? Voila! Yes! The entry reads as follows:
 
Bruce, Martin P., Salesman, Fish Bros. Wagon Co., h. 56 Baldwin.
 
Fish Bros. Wagon Company was a very large Racine, Wisconsin, firm that sold their wooden wagons nationwide and overseas. It was controlled by J.I Case of Racine. Fish Bros.  made both work wagons and fancy wagons such as phaetons and trotting buggies. You can read more about the firm and see a sketch of the Racine plant  online.
 
So it seems that Martin, newly married in 1895, took a position that promised better opportunities than his occupation as a clerk or accountant — which he had pursued since 1887 when he was 17 years old. Even if that meant Martin Bruce and his wife Grace Booth Bruce having to move east across the country to a new city.

They were there just one year, with daughter Beatrice Jane Bruce born 22 May 1896. Perhaps Martin did not like the life of a salesman. [He likely was a sales agent for Fish Bros., calling on businesses that sold the wagons to customers]. Or, with a new baby, Martin and Grace wanted to be back in Milwaukee among their families.

In any case, by the time the 1897 Milwaukee Directory was published, Martin, Grace and Bea were back in Milwaukee. Martin was listed that year as:

Bruce Martin P., bkpr. 205 Wells, h 465 Hanover

What company did he work for as a bookkeeper? Based on the address at 205 Wells, it was J. Dorsch & Sons, a company that sold agricultural implements and carriages. Its directory listing says:

J. DORSCH & SONS, agric. Implts and carriages, 195 2d and 205-211 Wells.

Martin had worked there as early as 1892, according to city directories. We surmise that he got to know the sales representatives of Fish Bros. Wagon Company. And there is the likely link to the sales job in Cambridge.

So there is why Bea was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, courtesy of city directories for Cambridge and Milwaukee.

You can find city directories in your local libraries or on microfilm through LDS Family History Centers or via Interlibrary Loan, all at a very low cost. Check them out soon!

This is one in a series of genealogy and family history research articles to help you find your family and ancestors, often for modest or no cost.

Published in: on January 25, 2009 at 7:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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