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.