Tracking ancestors in cities can be difficult. The sheer numbers can make a search quite time-consuming, if not impossible. Because there are so many people in cities, the opportunities for being mentioned in records drop. In dense populations, the likelihood of multiple individuals with the same name increases. Urban dwellers, moreover, tend to avoid the more traditional sources of probate records and deeds.
There are benefits to having urban ancestors, and one record which is especially valuable for family history research is the city directory. A directory is a book containing an alphabetical list of inhabitants of a locality along with their addresses and occupations. Since directories seek to list the names of all the inhabitants in a city and since they are normally published each year, coverage is both thorough and regular.
Baltimore holds the distinction of having the first city directory. It appeared in 1752. Charleston, S.C.'s first directories appeared in 1782 and 1785. Philadelphia and New York City soon followed.
America's great research libraries have always collected city directories not only for their own communities but also for their region of the country, if not the entire nation. Early in 1967, a commercial firm recognized the importance of preserving America's city directories and of making them widely available. They gathered copies of all known city directories published prior to 1861. About 100 libraries shared their treasures for the creation of this master set. Of the 1,600 titles known to exist, all but 45 were microfiched.
The success of the program was so overwhelming that it was decided to issue on microfilm the directories from 1861 to 1881. That was followed by attempts to add those for 1882 to 1901 and 1903 to 1935. These were released on microfilm. The Dallas Genealogical Society obtained a grant from the Summerlee Foundation for the purpose of acquiring America's city directories for the years 1861 to 1881, in order to extend the coverage beyond the earlier set to 1861. These sets are available for use in the Genealogy Library of the J. Erik Jonsson Central downtown.
You can use directories to determine when a family moved into a city. By following the family annually, you can pinpoint the year of death of the head of the family and determine who his wife was by noting her name at the same address the following year. As children enter the workforce, their names also appear in alphabetical order. Scan the entries for everyone of the family name you are investigating and note the people living at the same address. Many directories also have a section arranged by street and house number. If Wilhelm Fuchs was listed in 1885 at 616 Elm St. and disappeared the next year, check the address section to discover who lived there. If you found a William Fox, you have fairly good evidence that by 1886 he had translated his name into English.
Directories will enable you to identify churches, synagogues and cemeteries in the area where the family may have worshiped and have been buried. If you have an obituary stating what minister or rabbi conducted the service, you can use the city directory to determine what congregation was his. Many city directories will also contain the number of the city ward for a particular address. Armed with that information, you can isolate the portion of the microfilm of the census records covering the neighborhood where your urban ancestors would have been enumerated. Some directories will even have annual lists of people who have moved away or who have died. There may also be directories of ethnic groups within a city.
Directories are also wonderful sources for compiling biographical directories of craftsmen such as jewelers, book binders and photographers. They would allow you to create a list of all known button factories in the nation. Their potential for historical research is endless.
Lloyd Bockstruck is supervisor of the genealogy section of the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library. Address questions to: Family Tree, Texas Living section, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265.