Thursday, March 31, 2016

Field Notes: My Love Affair With City Directories

Do you use city directories? You should, and here's why.

There is a wealth of information contained in a city directory. There are listings for schools and churches, there are maps, there are business listings, there are lists of newspapers, city officials, societies, new buildings, and of course people!
Chicago City Directory Contents Page 1847

 Trying to figure out which church your ancestor might have attended? Consulting the city directory for that time period will give you a list of churches, their location and denomination.

Can't find someone in the census? Check the city directory!

Think your ancestor might have lived in an area where a tragedy struck? (New York Fire, Chicago Fire, San Francisco Earthquake ...). Consulting the city directory will give you an exact address.

I have used the city directories to determine when my ancestors arrived at a location, and when they departed; much more precisely than a census record could.

Wondered what happened between 1880 and 1900? City directories to the rescue!

They are useful for pinpointing a death as well. Look for the last year your ancestor was listed in a directory and that will give you a clue for possible year of death.

Generally city directories were published for the prior year. For example, the 1860 directory for the City of Chicago was published May 1, 1860 and included names of business and inhabitants who were in the city from May 1, 1859 to May 1, 1860.

Sometimes city directories will not only give you names and addresses, but countries of origin and years of residence!

As with all non-indexed records, you will need patience to flip through - but it is so much fun!

There are some sites that offer a search bar, but I highly recommend a manual search. If you try the search bar and come up empty, don't think there is nothing there! Dig in and page through - you'll be surprised.

Oh, and let's talk about spelling. Just like census and other records, you might find your ancestor's name spelled a variety of ways.

Here is a good article about city directories.

My go-to site for city directories is Fold3 but there are many others. Ancestry has a good collection too. (Which can be accessed through HeritageQuest for free if you belong to a library that participates) For a list of paid and free sites look at FamilySearch. And don't forget Google!

There is a wealth of information contained in these tomes that will add color and depth to your research. All just awaiting your discovery.

(*disclaimer: I have not received any compensation for endorsement of any sites in this post. I am merely passing on my opinions and experience)


  1. Thanks for the hint! I've used them many times to mine information, but I learned a couple of things from this email. Thanks for all your help!

    1. I'm so glad I could help! Thanks for reading and commenting! Happy hunting.