Book 'em! Discover how city directories can help you track down your ancestors' addresses and break through your research brick walls.
Anyone who's dabbled in family history knows that census records are a genealogical gold mine: They give a snapshot of the whole family on a particular day in history every 10 years. But those 10 years in between censuses can be a long time in a family's history—longer still if your ancestors moved, were missed in a census or lived during that 20-year-gap left by the loss of the 1890 census to fire. If only you could find an annual accounting of your ancestors...
You can—if your ancestors lived in a place with a city directory. These valuable books contain an alphabetical list of a city's inhabitants, similar to today's telephone directories, but beginning even before Alexander Graham Bell made his first call. Some city directories date to the 1700s; most American cities began publishing directories annually or every other year in the mid- to late 1800s. City directories list the names of adults, including adult children living with parents. Some also tell residents' occupations, their employers' names, their home addresses and their spouses' names.
You never know what facts you might find in these annual accounts of who's who in a city. Although it's uncommon, I've seen directories that list a death date for someone in the household. Another rare but valuable find is a city irectory that lists not only the living, but also everyone who died in the past year, as in the 1889-1890 city directory for Columbus, Ohio. More commonly, you'll find a wife listed as a widow the year following her husband's death: "Kernochan, Abby L. (wid. Edw.)," for example. If a family moved, some communities' directories may even tell where they relocated.
A helpful feature in certain city directories is the householder's index, or criss-cross directory. You'll sometimes find this in the back of the directory, or it may be a totally separate volume. Instead of an alphabetical listing by individuals' names, the householder's index gives you alphabetical-numerical listings of streets followed by house numbers and inhabitants. Just like the census, the householder's index is a wonderful way to discover the names of your ancestors' neighbors, which can be useful for tracking their migrations,
as well as uncovering other relatives living nearby.
But each city directory is different, and that's what makes them sometimes frustrating to use. Contents and availability vary from city to city and from one time period to another. You may find several small cities combined within one directory. Most directories were issued annually, others sporadically.
Large libraries and the historical society where your ancestor lived may have print or microfilmed city directories covering the area (and sometimes, beyond). If you don't live in the area, see if you can borrow directories on microfilm through interlibrary loan.
Check library and historical society websites for digitized directories, which you may or may not be able to search with your ancestor's name. Here are some other sources for online directories:
City Directories on the Web
- City Directories of the USA:
This Web site attempts to identify all printed, microfilmed and online
directories for the entire United States, as well as the repositories
where they're held.
- Cyndi's List—Directories:
Here, you'll find links to articles on using city directories, repositories
that hold them and actual directories online.
- Online Historical Directories:
Links to online city and other historical directories, categorized by place.
(This site links to directories on both free and subscription websites.)
- Google Books and Internet Archive:
Search for old directories at these digitized book sites by typing in the city name and directory.
- Ancestry.com and Fold3
These subscription genealogy websites have large collections of city directories.
Learn more about genealogy research in city directories in our video class City Directories: Key to Your Family's Past with presenter Maureen A. Taylor.