Baltimore City Guide

Baltimore City Guide

Baltimore—America’s secondmost populous city early in the 19th century despite its relative youth among the colonies—is notable both as a port of entry and the place where a War of 1812 battle inspired Francis Scott Key to write the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Today, Baltimore’s genealogical resources will...

Baltimore—America’s secondmost populous city early in the 19th century despite its relative youth among the colonies—is notable both as a port of entry and the place where a War of 1812 battle inspired Francis Scott Key to write the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Today, Baltimore’s genealogical resources will keep you up until dawn’s early light discovering your ancestors.

Population explosion

In 1706, Maryland’s assembly created the Port of Baltimore for the tobacco trade. Two decades later, a town was founded around the port. Both were named after Lord Baltimore, proprietor of the Maryland colony.
 
Baltimore’s large harbor fueled its growth in population and importance, and in 1796, the city was incorporated after a merger of the towns of Baltimore, Jonestown and Fells Point. The consolidated city was the second largest in America by 1840 and for a time was the No. 2 port of entry for immigrants (in both cases, trailing New York City). The city detached itself from Baltimore County in 1851, becoming the nation’s largest independent city.
 
Baltimore saw one of the War of 1812’s fiercest battles in 1814, in which Americans defended Fort McHenry and gained a national anthem. Maryland was a slave state but remained in the Union during the Civil War. Confederate sympathies led to a riot at the beginning of the war, and the city was put under federal administration for the balance of the conflict.
 
Baltimore continued expanding into the early 1900s until tougher annexation laws fixed its boundaries. Considerable decline set in during the second half of the 20th century, but a 1980s redevelopment of the Inner Harbor area as a commercial, convention and tourist center sparked a rebound.
 

Records bombshell

Although the city of Baltimore has been independent for more than 150 years, you’ll find a fair number of records at the Maryland State Archives. This can be helpful: At times it may be unclear whether you’re looking for ancestors in Baltimore city or Baltimore County, and the state archives might have the records either way. You’ll also use municipal records, such as tax lists, at the Baltimore City Archives.
 
Both the Maryland Historical Society and Maryland Genealogical Society are headquartered in Baltimore and can help with city research. A separate Baltimore County Genealogical Society has resources from both sides of the county-city line. The University of Maryland library system is developing terrific online resources. Start your Baltimore roots search with these records:
 
Vital records: This is a “good news, better news” situation. With exception of 100-year privacy restrictions for official birth certificates, vital records are open to researchers and are increasingly the subject of online indexes. Add the fact that Baltimore city’s birth and death records (dating from 1875) begin earlier than the rest of the state, and you have a research bonanza.
The state archives index covers nearly a century of Baltimore death registers (1875-1972). The archives holds the original registers on microfilm, as well as Baltimore city and county birth records through 1972 (when the state took over vital records duties), and marriage records through 2004. Only the past few years of marriage and death records must be accessed from the Division of Vital Records. For the era before civil vital records, Edna Kanley’s Directory of Maryland Church Records fills the bill with information on baptisms, marriages and burials. Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics. Contact your ancestor’s church for records.
 
Immigration: Baltimore’s role as a prominent port means your immigrant ancestors may have spent time here, even if they later moved on. The city’s first significant passenger lists begin in 1820, with the advent of federally mandated record-keeping. You can search some of these lists with other Atlantic ports at FamilySearch.org; all surviving lists are on subscription site Ancestry.com and microfilmed through the National Archives and FamilySearch’s Family History Library (FHL).
 
Naturalization records begin earlier and are published: Colonial Maryland Naturalizations by Jeffrey Wyand and Florence Wyand (Genealogical Publishing Co.) covers mostly German settlers; also consult Robert Andrew Oszakiewski’s Maryland Naturalization Abstracts, Vol. 1: Baltimore County and Baltimore City 1784-1851. In the case of both books, original documents can be found at the state archives. Some records and indexes for later years are on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org; request post-1906 records from Citizenship and Immigration Services.
 
Cemeteries: The Baltimore County Genealogical Society has published five volumes of inscriptions from the city’s Mount Carmel Cemetery in Mt. Carmel Cemetery Records, Baltimore, Maryland. Loudon Park Cemetery records are on 66 rolls of FHL microfilm. You’ll find many cemeteries’ burial records at the Maryland Historical Society. USGenWeb Project pages for the city and county also link to local cemetery information and transcriptions (as well as to other records).

Newspapers: Today’s big kahuna, The Sun, is part of a GenealogyBank subscription (covering 1837 to 1922 and 1990 to the present), but more than a dozen other Baltimore newspapers are in various online collections. For example, several African-American newspapers, including the Afro-American (1902-1992) are searchable in Google News. The Maryland State Archives has a broad collection of titles on microfilm.

 
City directories: The University of Maryland’s Special Collections Library has digitized Baltimore city directories, starting in 1816. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has a large collection of original directories dating back to 1796. Click here for instructions on requesting a search.
 
Maps and land records: The University of Maryland is digitizing maps of Baltimore city. You also can browse maps on the state archives website and land records from the 1700s. Before 1851, Baltimore City land records are included with county records. After 1851, you’ll need to use microfilmed “block books” recording transactions on a specific city block in a given time period.
 
As you can see, the multitude of offerings from state and local genealogical resources is enough to overcome any research ramparts that might come between you and your Baltimore ancestors.

Fast Facts 

Settled: 1729
Incorporated: 1797

Nicknames: Charm City, Mobtown, B’more, The City of Firsts, Monument City, Ravenstown
State: Maryland

County: Baltimore County until 1851; now an independent city
Area: 92 square miles
Motto: The Greatest City in America
Primary historical ethnic groups: African-American, English, German

Primary historical industries: shipping, manufacturing, steel processing, sugar refining
Famous residents: Billie Holiday, Thurgood Marshall, H.L. Mencken, Ogden Nash, Edgar Allan Poe, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein
 

Population

1800: 26,514  
1850: 169,054  
1900: 508,957  
Current: 620,961
 
Tip: Unfortunately, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad employee records have vanished. But you’ll find some suggested research resources at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Historical Society website.
 

Toolkit

Websites

Publications

  • Directory of Maryland Church Records by Edna Kanley (Family Line Publications)
  • Guide to Genealogical Research in Maryland, 5th Edition, by Henry Peden (Maryland Historical Society)
  • Maryland Naturalization Abstracts, Vol. 1: Baltimore County and Baltimore City 1784-1851 by Robert Andrew Oszakiewski (Family Line Publications)
  • Mount Carmel Cemetery Records, Baltimore, Maryland, 5 volumes, by Baltimore County Genealogical Society (Family Line Publications)
  • The Very Quiet Baltimoreans: A Guide to the Historic Cemeteries and Burial Sites of Baltimore by Jane Bromley Wilson and Barbara Alexandra Treadaway (White Mane Publishing)

Organizations and Archives

Top Historic Sites

1. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum
901 West Pratt St., Baltimore, MD 21223, (410) 752-2490
Situated where the country’s first commercial long-distance railroad was born in 1829, this 40-acre campus is home to the most comprehensive American railroad collection in the world.

2. Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum
203 N. Amity St., Baltimore, MD, (410) 396-4883
The modest brick home of the renowned writer, who lived here in the 1830s, is now restored and also houses the Poe Society of Baltimore.

3. Great Blacks in Wax Museum
1601 E. North Ave #3, Baltimore, MD 21213, (410) 563-3404
The figures portrayed here show the “power, courage and tenacity” of the city’s African-American population. Included are area natives such as Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall.

4. Historic Ships in Baltimore
301 E. Pratt St., Suite 2, Baltimore, MD 21202, (410) 539-1797
From the US Navy’s first ship, Constellation, to a submarine and a Coast Guard cutter, this site covers the gamut of life at sea with exhibits and relics.

5. Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture
830 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, MD 21202, (443) 263-1800

Exhibits here focus on the state’s history of slavery and African-Americans’ contributions to local trade and culture. A resource center houses materials on the history of Maryland, the Upper South and genealogy.
 

Records at a Glance

Birth Records
Begin: 1875
Privacy restrictions: Only relatives and legal representatives can access certificates created less than 100 years ago.
Research tips: Records open for research are at the Maryland State Archives.

Marriage Records
Begin: 1914
Research tips: The state archives has certificates from 1914 to 2003; the city circuit court has recent records. The state archives has sporadic marriage registrations as early as 1776.

Death Records
Begin: 1875
Research tips: Certificates up to 2001 are at the state archives; the Division of Vital Records has later records.

City Directories
Begin: 1796
Research tips: Directories were printed every two or three years until 1822 and annually thereafter. Many from 1816 to 1923 are digitized. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has the largest collection of original directories.

Probate
Begin: 1729

Research tips: The state archives has wills and administration accounts up to 1851. More recent estates are with Baltimore city’s register of wills.

Deeds

Begin: 1700s
Research tips: Before 1851, land records are included with Baltimore county records. Thereafter, use “block books” of transcriptions on a specific city block.
 

Timeline

1706 | Port of Baltimore founded

1776 | Second Continental Congress meets in city

1797 | USS Constellation launched as Navy’s first ship

1814 | Americans defeat British in Battle of Baltimore

1821 | First Catholic cathedral in US finished

1824 | Baltimore & Ohio Railroad chartered

1873 | Johns Hopkins University founded

1873 | Pimlico Race Course hosts first Preakness Stakes

1886 | Enoch Pratt Free Library founded

1904 | Great Baltimore Fire leads to national firefighting standards

1980 | Inner Harbor revitalized

1989 | Baltimore Colts depart overnight for Indianapolis 
 

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