How to Find Ancestors in City Directories

February 24, 2012 at 2:00 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies, Genealogy Resources | Leave a comment
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Walter Disney - Artist - KC Slide Company
Walter Disney – Artist – KC Slide Company – 1920 KC City Directory

City directories are one of the unsung heroes of genealogy research.  They offer many treasures for the genealogist who takes the time to crack open a book or browse the microfilm rolls.

What are City Directories?

City directories are the precursors to phone books, and they fulfill a similar role for the citizen and the publisher.  Long before the era of the telephone, publishers would create city directories for much the same reasons of communiciating resident information and profiting from advertising.  The publisher would solicit advertising from local businesses as a revenue source.  Then the publisher would collect the names and addresses of all the city residents and distribute the books – again, just like phone books – to all the residents.

What Can You Find in City Directories?

Unlike phone books, city directories offer a bounty of information about the resident that you’d never, ever expect in a 20th or 21st Century phone book.  Among the genealogy nuggets you can find are the following:

  • The listing itself places your ancestor in a specific place and time.  This is very helpful when building an ancestral timeline for an individual or family.
  • Whether the address associated with the person is the residence or business or both.
  • The occupation of each resident.
  • The employer of the resident.
  • If the resident is a student.
  • Whether the lady of the household is a widow.  And sometimes it lists her deceased husband’s name!
  • And don’t overlook the ads!  Your ancestor may have owned or worked for one of the businesses advertising at the time.  There’s another layer of interest to add to your story tucked inside the advertisements.

Further, you can make hypotheses about relationships – possibly find new family members – by looking at the addresses.  If you have several people of the same last name on the same block, then you may have an extended family well worth investigating.  You find this information by looking at the street listings; not the alphabetical name index in the back.  The street listings give every household in census-like order.  Don’t miss maiden names in nearby households.  The in-laws could be living right next door.

Found: Walt Disney

Any Kansas Citian has heard the legend of Walt Disney getting his professional start in Kansas City.  It’s a well documented story of the city’s role in launching an artistic and entertainment icon.

We can see an actual piece of that history in the Kansas City City Directories (see above).  In 1920 there is an unassuming entry for a “Walter Disney, artist, KC Slide Co.”  Who knew what this young man would become at the time?  Further, we see him amidst a bevy of Disneys.  This would be an excellent contribution to not only the frame but the story of a Disney family tree.  The genealogist could map the addresses, learn about the neighborhoods, find the buildings where he and his family lived, and certainly research the other members of the families.  And all of this from less than a dozen lines in a city directory.

Research Strategies for City Directories

City directories offer a window into the lives of our in that oh-so-elusive period between US and/or state censuses.  They can answer questions like what happened to a family member, where did they live, what were they doing, were multiple families under one roof – if so, why, were they close (in proximity) to his or her family, and so much more.

Using Directories between Censuses

The first strategy is to pinpoint your ancestor between two in censuses  betweeen two censuses, then search intermediate years in the city directories.  For example search between a 1905 state census and a 1910 US Census.  You might split the difference first and search the 1907 city directory, then work to either end of the time period in question.  This would be an ideal approach if in the 1910 US Census you find that either the mother or father are not listed.  Working through the intervening city directories might help explain what happened – certainly when it happened.

Open Ended Time Period

The next approach would be an open-ended time period to search.  Let’s say you can’t find them after the 1910 US Census, which would imply they aren’t in the 1920 US Census assuming they are still living.  Again, split the difference in time and look first in the 1915 city directory.  If you find them there, then work forward 1916, 1917, 1918, and 1919 looking for any indication of movement, change of occupation, death of the head of the household or both parents – any hint that their locale or life station has changed making them less easy to find in the 1920 US Census.  As is always a best practice for genealogists, look for spelling variations, including the first name.  George may be listed in the city directories as Geo., G., G.W.  If so, that’s your first clue to look for that spelling in the 1920 Census.

Looking for Extended Family

As mentioned above, turn to the street indexes to find each family member you’ve identified in the name index.  Not only should you look up and down their street, but look at streets parallel and intersceting.  My great grandfather married the girl around the corner!  It’s often hard for us to realize today how sometimes very small the worlds of our ancestors could be.  Their entire family and social circle could have lived within a few miles or even a few blocks.  The city directories can tell that story.

Looking for Farmers

If you, like me, are blessed with a big crop of farmers in your tree, don’t dispare.  It may not seem likely, but city directories can help us find even our most rural ancestors.  As you would expect the farmers didn’t live on city blocks in urban areas.  They were most often associated with their township.  Now we might think of them as being associated with the County Seat or the local town where the CO-OP resides.  In the back of the city directories are often listed all of the “surrounding” townships.  Under each township, you will find – in no particular order – the list of all of the residents.  And tada! You have placed your farm family in a location at a specific time.

Where to Find City Directories

City directories started as early as Colonial America and they were previlent until the early 20th Century and the advent of the phone book.  The 20th Century directories can still be found in print at libraries and historical societies near their publication.  I know the Midwest Genealogy Center has an extensive collection of print directories for the 4-state area – Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa.  Then they have an extended collection that includes more states and goes back to the Colonial era on microfilm.  (As an aside, they are working on an online directory of the city directory holdings presently.)  Contrast this collection with a more targeted collection at the Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society in Wichita, KS.  They have the full printed collection of Wichita City Directories since their inception in the 1890s.  This is consistent with my personal findings that often there are really great treasures to be found at the local level – great stuff that only the local historians and genealogists have a vested interest in.  Finally, there is the most renoun collection of city directories at the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. It trumpets more than 48,000 city directories in its collection.  Wow.

In Summary –

Would you believe I’ve only scratched the surface on city directories?  There’s plenty to find and plenty to learn.  So I encourage you to not overlook this wonderful resource.

How about you?

Have you used city directories?  Share your story.

Happy Researching.


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