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Big City Research on the Mid-Atlantic Coast

Because America's East Coast has welcomed many immigrants throughout history, searching large cities filled with the poor and transitory can be tiring. Thorough and attentive research can yield urban fruit.

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Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Trish Tolley
Word Count: 539 (approx.)
Labels: Ethnicity  City History 
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The Mid-Atlantic region became America's first home to large cities. In Colonial times, New York and Philadelphia were the two largest cities in the colonies. Some of the largest cities in the Mid-Atlantic also include Brooklyn, Baltimore, Albany and Pittsburgh. Not only were these urban centers home to many laborers and merchants, they served as a stop for many travelers on their way to other places in the U.S.

Large cities are a challenge for almost any family history researcher. With the masses of immigrants and large numbers of poor, finding an ancestor can be difficult. Fortunately, some key records are available for the large Eastern cities that make research in Baltimore or Brooklyn bearable. Many of the large cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York were the first to begin keeping vital records. Limited collections of deaths and burials in these cities began before the Civil War, and birth registration started up long before other states required such measures. Get a hold of birth and death certificates for vital dates and places, as well as family members and informants.

Another great tool for finding individuals in the large Mid-Atlantic cities are city directories listing the households within the city limits. Even those who immigrated recently were included in these enumerations. Often the listings are limited only to those gainfully employed, but the recurrence of listing in the city directory year after year can be a valuable tool in understanding the entire family. Be sure to find each member of the family in each year of the directory and pay close attention to addresses, occupations, and even name spellings to see clues that may not be present in other records. Using addresses to track individuals can also help narrow down possibilities when names are common.

The developed society spawned in large cities also increases the chance that city residents will be in other types of records. Because families lived in cramped apartment buildings rather than sprawling valleys, the census taker's job covered less geographical distance and was usually more comprehensive. Also, cemeteries are better regulated, and an abundance of churches would provide enough denominations for many to attend the services of their choice.

Boundary and jurisdictional changes throughout history also affect big cities. Greater New York City, for example, contains 5 different counties/boroughs within it, including:

New York County - Manhattan Borough
Kings County - Borough of Brooklyn
Queens County - Borough of Queens
Richmond County - Borough of Long Island
Bronx County - Bronx Borough

Because Greater New York City wasn't organized until 1897, some record types were kept by the city of New York, whereas others were maintained by one of the five counties.

Research in the big city is certainly more challenging than in other areas of the U.S. More people, more travel in and out, more shifting within the city, and many travelers passing through large port cities on the East Coast can all contribute to tedious, often confusing research. The key to sorting through the volume of records of those who share a surname is to search every possible record type and analyze carefully. Addresses, enumeration districts, occupations, and cultural associations can each lend valuable clues in unscrambling the maze of New York City boarders or Philadelphia travelers.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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