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Replacing the 1890 Census - City Directories

The missing 1890 U.S. Federal Census can be a stumbling block to researching our ancestors, but it doesn't have to be. Try city directories as an alternative.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 742 (approx.)
Labels: Census  City Directory 
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If you have been researching your genealogy for any length of time, you have probably discovered the importance of the United States Federal Census taken every ten years, beginning in 1790. You have probably also discovered that the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire in 1921, leaving a 20-year span of time for the genealogist to find alternative sources to track their ancestors.

What are some alternative sources we can use to bridge that 20-year gap? Many states were still not recording vital statistics during that time frame, so birth, death, and marriage records may not be available. A great source to use to track your ancestors during that time is local city and/or county directories.

What is a Directory? Much like the telephone directory of today, the Directory was an alphabetical listing of people in a particular city, town, or sometimes an entire county. Most directories were published every year, with some covering a two-year span. Unlike the modern telephone directory, the city or county directory would include a person's occupation, address of both residence and employment and, if widowed, it would tell of whom.

Okay, you have found a directory with your ancestor listed. How can you use the information in your research? Let's break it down by each piece of information given.

The listing of a female as a widow may be the only way you find when an ancestor died. For example, I knew that my third great-grandfather, Henry Holmes, died in Syracuse, New York in the 1890s, but, since New York vital records were kept very sporadically at that time, I could not find his exact date of death. By checking successive years of local directories, I was able to pin it down to a year, when I found his wife, Mary, as "Widow of Henry" in the 1894 Syracuse directory.

Although the directories did not normally list everyone in a household and their relationship to the head, by careful checking you can find many people living in the same household. A wife who is a tailoress, dressmaker, milner, etc. will be listed under her own name with her occupation and address; an older child might be listed under his or her own name as a student; and others living in the household will be listed separately. Young children were not usually listed.

Finding the exact address of an ancestor can help you find many other sources of information. First, find a map of the area and pinpoint the address. Is there a church in the neighborhood, or a cemetery? These can be alternative sources of information! Track your ancestor through successive directories. Did they live in the same location each year or was there a different address? You may find that they went from renting to buying a home, so there may be a deed at the local deeds office. Alternatively, they may have sold property and moved in with family. Again, there would be a deed of the transaction. Were they in a directory for several years and then disappear? They may have died or moved away. In this way, you can trace your ancestors whereabouts year-by-year.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to find out that your great-grandmother had an occupation? I have several female ancestors who were listed in directories as "tailoress.

What other information can you glean from a local directory? Many included a street directory, so you can see if anyone else lived in the house and find out your ancestor's neighbors (they may be related). Don't overlook all of the advertisements and the business directory. If your ancestor had a business of any kind (and that includes dressmakers, milners, etc.), they will be listed in the business section and may have had an advertisement included, as well. You may also find information on churches, schools, and organizations listed in the directory.

Where can you find directories for the city or town that you are researching? Try the local public library, historical society, or county court house. Most will look up a single name for a large self-addressed stamped envelope (LSASE) and/or a nominal fee.

Not having the 1890 census to locate our ancestors can be a stumbling block in our research, but there are ways to get around that lack of a federal record. Try locating your ancestors in the city or county directory of the place where they lived. You may be pleasantly surprised at the information you find!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

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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