click to view original photo

My Ancestor is Not in the Census, Now What?
Census Substitutes Part I: City Directories

One of the first places we turn to as we start a family history research project is the U.S. Federal Census. However, in some cases we may not be successful in finding our ancestral family. So what's a genealogist to do when they cannot follow a family through the census? For this four part series we will be looking at other "name lists", namely City Directories, Voter's Registrations, State and Territorial Censuses and Tax Lists that can help you place your ancestor in a time and locality.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 884 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
Short URL:

One of the first places we turn to as we start a family history research project is the U.S. Federal Census. However, in some cases we may not be successful in finding our ancestral family. Various reasons for this including, the surname is misspelled or transcribed in error, or that and individual or family were simply missed by the census enumerator. So what's a genealogist to do when they cannot follow a family through the census? That's when, as genealogist Leland Meitzler calls them, "name lists" can come in handy. There are all sorts of "name lists" that can help you trace a family through time in a locality. For this four-part series, we will be looking at some of the most popular, namely, City Directories, Voter's Registrations, State, and Territorial Censuses and Tax Lists.

What are City Directories?

City directories are sometime referred to as the precursor of phone books. These directories list everything from a person's name, occupation and street address, to other identifying characteristics like that of being a widow. In some smaller regional areas, city directories may actually be county directories that include additional cities or the names from an entire county. City directories allow you to follow a family through time, very much like the U.S. Federal Census.

How Do You Find City Directories?

You can find city directories online as well as in libraries. For online city directories look to genealogy subscription sites like's city directory collection can be found in their Schools, Directories and Church Histories section. Make sure to read the source information found below the search engine on the U.S. City Directories page, U.S. City Directories to better understand what their collection includes. A growing collection of City and Farm Directories can also be found in Genealogy Today Subscripion Data website.

One of my favorite sources for finding city directories online is the Online Historical Directories website. This list of links by blogger Miriam Robbins Midkiff is for directories, including not only city directories but also "historical alumni, business, city, county, farm, Masonic, rural, social." Use this website to search for directories by country, and in the case of the United States, by state and then by county or parish. Each directory listing provides you with the name of the directory, whether it is on a free or fee-based site, and the name of the website. The title of the directory is linked to the appropriate website.

Google Books hosts some digitized city directories including the Sacramento City Directory (1859-1860) ; the Trenton City Directory (1859); and the City Directory of Boston City Directory of Boston (1848-1849) , among others. When searching on Google Books try the keywords "city directory" or the name of a city and "directory" or "city directory."

The above city directory examples show how different city directories can be from each other. The Sacramento City Directory contains a historical review, statistics about Sacramento's population, and then after each entry, it appears to include the state where the person is from. The Trenton directory does not have as much information about individuals named, just the name, occupation and address. The great thing about the Boston directory is that it includes information about the local newspapers, officials, businesses, and societies. This directory does a great job of helping you learn more about Boston at the time the directory was published. This directory can lead you to additional records that may mention your ancestor.

Looking for city directories in libraries? Try the online index, City Directories of the United States of American . This website, authored by genealogist Karen Clifford, provides information about city directories from the United States held by 24 repositories including, the Family History Library and the Library of Congress. You can search for directories by state and then by county.

You can find city directories in the collection of the Family History Library by conducting a keyword search in the Family History Library Catalog for "city directories." They can also be found by conducting a locality search and then clicking on the link for "Directories."

Other places to look for city directories include, the local history or genealogy collections in your local public library; the public library in your ancestor's locality; and university and state libraries.

Some Thoughts On Researching in City Directories

Make sure that you read the directory carefully as you research. It's important to note abbreviations used in each entry. Keys to those abbreviations are typically found on the first page or a previous page of the directory listings. Also, in the case of those who were missed when the initial survey of the town was done, there may be a page proceeding the listings or after, that lists people that were not originally included.

Also, don't forget about other clues that the directory may hold. Historical information and advertisements might assist you in recreating the community in which your ancestor lived. In some cases, a city directory may also provide the names of physicians, societies, and newspapers which can help you in searching for additional records that may mention your ancestor.

As you research, make it a point to look for and check city directories for the place your ancestor lived: they are just another tool for learning more about your ancestors.your ancestor lived. They are just another tool for learning more about your ancestors.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

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.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles