City directories were created as an aid to salesmen and businessmen in contacting residents of a given city or area. Almost all large cities in the U.S. had city directories for at least a period of time. These usually contain a business section with all the businesses in the area listed in alphabetical order.
Most important to family researchers are the names of all residents in alphabetical order by surname. If the person was married, his wife was usually listed; also included were his occupation and/or place of employment and the street name and number at which he lived.
Another feature was the alphabetical listing of all streets, avenues, roads, etc., in the city. In this section all households were listed in the order of the street numbers.
The directories were usually published every year, although some do cover two years. One of the features was usually a map of the city or at least of a portion of the city. Another was a list of abbreviations used in the listings, such as “w” for widow or widower.
One of the most important uses of these directories is tracking a person or family through the years between the censuses. Using these, one can determine within a few months the date the family or person moved within the city or even away from the city. These clues can then narrow the time frame for the search for other information pertinent to the family.
If a person or family owned no property (generating deeds and tax records) or was not registered to vote, the city directory may be the only source of information for several years’ time.
It is indeed a rare researcher who has not encountered at least one “lost” person or family who cannot be located in the census. Many times this problem is due to errors in indexing of the census or to variations in spelling of the family surname. A city directory can be invaluable in this instance.
One may find the person by searching the alphabetical list of surnames or even by searching the alphabetical listing of street names. Once the street name is obtained, one can then locate that street in the census and search all households on that street for the person and/or his family.
Speaking of the census, city directories are an excellent substitute for the 1890 Census, most of which was accidentally destroyed.
Still another use is to pinpoint the date or year of the death of a person of interest. Many directories give the person’s marital status, including whether a widow or widower, often giving the name of the deceased as well. Such a listed might say “Jane Smith, w of James.” This enables a researcher to more closely determine the date of the death, narrowing the area and time span when searching for death, cemetery and probate records.
More than residences
Churches and schools are usually listed complete with addresses in the directories, enabling the researcher to determine which of these the ancestor and his family may have attended or belonged to, opening the door for research of those records.
The occupation of a person is usually given in the listing. By following the person or family through several years in the listings, promotions, changes in occupation and employer/place of employment may be determined.
One may also find that members of the family in addition to the parents and children are living in the household. A younger sibling of the husband or wife may be in the household for at least a brief period of time while job searching in the city, a fact that may never come to light when researching “standard” records.
For example, in recent research, a sibling was found in one man’s household in the listing. By the next year this sibling was listed at a different address with a wife. This enabled determining the approximate date of the marriage of the sibling much more easily, narrowing it down to a few months instead of a few years.
Many researchers know that an ancestor immigrated from the “old country” but do not know the exact date. When the ancestor is first found on a census, it can be assumed that he/she immigrated sometime within the past decade, since the previous census. Researching all the passenger lists for that decade can be a daunting task. But by using the city directories, one can determine the date of the first listing for the person or family, then search passenger lists for the preceding year or two.
City directories can also confirm other evidence. Evidence is always more credible when backed up by another source or sources. Directories are an excellent resource for validating documentation previously found.
Where to find them
Where does a researcher find these directories?
Beginning locally, Pack Library has most, if not all, of the city directories for Asheville. The Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society also has some of the Asheville city directories.
One website — http://www.uscitydirectories.com/ — has attempted to list all the city directories available in the U.S. This site will answer the questions “does a directory exist for a locality?” and “if so, where can it be found?”
It should be stressed at this point that many of these directories have not yet been digitized, but this website will indicate which have been digitized and which have not. Some have been transcribed and the transcriptions listed online.
Some paid subscription sites offer at least some city directories. These include, but are certainly not limited to, Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. Ancestry.com has an excellent article on locating city directories at https://www.ancestry.com/wiki/index.php?title=Locating_Directories.
One free site listing directories is http://www.distantcousin.com/directories/. Still one other good way to locate city directories is simply to Google the search string “city directories” AND “city” where “city” is your city of interest.
There are a number of other less-used records that we will discuss in an upcoming article. Address questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a different note, a researcher has asked us to help in the search for a family Bible. If you know of the location of the John Chambers family Bible, contact info@obcgs. The society will put you in touch with this researcher, who really needs the family information contained in this Bible. Thank you in advance.
ABOUT THIS COLUMN
Through this monthly column, Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society volunteers address particular family histories as well as genealogical research in general. To submit questions about your family or others, specify that it is for the Family History column and send to the society via snail mail to P.O. Box 2122, Asheville, NC 28802-2122 or via email to email@example.com. For more information, call 828-253-1894.
All events are free and open to the public:
•The Madison County Genealogical Society meets at 7 p.m. April 7 in the meeting room of the public library in Marshall. The program will be “The Murray Family of Flag Pond, Tennessee, and Madison County, NC — Revisited,” presented by Dee Gibson-Roles.
•The Jackson County Genealogical Society will meet at 7 p.m. April 9 in the Jackson County Public Library Complex. Archivist Heather South will present “A Trunkload of Trouble: The Do’s and Don’ts of Preserving Things.” Those attending may bring their own paper items for evaluation. To learn more, call 828-631-2646 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
•The Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 2 p.m. April 25 in the society’s library at 128 Bingham Road, Suite 950, in Asheville. The program will be “Historical Preservation: Learn More About Archiving Records.” Everyone is invited. To learn more, call 828-253-1894 or email email@example.com.