You may find yourself researching in a large city for a number of reasons, besides the obvious fact
that your family lived in a large city. Your ancestors may have lived in an area that is now part of a large city, or the records from the area where your family lived have been sent to a large city for archiving, or you may need to locate your family in the large city in Europe that they originated from.
The class will use mostly US Cities as examples, but the strategies, and record groups will also be found in European Cities.
A city is defined as an area large enough to need a map to find your way around in, and is generally divided into smaller divisions such as townships, boroughs, districts and/or wards.
. Understanding and locating the smaller area is critical to finding your ancestor.
The Good News
. Cities kept more records and began keeping them earlier than rural areas.
. 1800’s cities began keeping death records due to public health concerns,
including the cause of those deaths. Births records were next to be kept, and
finally cities kept records of deaths for planning cemeteries.
. If your family was in a big city, there are most likely records for them.
. There are unique sources for big cities that are very helpful.
. There was often a higher level of education in the cities, so people left more
biographical data, diaries, and other potential genealogical sources than
existed among rural families.
. The bigger cities had a large percentage of officials, professionals and
craftsmen. Craftsmen are found in the guild records.
. Membership in city nobility was inherited, so families kept good records about
their ancestry. This is also true for other families who had inheritable rights
(in saltworks, for instance).
The Bad News
. Lots of Records to sort through.
. Records are less likely to be filmed.
. Many records are not indexed.
. More likely to find multiple people with the same name.
. Records are not consistent from one city to another.
. We often don’t know if our immigrant came from an actual city named as his
place of origin. Many large cities were at the same time capitals of territories,
and their names could be the names of the state.
First Understand the City
1. Begin rural or immigration, if possible.
2. Understand why the city existed and what it was like before your ancestor came.
3. Find out why your ancestor chose to live where they did.
. Did they move after the Depression because they lost their farm?
. Did they come after the Dust bowl when 1/4 of mid-section of country moved,
mostly to the coasts?
. Did they come to learn a trade as an apprentice?
. Did they come because of plentiful work in the city.
. Did they immigrate and want to live near fellow countrymen?
4. Locate the ethnic or religious groups.
5. Get a timeline of the city your ancestor lived in.
. Begin Rural if possible.
. Did the city grow up around your family or did they move there?
. Locate a timeline of the city and state you are researching
. Gather clues from family lore.
. Begin with less common surnames.
. If your ancestor is John Smith, look for his brother Amos Smith.
. Cluster genealogy can be a key factor in your success in Urban research.
. Make a checklist of records that are available.
. Go through the records thoroughly -
. Compiled sources will possibly need to be searched - be careful here and look
for supporting documentation.
. Identify the Jurisdictions- Different jurisdictions kept different sorts of records.
. Locate a map of the record keeping areas of the city.
. “A Handy Guide to Record-Searching in the Larger Cities of the United
States”, by E. Kay Kirkham - on microfiche at FamilySearch Catalog -
Best Big City Sources
Vital Records - These were kept earlier in cities than in rural areas
Film fiche also available for cities.
Libraries, Courthouses, or a Genealogy Society
City Directories – These exist in many eastern cities from the early 1800’s.
Always use these in conjunction with other sources.
. Before Phone Books
. Not everyone was listed, and not available for every year.
. Large cities in the early 1800‘s, mid size cities in the mid 1800’s.
. Kirkham’s book [fiche # 6010059] is a guide to city maps with boundaries of
wards drawn in. Finding the ward will narrow your search down to a few
blocks. These listed:
o Name, occupation, others in household, street address.
o Puts family together at one address
o Indirect death source - widow is specified
. Ward boundaries
. Map of the city
. Directory of churches and cemeteries
. Classified list of businesses
. List of fraternal and social organizations
. More likely to be mentioned if a tragedy occurred or they opened a business.
. Obituaries were often placed in as ‘filler’.
. Ethnic newspapers very helpful. They may cover more than one county and
readership may have been from many parts of the country.
. Look for other family buried with/near them.
. Get sexton records if possible.
. Cemeteries were planned by cities as they tracked disease and population
Library Catalog - City Locality Search. The catalog is going to get better and
. Occupations - Cities had larger number of professionals and trades people
often were members of guilds [true in England also] and guilds kept records.
. Medical Records - Cities kept medical records to track disease.
Immigration - Did the city grow up around your family or did they
. Census is your clue to immigration.
. Look for land records
. Did your family move to a big city after coming to the US?
. Locate every year possible and note address, ward, and district.
. 1850-1870 Cities were divided into Wards
. 1880-1940 cities were divided into Enumeration Districts
. Some cities had special census such as 1890 NYC Police census
. Who lived near them?
. Occupations help sort out common names
. Can try searching for just last name - or just first name.
. 1900-1930 census gives year of immigration
. Cities kept records of persons needing and receiving assistance.
. Asylums and Prisons were more often located in large urban areas.
Libraries - Visit them first online
Know what you want to look at and how you will access the information before you
. Know about the collections they have.
. Can you take pictures, or bring a computer?
. Do they have scanners/copiers available
. Hours and days they are open/closed.
. Do they have places nearby to eat? [Google Earth]
. Ethnic periodical - help trace immigrant ancestors
. Historic journals - daily lives of your ancestors.
. Lineage societies -Such as DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution]
society members have to prove lineage, with documentation. It is also a
good place to research collateral lines.
Periodicals Often include:
Biographical Sketches, Cemetery Lists, Church Records, Court Records,
Deeds,Funeral Home Records, Maps, Military Enlistments, Naturalization,
Obituaries, Passenger Lists, Probate Records, Vital Records, and Tax Lists.
To Help You While You Research
- Have a timeline of your ancestor handy.
- Refer to a timeline of the major events of the city and state you are working in.
- Keep a map of the city jurisdictions handy.
Finding Aids for Records
org Learn Tab
Find a Grave
Look under Card Catalog
Compiled Sources – use with other records
Search subject field for Hamilton Family.
Results come from libraries across the US
PERSI Periodical Source Index
Index of genealogical and historical
magazines locate through Heritage Quest
using your local library and your library card.
Google Books books.google.com
If a book is in public domain you may
Internet Archive www.archive.org
Huge collection of digitized material some
which are primary sources, others compiled.
Do a surname search in the Library Catalog.
170 million names and growing
Ancestry - $ www.ancestry.com
Also at your FamilySearch Center Free
World Vital Records - $
Also at your FamilySearch Center Free
Helps find unpublished sources that might
only be on a local level.
Family Finder – Database of 300 million
Is part of Ancestry, but is free. Surname lists,
message boards and published family trees.
Godfrey Library - $
Free at your FamilySearch Center
Kindred Konnections $
Great Surname Site
Genes Reunited - $
Largest UK site with over 650 million names
Build of One Name Studies
8,000 registered UK surnames
New England Historic Genealogical
Society - $
Not just for New England, but England,
Canada and for any family that lived in New
England for a time.
Use surname and words genealogy family
trees. These sites are only as good as their