In this final installment we are going to be looking at 4 very advanced tips to find information when all else has failed. In 10 Tips For Researching Census, City Directories, Street Guides Parts 1 & 2 I introduced you to 6 professional-grade research techniques that allow you to locate any ancestor who was living in a city or town that kept city directory listings. A few of those tips are even designed to help you deal with tough cases.
To round out this comprehensive guide the last 4 tips will involve more indirect research techniques, those aimed at acquiring corroborative information. These are powerful investigative techniques to basically treat looking for an ancestor who lived in a particular city during a particular year as a ‘skip trace.’ While this mindset may seem extreme it’s basically utilizing secondary and tertiary bits of information to substantiate someone’s existence.
Everyone leaves a trace, there are clues everywhere to be found if we only put in the time, effort, blood, sweat and snot to find them.
7. The Love/Hate Relationship With Forms
No one likes filling out forms! It’s tedious and time consuming and the thought of filling out an application usually sends me into a spiral. However, historically speaking, they are snapshots of information about a person in time and the foundation of our civilized world. As a family historian, I LOVE forms!
Knowing that forms contain biographical information, it’s not enough to simply ‘add’ a record into your database without first thoroughly comparing it to every other relevant piece of documentation you have and seeing what those collective sources say in concert.
For example, I was able to confirm an ancestor’s address at a specific location in a specific year using city directories and his WWI draft card. Using forms I was also able to substantiate that while this same person applied for and was granted US Citizenship, his wife did not. Those are very basic and simple examples of how forms can assist your research.
More complicated examples would be how one of my great-grandfather’s ship name was incorrect on his naturalization paperwork and that only through careful pouring through other application forms was I able to find the correct ship name, and by extension, finally get a hold of his ship’s manifest with his name on it.
Another of my favorite examples is coming across a Civil War application file that was 32 pages long on one of my ancestors which finally confirmed many points about his life and movements that I had suspected but never confirmed. I have to say, I love those moments.
For each of these complicated examples it took corroborating at least 5 different forms! There are so many more cool examples I’d love to share as well.
8. Map Nerd Alert!
I’m a big ol’ map nerd, I love maps, I love place names, I love visualizing the movements of my ancestors across time and space. I think I’m just a big ol’ nerd in general.
If you are looking to squeeze every bit of information about that elusive person on your timeline that you created using city directory information, try plotting out each of their addresses on a map and see if there are any other facts you can pick up on.
There are 9 addresses in red on the map above, all of them are the locations of my great-grandfather between 1910 and 1923. Only after 1925 did he and his family finally settle down to a single location. I became the master of the city directory because I had to track him, his wife’s family, and their cousins’ families, all of whom moved quite a bit during their early years in America.
They all worked their butts off and sacrificed everything they had for their families to be able to succeed. To go from gentle, country farmers to factory workers in downtown Fair Haven must have been a shock to say the least; however, it is a confirmation of their fortitude and industriousness that they created success out of such opportunity.
In any case, in using this map technique try and overlay different people or families using different colors. I had spectacular results with this on several occasions. For several branches of my family I was able to pinpoint a great(x) grandfather and a great(x) grandmother living within social proximity to one another a year before they got married! In the map above, I was able to replicate those results.
You can apply this tip to census data as well in conjunction to city directories and street guides. For this, see Part 2 of this series.
9. Make Sure You ‘Address’ The Problem
What maps and city directories represent are social spheres. Where people lived in the early 20th century was pretty much their realm of existence and life could be very rigorous for families consisting of work, church, and family functions.
One of the nuances of peoples’ lives that is brought to life using maps is allowing us to visualize their neighborhood and the array of influences that people and places around them would have had on their daily existence. Having a catalogue of various addresses where your ancestor lived is important because you may also want to see who else was living there at the same time.
Always look for similar names on a city directory, and if you’re lucky to come across one, a street guide. As children became adults and entered the work force, they were listed on the New Haven, CT city directories at the same address as their parents. This is trackable data.
Other family or related individuals might show up only on a single year at the same address as your ancestor and that’s something you need to consider following up on to make sure it’s not an anomaly. Often times it’s the small clues that linger in the back of your head that lead to the greatest discoveries.
The trick here is to always look for people with the same address on any page in a city directory. Make sure you keep track of the years that have street guides, write that list down somewhere so that you can always refer back to it in a pinch.
10. Boarders And Neighbors
One of the great mysteries I’m currently working on is trying to figure out the identities of 3 boarders on my great-grandfather’s 1910 census records. Our last useful tip is similar to #9 but involves the use of census data regarding boarders and neighbors, basically approaching the issue of being able to know more about a subject by who they associated with from another angle.
These 3 boarders that were listed on the 1910 census were not in the 1910 city directory. Therefore I was able to glean a bit more information on my family through an alternate source. One of the boarders had a surname similar to that of my great-grandmother’s maiden name so that left me with an additional clue.
The other mystery are the identities of my great-grandparent’s neighbors, all of whom were Lithuanian. A great tip is to try and track the ethnic data of who your ancestors lived around as immigrant families would normally want to form bonds with others that spoke their language and understood their social norms. These would be families they might intermarry with and socialize with. It’s about familiarity in a golden land of opportunity.
I have yet to decipher who these neighbors are and what their relationship to my family was. Maybe there was none but my gut is telling me otherwise and I have to follow up on that. Censuses, city directories, and street guides are like geysers of information just waiting to be tapped, there is an overflow of genealogical information to be extracted if you just know how. Hopefully these 3 articles will lead you to that success.
CHECK OUT ALL 3 ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES: