Tuesday, May 8, 2012

City Directories: More Than Just Names

I'm sure that we have all used city directories at some point in our genealogical research to find out where an ancestor lived, but have you ever looked beyond the list of names? You can learn a lot about the community by looking through the rest of the directory and you may just find your relatives mentioned in an unexpected place. Here are some of the things you might learn.

History: Many city directories, particularly earlier ones may describe the settling of the town in addition to features of the land and soil. The 1869 Kalamazoo directory, for example has a history of Kalamazoo as well as histories and descriptions of the various townships in the county. If you have ancestors who were early settlers in Kalamazoo county (I don't, but surely someone does) then you might find them mentioned here.

County Officials and Institutions: In addition to local government officials, you may find a list and/or brief description of libraries, churches, cemeteries, schools, societies and unions. These entries also often include the address and sometimes their officers and the days they meet. The 1906 Kalamazoo directory even lists “secret and benevolent societies.” This always amuses me because I can't help but think they are not “secret” anymore. We have all heard of the Masons and the Knights Templar, but have you heard of the Prudent Patricians of Pompeii or the Tribe of Ben Hur? If your ancestors were listed as officers you now have a new place to search for records.

Businesses: A business directory can be quite interesting as well. If nothing else it provides a basic look at the local economy. The 1869 directory includes 23 lawyers, 11 washerwomen, whip and glove manufacturers, a hoop skirt manufacturer and a soap and candle maker. In 1899 there were nearly 3 pages of carpenters, over six pages of celery growers and shippers, 3 carpet weavers and more than a dozen cigar manufacturers.

Miscellaneous: The 1869 directory also has a section entitled “Notices of Enterprising Business Men” with a brief description of each. Here is yet another place you might find something to aid your family history research. Also included in this directory was the number of children in the school district (between ages 5 and 20) for Aug. 1868: 2646. It also names teachers for 1869 by school. The 1906 Kalamazoo directory even lists parks and “places of amusement.”

I have found three Kalamazoo city directories free on the internet: 1869, 1899 and 1906. All three are available from Google books. The 1869 directory can also be downloaded from www.archive.org. Both the Kalamazoo Public Library and the WMU Archives have complete runs of Kalamazoo city directories (some of these also include a county directory). Keep in mind that directories were not published every year. The WMU Archives also has a run of directories for the “Kalamazoo suburban” area from 1966-1976.

In addition to Kalamazoo area directories, the WMU Archives also possesses extensive holdings (hard copy and microfilm) for Battle Creek, Cold Water, Benton Harbor, and Greenville. They also have many years on microfilm for Grand Rapids. Many of these are now available on Ancestry Library Edition to which both the KPL and the WMU Archives subscribe.

The Van Buren District Library also has some city directories for Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties, most of them from the 1900s.  For a listing of these sources click here.

The Kalamazoo Public Library also has several city directories for Three Rivers (mostly from the 1940s and 1950s).  The Three Rivers Library also has a complete run of directories for that city.  To learn more read my post here.

To see which city directories are available online for other cities where your ancestors lived a good place to start is the Online Historical Directories Website.

 To see how city directories can help you answer some ancestor mysteries read my post Clues in City Directories.

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