One of the most useful, but lesser known resources at, is their vast collection of city directories.   City directories offer a small glimpse—a year-to-year census if you will—into your ancestor’s life.  I have used city directories to help me determine:
  • Where an ancestor is located in a census record
  • When an ancestor died
  • When an ancestor immigrated to the United States
  • Who an ancestor’s parents were

This article will give brief examples over all of these, then take you through the simple steps of finding the city directories for your ancestors online!

I know my ancestor should be in this Census record, but where is he?
We’ve all had the experience before—we know Great-Great Grandpa should be in the census record, but he is just not there!  Sometimes, we get lucky and finally stumble across what we think might be his name, butchered by a transcriber (who had no knowledge of the surnames of the area, or the peculiar spelling GGGrandpa brought over with him from Europe.  To determine if an ancestor was in the census record you are looking for, check a city directory)!  Once a street address is obtained, look in the beginning of the city directory for that street name to find out the ward it was in, as well as other streets it was by. This can significantly help you while looking through the census records.

I can’t request my ancestor’s death record until I know a more specific death date…
New Jersey is one of the states that require a specific death year to order one of their death certificates.  This can be especially hard to determine if your ancestor died somewhere between the 1880 and 1900 census gap. If this is a problem you are having, a city directory can help!

I’ve come across three different ways a directory can help pinpoint a year of death:

1) Your ancestor disappears from the directory listings for a good 5-year gap.  This of course, is not fool proof (your ancestor may have just moved to the neighboring city), but can give you somewhere to start.

2) Your ancestor’s widow is listed.  Generally, until the early 1900’s, city directories only listed males that were of-age.  Females were only listed if widowed, often stating this to be the case.  For example, while following Peter Stucky through the Newark City Directories, his sudden death was discovered when in 1860, he was no longer listed, but instead was listed:

“Elizabeth Stukee, widow Peter, h.144 W Kinney”

Since Peter had immigrated after the 1850 census, but died before the 1860 census, using a city directory was vital in tracking him down.

3) Your ancestor is listed with a date of death.  Now this is a great find! While tracking the Meroth family of Boston through the late 1800 city directories, I came across this 1880 listing:

“Ferdinand Meroth, died Sept 17, 1879”

Having this death date immediately explained why he could not be found in the 1880 census, and prompted me to look in the 1880 mortality schedules, leading to other great finds.

I can’t find my ancestor’s immigration record. I wonder when he came over?
Maybe you have found two or more immigration records of someone with your ancestor’s name.  Which record was him? City directories are wonderful for narrowing down a date of arrival for your ancestor.  For example, while looking through city directories, I could not find John Rupprecht during the 1840’s, but eventually came upon him in the 1850 Newark City Directory.  Knowing he was there by 1850 helped me find both his naturalization record and his immigration record.

I can’t identify my great-grandmother’s parents. Could they have lived nearby?
I came across this problem recently. Death records of a son had identified the mother’s maiden name, but I had a hard time finding her by that name in all census records before her marriage.  Though it took a little more time and study, using the city directories is what finally cracked this case.  I used the city directories and Google Maps to map out where her husband lived at the time of their marriage.  I knew her maiden name had been Stucky, so I also mapped the locations of the Stucky families listed for the same year.  From this, I discovered that an Albert Stuck was living just around the corner from her future husband.  All other Stucky’s were in far-away neighborhoods.  This gave me the clue I needed to eventually find her living with Albert Stuck in an early census, where she was listed by a nickname with an age a few years off!  No wonder she had been hard to find!

*Tip: If the street name is not coming up on Google maps, more than likely, the name has been changed over the years.  The beginning or end of city directories usually holds a detailed street map of the day. Look there!*

What Else Can I Use a City Directory For?
1) If you are looking for a slightly uncommon surname, take the time to write down every one of that surname starting with the earliest City Directory available. Chances are, the other people listed were siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or even grandparents to your ancestor.  Writing down their name, occupation, and address each year can help you notice trends in common occupations, or if they live close together.

2) Look for what occupation your ancestor is doing.  Who knew great-grandpa had his own Private Investigator business for a few years?  The city directories did!

3) Notice how often your ancestor moves.  I found a man once who moved his family 16 times in 25 years!  It suddenly became clear they had struggled financially, and helped me understand why they had to hire their daughters out as servants at such a young age.

How do I find these City Directories on

There are two ways:
1)  Do a general search for your ancestors name and location:

  1. Type your ancestor’s name and location into the search screen
  2. On the left hand side, you will see “Schools, Directories, & Church Histories”
  3. Sort through the findings

2)      Do a specific search for your ancestor:

  1. Hit “Search” at the top of your screen
  2. On the right, under “Special Collections”, click “City & Area Directories”
  3. On the right, under “Featured Data Collections” hit “U.S. City Directories”
  4. On the right will be a drop down menu.  Choose your state, city, and year
  5. Since they are alphabetical, estimate the page your ancestor will be on, type it in to the upper right hand corner page finder, then flip through the pages like a phone book.

Since names were often misspelled in the 1800’s, I have found the second option most useful in finding ancestors.  (For example, sometimes the name “Rupprecht” did not come up in a general search for Newark, because the name had been spelled “Ruprecht, Rueprecht, Roprekt, or Robrecht” that year).

If the city directory year you are looking for is not found on, try back in another week (they are always updating!), check with your local library, or request a copy of the film from the Family History Library.

By incorporating an often overlooked resource, you may just find the key to busting down your own brick walls. Good luck in your search!

originally published 5 August 2011 on

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