How to Research City Records to Find Your Urbanite Ancestors

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this blog post, Duncan provides search tips to help research your ancestors who lived in cities and large towns.

Lots of people are and were attracted to big cities in the United States. This can be for the employment possibilities, the anonymity, the concentration of like-minded or ethnically similar individuals, the amenities, the energy, or plenty of other reasons. For genealogists, researching ancestors who dwelled in big cities presents different challenges from researching ancestors who resided in more rural environments. Trying to define the identities of similarly-named city dwellers can be complicated. Here is a look at some of the unique challenges and resources for urban research.

photo of the Chicago skyline at sunrise

Photo: Chicago skyline at sunrise. Credit: Daniel Schwen; Wikimedia Commons.


In rural areas it is a little easier to untangle the 25 Smith families that lived in Boone County than it is to untangle the 750 Smith families that lived in New York City.

Urban areas also have higher concentrations of ethnic and immigrant families. The record keepers did not always speak the language of these individuals, and their names can be wildly misspelled as the overworked clerk tried to hear through the accent. This is especially applicable in port cities, although all big cities are places of movement and migration.

Single people appear more commonly in big cities than in rural areas. Without other family members appearing in the same record, it can be challenging to know which John Parker is the one you are looking for.

To identify individuals in urban areas, it becomes much more important to know their occupation. This helps to separate out identities of similarly-named individuals as well as record entries where the name has been misspelled.

Cities have occupation records. These might come in the form of employment records for large corporations, membership records for social or occupational clubs or unions, and so on. These can be somewhat tricky to track down since the records do not belong to a governmental agency.

Home Address

Knowing their home address can also help. However, it is important to keep in mind that people moved quite frequently in cities. Often people were renting and would move on when the rent increased or their landlords called the lease. The first day of May is a traditional moving day. Although they may have moved frequently, city dwellers often tried to stay in the same area where they had friends, work, and other social ties. This is where maps become especially important. What may seem like major moves across two or three enumeration districts may actually only be down the block from the previous residence.

Municipal Records & City Directories

It isn’t just the people that cause difficulties. How we use records is different between rural and urban areas, and which records are most effective changes. In rural areas, land ownership records are often vital to resolving genealogical problems. In big cities, it is much less likely that the individuals owned land. On the other hand, it is much more likely that urbanite ancestors appeared in city directories and that those directories still exist.

Big cities generate more documents and records than rural areas. They were often the first to institute death and burial records to deal with the increased health hazards that exist in cities due to pollution and overcrowding. When an epidemic sweeps through a large city, the number of affected people is much greater. The demand for cemetery space increases and these municipal cemetery records are often well kept and available. Unlike a rural area where Grandpa Simon was buried in the back forty, cemeteries were well-defined and essential services in cities.

Also, health officials were beginning to track epidemics, and death records with the cause of death became an important part of their research. They also needed to track population growth, so birth records became important. These things happened much earlier in the cities than in the country.

Church Records

Churches existed in greater abundance in cities. This means it may be more difficult to track where an urbanite ancestor attended church, but it also means that the records may have been better preserved. They are not as likely to be stored in the secretary’s attic as is sometimes the case in more rural areas. Urban churches had to function more like a large corporation in order to deal with the number of parishioners. It may help to look in a newspaper for articles about church functions that mention your ancestor’s name. This is a quick way to narrow down the search for the right church.

Newspaper Records

While newspapers in big cities didn’t run the same country gossip columns for poor and middle class citizens, they still contain a lot of valuable information about these groups of people. Legal notices and police blotters in the newspapers can lead to research in valuable court records.

Our ancestors ran ads in newspapers. Newspapers were able to set low prices because they ran paid advertising. Even a small business owner or sole proprietor could take out an ad to increase business. There are also classified advertisements, which list a person’s address. If the person was selling work-related items such as welding tools, you may be able to get clues as to their occupation. Classified ads were the Facebook posts of the day. If a person was looking for tools, equipment, or other items they may have run a “wanted” ad. If they lost something, they may have run an ad with a reward for the recovery of the item. All of these are particularly useful in urban research.

Although big city research can be challenging, it is also easier than some people might think. Be patient and methodical – discover what city records are out there, and search them carefully. Good luck finding and documenting your urbanite ancestors!

Related Search Articles:

Genealogy Checklist: 13 Types of Records to Include in Your Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides a handy tool to help with your family history research: a checklist of 13 types of genealogy records that you can use for each ancestor you search for, to make sure your research is thorough.

After conducting online searches through your favorite genealogy websites, you may feel like you’ve hit a brick wall. This is understandable—it’s easy to become overwhelmed with multiple databases and lose sight of what sources might help you answer your research question.

Before you decide you’re facing that brick wall, consult this checklist of frequently-used family history sources. A checklist of sources can help you plan out your research and keep track of where you have searched. Print this out for each individual you search for, and refer to it as you research your family history.

illustration of a magnifying glass

Illustration: magnifying glass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

1) Census Records

One of the first places we often look for our family is in the U.S. Federal Census. The census should be your go-to source for trying to place your ancestor in time. The census was taken every 10 years starting in 1790. (However, the 1890 census was largely destroyed.) Because of privacy concerns, the latest census you can access is 1940.

As you think about your ancestor in the census, don’t forget that other census schedules exist aside from the familiar population schedules. Depending on the year, you may also want to consult the Mortality, Agriculture, Slave, Veterans and Defective, Dependent and Delinquent schedules.

Also take a note if the state your ancestor lived in conducted a state or territorial census. Not every state participated in such a census and in some cases a state may have only conducted one when it was still a territory, but a state census can often yield additional information not compiled in the federal census.

2) Church or Synagogue Records

What religion was your ancestor? This is important, especially considering that in some cases a religious record might take the place of a civil registration. What records should you look for? The answer is: it depends. It depends on where your ancestor lived, what religion they practiced, and what still exists.

Records that might exist include those that document baptisms, christenings, marriages, and deaths. Other religious records include: cemetery records, school records, censuses, meeting notes, membership lists, pew deeds, adoption records, excommunications, church periodical articles, directories, and church auxiliary records. Exhaust religious databases found online like the selection found at JewishGen. To find church records, consult the individual meeting house and then archives associated with that religious community, including academic institutions and seminaries. Also, consider conducting a place search in the Family History Library Catalog.

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3) Court Records

Even if you think your ancestor would have no interaction with the local court, don’t overlook searching at least the civil case index for their name. Our ancestors were involved in all sorts of legal matters, and it’s a myth to believe that only our modern society is “sue happy.” Some items to look for include minutes, orders/decrees, judgments, case files, indexes, criminal proceedings, naturalizations, and divorce petitions. Learn more about what court records exist by reading the book The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood. Note that you can also find court case files and courtroom transcripts in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives.

4) Death Records

Death results in a lot of paperwork. Sure, there’s the death certificate—but that’s just the beginning. There can be paperwork from the hospital, funeral home and cemetery. What other paperwork can be found? Death certificates, newspapers (including articles, legal notices, funeral notices, death notices and obituaries), funeral home records, pension records, church records, cemetery records, court records (to include a will or probate or in the case of an accident there might be a lawsuit), Coroner’s Inquest, city directories, and the Social Security Death Index. Notices from membership directories and publications may also offer clues.

5) Home Sources

Every genealogy project should begin with home sources. These are the heirlooms and “stuff” inherited and passed down through the generations. Sometimes just talking about your interest in genealogy will alert family members that you would be a grateful recipient of items that they have inherited. What are some possible home sources? Correspondence, newspaper clippings, photos, scrapbooks, diaries and journals, family Bibles, naturalization paperwork, funeral home cards, and work- and school-related papers. As you try to find home sources, don’t forget to use social media to connect with long-lost cousins who have also inherited heirlooms.

6) Land Records

Did your ancestor own land or a home? You’ll want to search for a grantee/grantor index, deeds, mortgages, patents and grants. These records can be found anywhere from the Family History Library, a local courthouse or a county recorder’s office, to the National Archives. Make sure to plan out what you are looking for and search online for what entity has that record.

7) Major Life Events

Let’s face it, a birth or marriage can result in all kinds of documentation. Everything from home sources (think baby books and photo albums filled with greeting cards and descriptions of the big day), to official government records (vital record certificates) and church records. Don’t forget newspaper articles about the actual event (birth or marriage) as well as articles about the engagement, elopement or milestone anniversaries. Marriage records that could exist include: banns, bonds, licenses/applications, and certificates.

8) Military Service Records

Did your ancestor serve in the military? If they were a soldier at any point, think about searching for military service records, pensions, bounty land grants, awards, draft registrations, unit histories, battle histories and maps. Been told that all of your ancestor’s military records burned? Make sure to check for a Final Pay Voucher and ask your recent vets about the DD214 which lists information about their service including awards earned.

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9) Historical Newspapers

Many of the life events we have mentioned were reported in newspaper articles. But don’t forget that your ancestor could be mentioned in all parts of the newspaper, including legal notices, advertisements, society pages, crime reports, and other general articles. Not sure what types of articles exist? On the GenealogyBank Blog we focus on a variety of newspaper articles and how they can assist your genealogical research.

10) Occupational Records

Even if your ancestor was “just a farmer,” an occupation can leave behind a paper trail. Consider items like paycheck stubs, occupational periodicals, union records, membership cards and records to professional groups. Mentions of occupations can also be found in the city directory.

11) Published Sources

There are many different types of published sources that can assist you throughout your family history research. In some cases, like that of unsourced family history books, they may be just a place to gather initial clues. In other cases, however, they can provide you with definitive information to confirm your ancestor’s place in time, such as city directories.

Make sure to consult biographical works on your ancestor or their associates, county and local histories, and periodical indexes like PERSI, Google Scholar and JSTOR.

12) School Days

What schools did your ancestor attend? Even if they only attended for a few years, records may be available. Consider what may be available from attending an Elementary, Secondary, High, or Vocational/Trade school, as well as a College or University. Papers may in some cases be found in the home, but also could be found in an archive or the Family History Library. Look for yearbooks and alumni directories, school newspapers, articles about school awards and events in local newspapers, award certificates, report cards, and school census records.

13) Tax Records

We all know the saying “nothing is certain but death and taxes,” and that is as true for us now as it was for our ancestors. Why search tax records? They can not only establish a place in time for your ancestors, but they help you better understand their lives.

Some ideas about tax records that could exist are: poll, personal property, real estate, income, federal, inheritance, and school taxes. Don’t forget that the newspaper also printed lists of those who were negligent in paying their taxes.

Is the above list of 13 genealogical sources totally comprehensive? No, of course not, but it provides a handy reference for your family history research. As you plan your genealogy searches, also consider what libraries, archives, and museums exist where your ancestor lived. They may have catalogs that will provide you with additional sources that you may not have known existed.

You can either print or create a PDF version of this Blog post by simply clicking on the green “Print/PDF” button below. The PDF version makes it easy to save this post on your desktop or portable device for quick reference—all the links will be live.


How to Find Your Ancestors’ Church Records

Church records can be a terrific resource for your genealogy research. But if you’re not sure what church your ancestors attended, how do you know what church records to look for?

The denominations that families attended may have changed over the years. In some faith traditions, like Catholics and Mormons, it is important that the members of the church be baptized and married by the clergy of that church—so it is likely that your ancestors in those faith traditions made the effort to travel to the closest church within that denomination. In other faith traditions families may have felt some flexibility in which denomination they attended, often based on proximity or the appeal of a local pastor or congregation.

In looking for church records about your ancestors, start with the faith tradition of your parents and grandparents. Chances are that the family has attended the same church for multiple generations. But—there wasn’t always a Presbyterian or Baptist church in every town.

When I was growing up in Lower Gilmanton, New Hampshire, there was only one church in town: a Congregational church. It seemed then that every small town had a Congregational church. So, if you wanted to attend church in Lower Gilmanton, you either went to the local Congregational church or made a trip to Barnstead, Belmont, Pittsfield, or any of the other towns in the area that had a church of the denomination you were more comfortable with.

In the early 1960s a group of Baptists was organized in Lower Gilmanton and they wanted to meet in the Congregational church. It was agreed that they would rent it and hold religious services on Sunday afternoons. In this case two denominations shared the same building.

Genealogy Search Tip: Check the records of all of the churches in the area where your ancestors lived. Be flexible—just as they were—because they may have attended multiple churches during their lives. Since it was common for couples not of the same faith to marry, it is possible to find, for example, that the Methodist groom was married to the Baptist bride at the area Baptist church—and then, when they moved west to settle in Kansas, they attended the Congregational church.

I found one of my ancestors in the 1881 Canadian census. What do I do now?

I found one of my ancestors in the 1881 Canadian census on do I do now?

Good work. is a terrific free site – with helpful indexes like the 1881 Canadian census index.

You may see the original census page at a website put up by the The Library & Archives of Canada. It has the 1881 (and other) census records online – free.

New Brunswick Vital Records are online – free.

I copied out the index citations for Ella’s brother Charles and sisters: Agnes and Elizabeth.

But, now look carefully at these records. In the census – the mother’s name is: Mary and in these vital records it is given as Annie Stewart.

So, you need to determine – if these records are for the same family or not.

Questions you might ask:
1. Are Annie & Mary the same person?
Perhaps one name is her first name and the other her middle name OR perhaps Annie died and Stephen remarried a person named Mary before the 1881 census was taken.

2. Are these two different families with similar names?

The oldest child listed in the census – William – was born in 1862. So you want to search the Church registers from 1850 on to check for the parent’s marriage record and the records for each of the children.

Like the birth records from the New Brunswick Archives – the Church records should give the mother’s maiden name.

Notice too – that Stephen Jackson was born in England – in 1881 he gave his age as 45 – that would make his birth year as approximately 1836. Let’s hope that he rounded his age – since British birth, marriage and death records were started on July 1, 1837.

3. Your next critical question is: When did they leave Canada and emigrate to the United States? If they are in the US by 1900 – you will want to look for them in the 1900 Census.
If they are still in Canada in 1901 – then you want to search for them in the 1901 Census.

You may use the 1900 Census – free at FamilySearchLabs

You may search the 1901 Canadian Census at the Library & Archives of Canada.


Disciples of Christ Historical Society sustains severe water damage

DeciplesWorld is reporting that “the Nashville-based Disciples of Christ Historical Society suffered severe water damage the last weekend of April when what the organization believes was a faulty valve in the heating and air-conditioning system allowed gallons of water to pour from top to bottom of the half-century-old Thomas W. Phillips Memorial Archives that houses the society.” (See the complete article by Ted Parks. Disciples Historical Society sustains severe water damage).

“On Tuesday, staff packaged 115 boxes of damp items, including books, periodicals, church records, and video tape, for shipment to a company in Michigan that freeze-dries archival and museum materials to remove moisture. Out of the 12,000 cubic feet of material the society stores, only about 130 cubic feet of books and other items got wet and required repair, Harwell explained.”

The Disciples of Christ Historical Society Library contains “37,000 books, 35,000 biographical files, 25,000 congregational records, and 2,000 audio-visual items.”

Sara Howell, DCHS Chief Archivist sent me this link to other pictures of the damage.

Peruvian Vital Records 1874-1930; Spanish Parish Registers go online has put the birth, marriage and death records of Lima, Peru for 1874-1930; and the Ciudad Rodrigo (Spain) Parish registers for 1550-1930 online.

This has been my third blog posting today about new Hispanic family history records.

Earlier I wrote about the more than 230 Spanish language newspapers – 1808-1977 going live on GenealogyBank and that FamilySearch Indexing now has a Spanish language website.

GenealogyBank is the best and largest source for online Hispanic newspapers.

It’s a great day for Hispanic genealogy!

Peruvian Vital Records – 1874-1930
The civil registration records: births, marriages and deaths from the Registro Civil de Lima, Peru are now searchable on FamilySearchLabs. These records were digitized and indexed from 227 (35mm) microfilm in the vaults of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. For more information on Lima’s vital records see: Officina Registral Lima

Ciudad Rodrigo (Spain) Parish registers for 1550-1930
Roman Catholic parish registers from the Ciudad Rodrigo Diocese in Spain from 1550-1930 are now searchable at FamilySearchLabs. These records include baptisms, marriages, burials and other church records.

FamilySearch Indexing now available in Spanish

FamilySearch’s indexing system is now available in the Spanish language, giving Spanish speakers easier access to an enormous collection of family history resources.

Familysearch, a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, contains the world’s largest repository of genealogical records.

For longtime family history buffs, making the indexing process accessible in Spanish will make more of the Spanish language microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City available to genealogists.

Having the indexing system available in Spanish also gives volunteers who speak Spanish the opportunity to add indexing information to the Internet, opening up this opportunity to genealogists in Spanish-speaking countries.

Even a novice genealogist can register at and, after completing a simple tutorial, participate in the indexing process.

Designed for ease and efficiency, the indexing software allows indexing to be processed on a personal computer at home or any other location. Indexing projects are downloaded on the computer, and the significant data is entered in a tabbed format.

And because all of the information and instructions are now in Spanish, users are not required to speak English.

Numerous Spanish projects, including the 1930 Mexican Census, the 1869 Argentina Census and some church records from Spain and Venezuela, are currently available for online indexing.

Illustration: A page from the 1869 census of Argentina being indexed by Spanish-speaking volunteers at FamilySearch indexing. © 2008 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

According to Paul Nauta, manager of public affairs for FamilySearch, the time commitment to work on indexing is not significant. “A seasoned indexer could complete a census page in about 15 minutes, while a newcomer may take twice that long,” Nauta explained. “Volunteers may also work in short segments, saving their work online as they go. If they are unable to finish, the work is automatically assigned to another indexer, so not even 10 minutes of work would be wasted. We’ll take any and every effort,” he concluded.