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:

GenealogyBank Search Tip: Search U.S. Newspapers by City or State

Want to search the local newspapers from only one state, city or town? It is easy to do that in GenealogyBank.

GenealogyBank's list of U.S. states for selecting newspapers to be searched

GenealogyBank’s list of U.S. states for selecting newspapers to be searched

In the middle of GenealogyBank’s homepage is a list of all 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia. Simply pick the state you want to focus your genealogy research on.

In this example I will use Ohio. Once I click on the Ohio link, it brings me to a page listing all 131 Ohio newspapers currently in our online archives. The newspapers are divided into two main collections: Newspaper Archives and Recent Obituaries.

GenealogyBank landing page to access its 131 Ohio newspapers

GenealogyBank landing page to access its 131 Ohio newspapers

Click on the top link, Search Ohio Newspaper Archives (1801 – 1991), to search all of the back issues of our Ohio digital newspaper archives.

search form for GenealogyBank's Ohio newspaper archives

Search form for GenealogyBank’s Ohio newspaper archives

Use these search forms from the U.S. state newspaper archives to search newspapers from only the specific state you are researching your family history in.

Want to search newspapers at the city or town level?

That type of local newspaper search is also easy to do in GenealogyBank. Each state search page lists all the cities and towns in that state for which we have newspapers.

Simply click on the name of the city or town. In this example I will pick Cincinnati, OH.

search form for GenealogyBank's Cincinnati newspaper archives

Search form for GenealogyBank’s Cincinnati newspaper archives

Now you may search all of Cincinnati’s local newspapers as a group, or check the boxes to search only the newspapers that you select.

Use this approach to narrow down your search geographically when there is a specific state, city or town where you want to concentrate your genealogy research.


New Site for Searching old Georgia Newspapers 1752-1947

Searching California Newspapers

GenealogyBank has created a special site for searching California’s historical newspapers.

This site includes 41 newspapers from 1719 to 1922 – from 11 cities.

Genealogists have been heavily searching these early newspapers:
Alta California (San Francisco) 1850-1861

GenealogyBank adds new search tools

GenealogyBank has added new search capabilities to speed up your research.

These new features let you:
1. Limit your search to only the most recently added content
2. Search multiple states at the same time

3. Search multiple cities at the same time
4. Search one newspaper or multiple newspapers at the same time
5. Narrow search by article category

1. Limit your search to only the most recently added content.
This feature let’s you limit your search to the content added in the last 3 months. Simply select from the drop down menu to search only content added in February through today; in January through today or in December 2008 through today. This handy feature let’s you search only the most recently added content.

2. Search multiple states at one time
Previously you could limit your search to one state – now you may limit your search to any number of states. Simply check the states that you want to search.

3. Search multiple cities at one time
This handy features allows you to narrow your search to all of the newspapers published in a specific town or towns. Simply click on the state and a new map and list of cities will appear. Check the city or cities that you want to search. You may search one or multiple cities from the same state.

4. Search one newspaper or multiple newspapers at the same time
This new feature let’s you search only a specific newspaper or select multiple newspapers that you want to search. This feature let’s you focus your search and saves you time.

5. Narrow your search by article category
I have saved the best for last. Once you have done a search in the Historical Newspapers – a new column appears on the left side of the screen. This featue let’s you select out only the article categories that you are looking for. For example you could select: Birth Notice – and then see only your “hits” that were birth announcements. Or you could select to see only the advertisements; shipping notices; marriage announcements etc.

To see how this works – take the tour below or go directly to GenealogyBank and start searching.

Genealogy Bank – New Features Added Feb 2009