By James W. Petty, A.G., C.G.R.S.

New York City. Philadelphia. Chicago.

These are names that can strike terror in the hearts of many genealogists. Millions of people. Millions of names. Millions of records. Waves of migrations passing through. People get lost in places like these. The very thought of research is intimidating. These are BIG CITIES.

There are dozens of “big” cities in the United States, each unique in their history, government, and records. But the same concepts for genealogical research apply to all of them. Some cities are so big that they supercede the governmental jurisdictions above them. Instead of simply being in a county, they become their own counties. Some cities seem big enough to be their own state, or even their own country.

An old philosophical concept asks the question “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is simple. “You cut it up into many tiny pieces, and eat it one bite at a time.” The same truth applies to genealogy research problems. There is no reason to feel intimidated about researching a “big city” just because there were many people and many records. If a city is so big that it seems to be like a county, state, or country, then treat it as such. Break it down into smaller pieces, or jurisdictions, and study it one piece at a time. A large city may actually consist of several smaller communities, each with their own set of neighborhood and cultural characteristics. New York City, for example, consists of several boroughs, which are actually separate counties in the New York governmental system. And each of those boroughs numerous smaller communities. Smaller jurisdictions for a city may also consist of church congregations or parishes.

For genealogical purposes, “large cities” are considered those which were the dominant, defining cities in the United States prior to 1900. After that time vital records registration on the statewide basis became standard in all states, and most details of birth, marriage, and death can be obtained through those respective governmental sources. Many cities that are considered “large” today, were merely “larger” in the 19th century. Transportation, communications, and new industries have changed the face of this and other countries drastically during the past century. When we think of large city research, we are thinking of communities where it is necessary to depart from the traditional approach of searching standard federal and county sources in order to find an ancestor. In large cities, city governmental jurisdictions may supercede county jurisdictions and records, and certain city records may be needed to properly search other county, state, and federal sources.

Nearly all of the big cities prior to 1900, were either major ports, or centers of industry. Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Buffalo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle were all major ports either for trade or immigration. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Dallas, were centers of industry. Only a few cities might have been classified as “big” based primarily on their position in government. Most notably would have been Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Other cities at that time, while certainly important, and bigger than other communities around them, would not fit into the classification that we consider as “large cities”.

A misconception that many researchers may have is that in places where there is a high-density population, it is less likely to find detailed information for an ancestor. The idea exists that information recorded about an individual may be abbreviated, to save time when recording data where a large number of people are involved. Actually the opposite may be true. In larger populated areas, bureaucracy tends to grow with the population. More people require more jobs; more jobs require justifying the need for those additional jobs. Justifying means keeping more records, and requiring records means a greater demand for more clerical jobs, and so the system grows. In a larger populated area, there is a greater need for identifying individuals; therefore this need demands more information about people to better identify them. Studies of naming patterns in societies have theorized that as populations became larger it became more common to find middle names, or other descriptive insignia used to differentiate one person from another. In a smaller community there is less of a need to define who “John Smith” is, because everyone in town knows who he is. In a larger community there may be a hundred “John Smiths”, and the need exists to define who each of them are for legal purposes.

This need for identifying individuals is reflected in records. In early vital records, it may have been sufficient to simply record “John Smith was born June 10th, 1650”. As more John Smiths appeared in the population, defining criteria were added to the records; names of parents, residences, occupations of parents, and other identifying information were requested. As a population grew, the need for identification wasn’t limited to vital records. In fact, in most communities vital records were seldom, if ever, recorded; and the recording of birth records was actually the response to the need for identifying people.

Today, whenever parents register children for school, or to play community sports, they are required to provide copies of birth certificates to establish the identity of the child. When driver’s licenses are applied for, bank accounts set up, loan papers processed, or job applications filed, some form of identification is required to establish proof of identity. It is a way of life for us. But it wasn’t always that way. As populations increased, it became more and more necessary, not just to identify people, but for people to identify themselves. Identification was needed for banking privileges. Without proof of identification a bank account could be emptied by anyone using another person’s name. Voting rights required registration, because without identification people could go from precinct to precinct, and vote as often as they wanted if identification wasn’t required. These examples are representative of all society, but large cities are microcosms of society in general. Vital records, voter registration, business licensing, and other records or record keeping methods developed earlier or more quickly in large cities.

A researcher approaching a large city problem needs to consider the research like an artist considers a painting; but instead of evaluating the project for light, color, perspective and style, a researcher needs to study his project for other qualities. He needs to understand the history; why did a place become a big city? What drew people there? What kept them there? What events occurred that makes this place unique from other cities? He then needs to determine what records exist, where they are, and how accessible are they? Then, most importantly, he needs to ignite his imagination. As with any research, imagination is the most important tool a researcher has. Successful research doesn’t come from simply following a list. The researcher needs to be able to place himself onsite, in the shoes of ancestor he is studying. Where did he live? Who were his neighbors? What church did his family attend, and where was it? What was his occupation, and where did he work? “Where” is an important question in Large City research. A person lived within a few blocks of several churches; which did he go to? In a city a person’s entertainment would have been close at hand. Did he belong to a lodge? Did he visit a pub? Did he have relatives close by? Where? What was his relationship with the Law? What medical facilities were there? What cemetery was the family buried in? Did he read a newspaper? In which language? Did his children go to school? Where?
Not all questions are going to find answers. But the more questions an imagination can produce the better the chance of finding answers.

I- Governmental Jurisdictions.

Most “large” cities were not Capital cities; or perhaps it is better to say that most Capital cities were not “big” cities. The point here is that being the center of government didn’t necessarily mean that a capital was going to be the predominant city in a state. This is very evident in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Texas, Illinois, California, and Washington, just to name a few. With regards to genealogical research, this means that in most cases the records of the state are not intermixed with the records of the city. However, in some places, such as Charleston, South Carolina, the opposite is true. Charleston was formerly the capital of South Carolina, and was the center of records for the whole state prior to the capital being moved to Columbia.

Although most big cities are not capital cities, many of them are centers for governmental records. The National Archives Field Branches are established in eleven of the major metropolitan areas, namely: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Governmental jurisdictions is an important matter in research in these cities, because many major cities and metropolitan areas operate as governmental entities independent from the standard governmental structure of the cities, counties, and state around them. They have their own systems of courts, and municipal offices to manage their affairs, and research in each city requires an understanding of the courts and offices of that locality. In some states, such as Virginia, whenever a city achieved certain requirements such as population, it became incorporated as an “independent city”, meaning that it could function as though it were its own county within the state; filing deeds, probating estates, maintaining vital records, etc.

In some cities, jurisdictional boundaries are confusing because they overlapped, or were duplicated. In New York City, marriage records were filed in the city clerk’s office; however, the Mayor also performed marriages, and a separate record of his marriages were recorded in that office. In Boston, state vital records are kept and recorded for all towns and communities for the state, but the City of Boston maintains its own records independently, and the state and city records may not match. In Philadelphia, marriages are recorded by county jurisdiction, but births and deaths are recorded by city jurisdiction. However, the city overlaps county boundaries, so while some vital records are recorded for the whole city, marriages may be found in different counties. In New York City, this matter became so much of a problem that in 1901 five counties all became incorporated as part (or boroughs) of the larger City of New York. While New York City, Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester, and Staten Island might be regarded as separate communities, in many of their record keeping systems they operate as one large community.

Traditional research sources, such as probate and property records, vital records, and court minutes and files are used and maintained much as they are in other archives, but there may be aspects of the records that need to be considered in Large City research. For instance, fewer people are able to buy and sell their homes in a large city than in a smaller community. Therefore, more people are involved in leases and mortgages in the larger community. These records are often separate from the deeds in the big cities, and particular focus on leases and mortgages should be made by researchers.

Storage of records can also present a problem. If records are not on microfilm, locating the records wanted or needed might be a special challenge. The big cities constantly struggle to find storage facilities for their records. Space is at a premium, and records may be located quite a distance from the office that they pertain to, even located in different buildings, or even out of town in storage warehouses. In such cases, simply requesting a search by correspondence may not accomplish what is needed. Some clerks may even deny the existence of records rather than consider searching for them. If it is believed that records exist, but the governmental officials are not able or willing to access them, it may be necessary to visit the archives to make a search personally, or hire an agent to make the search.

II – Identifying Sources and Collections.

A key to discovering information is determining what records exist and where to search for them. Each major city has its own “special collections.” Many of these metropolitan areas also have research handbooks that have been written specifically for them. For example, the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, under the direction of John Daly, published a Descriptive Inventory of the City and County records of Philadelphia (FHL # 974.811, A3d). This is an excellent guide for research in any big city in that it provides an example of the records of various governmental agencies, and helps a researcher discover many of the different and unusual sources that can be found in the vast array of city records.

Another such guide is Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area, by Estelle M. Guzik, editor, (Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc., New York City, NY, 1989) FHL # 974.71, A3ge. This volume provides details not just about governmental records, but also cemeteries, newspapers, private collections, libraries, ethnic archives, businesses, churches, and dozens of other useful sources. Chicago, and Cook County – A Guide to Research, by Loretto Dennis Szucs (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996) details information about sources throughout the Chicago area. Not only are lists and addresses of record sources cited, but descriptions of communities within the city, and the cultures are explained. And constructive descriptions of the records are given to help the researcher. Similar guides exist for New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and other cities. As stated, these guides can apply in general to all major cities, giving researchers ideas about sources for which to search in whichever city they may be studying.

Major cities are also the “hub” for the areas around them, even though they may not be governmentally connected to those areas or associations. For instance, Swedish settlements dotted the Midwest in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and elsewhere, but some of the principle Swedish ethnic and historical societies are in the Chicago area. The most obvious example in Utah, is Salt Lake City, which as the headquarters for the LDS Church, has records collections spanning the world.

Another published guide of particular importance is the Gale Encyclopedia of Associations, 33rd Edition, Christine Maurer and Tara E. Sheets, eds. (Detroit, Gale Research, 1997) FHL # 973, E4gr. These two volumes, and an additional index volume, provide a guide to many types of businesses, libraries, clubs, associations, fraternal groups, and archives that might have records that can assist genealogists.

Libraries, Archives, Historical Societies, and Genealogical Societies area are also important repositories of records and information, and the principle guide for such organizations is the Directory of Genealogical and Historical Societies in the U.S. and Canada, Dina C. Carson editor (Niwot, Colorado: Iron Gate Pub., 1998) FHL # 970, C44d.

Study guides for different cities, not just the city where your problem is. Some record sources may seem unique to an individual city, but in actuality may be something found in many different places. Finding a source in one city may
Lead to finding similar sources elsewhere.

III – Immigrant and Ethnic Records.

Most of the largest cities are also ports. All of them are centers of ethnicity. Federal immigration records, passenger lists, passports, naturalization records are important sources for searching for families. An important feature about locating ethnic ancestry in port cities is that many families were scattered in different ports, and studying immigration records in several large cities can help in locating family origins overseas. Immigrants often arrived in fractured groups meaning families may not have arrived together, but came in waves, one or two at a time until all that were coming had arrived. Big Cities were collection points. People settled in the port of entry to prepare for their further move inland. Brothers and sisters, or cousins, with their families, were drawn to each other at these places, where they could find work and get support that they could build upon. Successfully tracing an unusual name from a foreign origin often requires gathering information on many different families of a common surname in a port city, and finding their common connections.

Ethnic communities in America banded together for support, and groups in major cities often formed their own neighborhoods and support groups. The Gale Encyclopedia of Associations is important for this research. Fraternal organizations and clubs, Insurance organizations, and ethnic archives are often found in big cities. Gale’s helps in locating these. While current records may be closed for privacy reasons, earlier records, such as with insurance groups, and fraternal societies, often provide detailed information about names, dates, birthplaces, parentage, and other family connections. Non-English newspapers appeared in such communities catering to the interests of the specialized communities, and news about families, obituaries, and connections back in the old world were important for tying communities together. The Encyclopedia Of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals In The United States, by Lubomyr R. and Anna T. Wynar (Littleton, Co.: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 2nd ed. 1976) FHL # 973, E4w, and Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media Associations, Karen Troshynski-Thomas, ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1995) FHL # 970, B34a, are excellent sources of identifying current publications in metropolitan areas. Also American Newspapers 1821-1936, by Winifred Gregory (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1937) FHL #Q970, B33a, provides a listing of early newspapers, many of which can be located in archives, and libraries on microfilm.

IV – Directories and Maps.

Two items necessary in any big city research are maps and directories. As mentioned, “where” is an important question in large city research. In a large population center, people were often transient. They might never leave the city they lived in, but they seldom owned the buildings they lived in. As their families, or their financial circumstances changed, they moved from place to place according to their needs. People could move across the street, or around the corner, and seemingly disappear from the genealogical record. Where ancestors lived in relationship to churches, synagogues, businesses, lodges, schools, hospitals, and other facilities are important to a researcher.

City Directories, which lists names and addresses of residents of a city are like annual censuses. Such volumes identify a person in relation to the people and institutions around them. In addition to names and addresses, directories provide information about occupations, neighborhood and political boundaries, and descriptions of streets and avenues. With these tools a researcher can follow a person throughout his life, identifying the people he lived with, associated with, and the work he performed. He can identify the churches his subject attended; the schools his children went to; and learn about his community. Directories often provided current maps of the changing city; generally showing governmental jurisdictions, detailing ward and district boundaries, as well as the streets and other community identifications. Maps of the city are necessary to pinpoint where an ancestor was in relation to others; to trace him through enumeration districts and wards, identify where churches were, and pinpoint whole families. In a city the size of New York City, a simple street map is insufficient for locating a person in census records, and maps have been published showing election districts, which often comprised only one or two city blocks.

City directories often provided references vital records such as deaths and marriages. Spouses are often named, and entries appear showing that a woman was the “widow of ___.” Entries of widows can also be used to determine the approximate year of death for their husbands. Sometimes death dates are actually stated. Deaths may also appear in Necrology lists as an item in the directory. Relationships may also be deduced or suggested in the name lists of the city directories. As children reached legal age, they often were listed as separate listings, “boarding” at the residence of their parents. Thus if several individuals of the same surname appear with the same address, it may indicate a family relationship. These lists also often refer to individuals showing their place of occupation. A “father and son” partnership, or “Brothers” adjective on a business name establishes a probable relationship. The business section of a directory may include advertisement information identifying family members. The name lists of the directory may also indicate when a family has moved out of the city, even identifying where the family has moved to in some cases.

In large cities, use of the directories is often necessary for locating families by their addresses in census records, especially where common names are at issue. The 1880 and 1910 Censuses, and various state censuses such as the New York censuses of 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925, have incomplete indexes or no indexes at all, and locating individuals in a large city would be very difficult without the use of city directories. The directories in these cases, identify the boundaries of civil wards and election districts in given census years, making it possible to identify street addresses within those boundaries. Some directories, such as the Polk series, provided both name lists showing alphabetized names and their accompanying addresses, and address lists showing names as they would appear in address order on each street. Such a list makes it possible to locate families in the post-1900 censuses quite easily.

V – Churches and Cemeteries.

Religious records and cemeteries take on a whole new image in large cities. Research problems in large cities means dealing with dozens, perhaps scores of congregations in a small geographical area. It is important to be able to determine the geographic boundaries of church congregations. City directories can help in this regard. However, directories of churches, or yearbooks, are often available through public libraries, or bookstores. U.S. Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide, by Virginia Humling (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1995) is an example of a research guide. Catholic records are often gathered and archived by a Diocesan archives and can be searched through a central location. Or a researcher can be directed to a local church, or archive. Many other religions have similar services and guides.

Cemeteries are generally located outside the boundaries of large cities. Many early cemeteries have been moved or consolidated with other cemeteries. Some churches have connections with specific cemeteries, or groups of churches may have united in the use of particular cemeteries. Numerous directories of cemeteries have been published, and also directories of Funeral Homes are available. Funeral home records may also be available on microfilm, or might be found with a current business. Earlier funeral homes may have been purchased by competitors and their records may be found combined with the records of the group that took over the business. A family or groups of families, or even communities may have worked with specific funeral homes, and identifying that home and finding its records could help in identifying valuable information about the family in question. A well established funeral home can provide a researcher with good information, not just about their clients, but they can direct a researcher to the most likely cemeteries, and the sextons of those cemeteries for further information. A funeral home is likely to have experience with cemeteries and churches throughout the reaches of a large city, and can save hours of searching.

VI – Civil Records

A vast array of sources are available through civil government. As mentioned, large city governments often take the place of, or duplicate county governments. Consequently searches in court records, land records, probate files and other such records that are commonly found on a county level may also be found in some large cities. In such cases, research should be conducted as it would be with any series of county, state, or federal court systems, and as this discussion deals with the unique qualities of large city research, details of how to search court records will not be covered. However, it should be noted that because of the usually large and concentrated population of a large city, there may be additional levels of civil courts to carry the high caseload of each court system.

One of the unique qualities of large city research are the variety of civil departments and facilities for which records were kept that may not have been present in smaller communities. Health and medical facilities, welfare services, permits and licensing, and police and law enforcement records are all areas for researchers to consider in their studies. While some terms seem modern, they still describe activities and records that were prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Large cities had to deal with serious outbreaks of disease. Hospitals scarcely met the needs of the teeming population. While most of the wealthier social class could afford private medical care, the poorer and inner city residents depended on the hospital, which were often more dangerous to the health of their clientele because of the lack of proper medications to treat the contagious diseases that inhabited their facilities. Many of the records of these hospitals have survived and may be available on microfilm. In Philadelphia, a volume exists that is called the “Prostitutes Register – 1863”. This is actually a medical record kept by the city pertaining to venereal disease. It provides a listing of hundreds of women, listing ages, birthplaces, dates of immigration, places of origin, number of children, and more. It is a sad record of seamier side of society, but it is a marvelous record in that it provides a wealth of information not available in any other source for that time.

Alms Houses, welfare offices of the past, were essentially hospitals in the larger cities. Records identifying the poor inhabitants of those facilities often provide vital record information, as well as family relationships, and personal data about individuals. These records, as well as other records relating to the welfare of the poorer classes are generally available for researchers.

Coroner’s reports provide accounts of deaths by accident, suicide, and murder. These records provide very descriptive accounts of death, often providing relationships, and details about the lives of the deceased that would not be found elsewhere. Other records pertaining to crime and law enforcement, include police blotters, criminal files, information kept by the police departments. These records are often kept in police libraries and law libraries rather than with civil court records. Other records relating to criminal cases are kept in the individual civil and criminal court case files.

Licenses and permits relating to certain professions and businesses began to be kept in the larger cities during the 19th century. Generally regarded as forms of taxation, these were required both to identify and regulate business, and also to raise the money to provide that regulation. Ministers and medical doctors are among the earliest licensed professions. Initially such licenses required only a listing of the names of the permit holders, but later records required more personal information including birth dates, birthplaces, information about education and background. Growing business regulation led to detailed records about business owners. Horses were a big part of pre-automobile business in the larger cities. Individuals who were in hauling and transportation industries were required to license their animals.

VII – Educational Records

Large cities tend to be centers for higher education. Colleges and universities are located in many of the larger cities of the country. These institutions may be private or operated through state funding, but most such institutions maintain records pertaining to their students and faculties. Some of the larger colleges have published lists of their graduates, often with summaries of their background and accomplishments. Records may include information about the families of students as well as personal information about the student himself.

Records of secondary schools, public and private may also be available. Civil records often include school censuses, identifying students each year, and providing details about their ages, and parentage or other relationships.

VIII – Private and Institutional Records

As with education, large cities were the natural centers for all manner of businesses and industry, as well as private interests. Railroads, shipping, banking, livestock, and manufacturing industries established national or regional offices in the larger cities and those cities became the hub of their activities. New York was a center of Banking and Shipping, Pittsburgh was the center for steel and iron production, Chicago was a hub for livestock. Hundreds of thousands of people were attracted to the larger cities because of those industries, and they worked in or with ties to those cities. Many of the businesses that remain today have their own archives and libraries connected to either a college or university, or connected with their own business headquarters. Other companies and organizations that are no longer in operation, may have turned their records over to companies that bought them out. Or their records may be in the collections of historical societies or museums, many of which are located in or close to the major population centers of the country today. Some banks have records of their depositors dating back to the eighteenth century.

Private non-business institutions were also active in larger cities. Fraternal organizations, as well as Heraldic and Heritage societies established temples and lodges, to provide for the social and entertainment needs of their members. Masons, Woodmen of the World, Knights of Columbus, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, the Descendants of the Mayflower, are but a few of the organizations that gathered and kept records of their members, and members families. Many of these organizations maintain membership records that are very helpful to genealogists.

IX – Newspapers and Publications

Every large city is noted for their newspapers and periodicals. Each is represented by dozens of publications, each representing their own unique take on the news of the city they were in. Larger newspapers provided information about national and international events, without focusing on the local details, but most of the publications were smaller community issues that told of the people in their area, or ethnic culture. Details of individuals in society; births, deaths, marriages, reunions, separations, and all manner of public gossip filled their pages. Ethnic and cultural newspapers are often overlooked in research, but may provide a wealth of information concerning the people and society they represented. Some newspapers in these larger cities have been indexed by historical societies. Buffalo, New York, and San Francisco, California are two good examples where early newspapers have been indexed and made available to the public either on microfilm or fiche.

Big City Research Methodology.

Big City research isn’t different from research in any other geographic area, as long as the researcher understands the scope of the research. As mentioned, research in a Big City like New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, can be likened to doing research in a separate state, or a small country. A genealogist doesn’t decide on researching Virginia and begin on one end and work towards the other end. That understanding is the same in New York City. There are so many people in a small area, and so many records to search in Big City research, that the researcher has to narrow the scope of projects, record by record, or by name, or else plan on spending more time than might be spent in other geographic areas.

Before jumping into a major city to conduct research, a genealogist needs to find out about the cultural make up of the community. In Chicago, immigrant Italian families settled in “Little Italy” on the West side of town, and the Irish settled in south Chicago. Understanding this can help in searching directories and maps, church records, censuses, and property records. Traditionally, genealogists look for families grouping together in communities. In Big Cities, a half dozen related families can live within a mile of each other and be twenty census divisions away from each other. Consequently the tactics of research have to change.

In traditional U.S. research, property is the dynamic force that society revolves around. In Big City research the focus is directed towards neighborhood politics. Society revolved around the local church or synagogue; the fraternal halls, and the sweatshops of inner city business. Government was operated through city hall and the police departments.

Tracing ancestors in the New Yorks, Philadelphias, and Chicagos of America can be an exciting and rewarding experience. Researchers simply have to adapt to the change of scenery; and combine their study with imagination to uncover clues on the treasure maps of genealogy in the Big City.

The key to successful research is having a good imagination. This is especially important in Big City research, because so many useful records are available if one can think of them. Business licenses may provide birth information. Voter Registrations can be very useful for finding out about individuals. College and School records can provide relationships as well as vital information. Other useful sources include prison records, police files, and coroner’s reports.

(Bio: James W. Petty has been active in genealogy for 31 years. He has worked for the Family History Library in Field Operations and as a Senior Consultant, and has conducted business throughout the past 30 years under the name of HEIRLINES.)

Submitted by Mary E. Petty, BA (History)

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