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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 17, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

City Directories

Q: You have mentioned "city directories" as a possible source of information. Please explain what these are and what information is to be found in them. Also, where can I obtain them? -- Tomas

A: City directories are alphabetical listings of inhabitants of a given city for a given year. City directories also include information about the civil divisions of a city, the churches and organizations along with when they meet. Some city directories, in addition to an alphabetical listing of the streets, may also include a street directory. Street directories show the house numbers for the street and then show the name of the person living in that house.

In the main alphabetical listing of inhabitants, entries will usually include the name of the head of the household, his or her occupation, the address of where he or she worked, and the address of the residence. There are variations on this theme. Some city directories may include the wife's name in parentheses. Some will include the race of the individual. Some arrange the inhabitants based on ethnicity.

The bulk of the differences come from the large number of publishers who generated these city directories over the years. In the 1800s it was not unusual to find a local printer responsible for the publishing of the city directory. One of the largest publishers of city directories for years has been the R. L. Polk company. The company was founded in 1870 and has been publishing city directories for years. This past year R. L. Polk was purchased by Equifax, a credit bureau company, though they continued to publish city directories. At the end of 2001, Equifax was purchased by Info USA. Nothing is known about the future publishing of city directories.

When looking for past city directories, a lot depends on the time period in question. If the year is 1935 or before, it is possible that the directories needed have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library and its many worldwide branch Family History Centers. If you are searching for a directory from a later year, it may be necessary to contact a public library in the city to see if they have it. To get research from the directory, if they do have it, you would either need to go there in person or hire a professional researcher.

Another possible avenue for more recent city directories would be the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They have an extensive collection of city directories. In the online library catalog, accessible from their Web site, there are more than 3000 entries for city directories. Again, it would be necessary to either go in person or hire a professional researcher to access these directories.

A final word about city directories. They do not exist for every city in the United States. They have been consistently published for large cities, such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and so forth, however, small cities or town in rural areas are much less likely to have a city directory. City directories are published based on sale potential today. Recently approximately 1700 cities have been enumerated and then only 1100 or so of those cities are actually published. You may also find that some cities have yearly directories while others do not.

Getting a Birth Certificate

Q: I have found my great-grandfather in the 1900 New York Census. I was happy to discover his year of birth hoping I could find out about his parents. I sent to New York for a birth certificate, giving them the month and year and there is no birth certificate. Also there is no marriage certificate of his marriage to my great-grandmother. Any suggestions as to how I can find him? -- Kathy

A: First, it is important to look at from whom you requested the birth certificate and when the birth took place. New York's attempts to record births, marriages, and deaths, have not always met with success. The state really didn't even attempt to require the keeping of vital records until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1880, a state law was enacted requiring the recording of vital records at the town or city level with a copy sent to Albany. Unfortunately compliance with this law was not quick.

If your ancestor was born in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Yonkers or New York City, it is possible that records were created before 1880, however, this often requires turning to the city to get them. Many of the New York City vital records up to about the 1920s or 1940s, depending on the record type, have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library. This may be another avenue to pursue.

If you found your ancestor in the 1900 census, I am assuming that he was an adult at that point. This leads me to believe that he was born before 1885. If he was born before 1880, you may want to search for him in the 1880 census. The Soundex for that census included families with children age ten and younger. You would need to look at each Soundex card for the surname of interest to see if a child with your ancestor's name and approximate age is listed. This approach only works if you are looking for a less-than-common surname. You would then need to follow this up by researching the potential parents to see if you can build a case showing their relationship.

You did not mention it, but the death record for your ancestor should also be sought. Most death records of the 1900s include questions about the names and possibly the birth places of the parents of the deceased.

I would first see about getting a copy of his death certificate. I would then look at the Family History Library Catalog to see what vital records have been microfilmed for the city where your great-grandfather was born. This may save you having to write to the city. Finally search the 1880 census if he was born before that year.

Scottish Prisoner

Q: I have looked for years for my immigrant ancestor, Robert Abernathy. He was a Scottish prisoner of the Battle of Worcester, sent by Cromwell. He was indentured for five years to the Virginia colony in 1651. He served the five years and married a Sara/Sarah Cubiche/Coppage in 1652. I descend from their son Robert, Jr. Have you any books to check to see if he listed? -- Ginny

A: Many convicts of the British Isles were transported to the American colonies until the American Revolution. Military prisoners were among those transported. An excellent book on this subject is Peter Wilson Coldham's Emigrants in Chains, A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and other Undesirables 1607-1776. It was published in 1992 by Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc.

In regard to your Robert Abernathy, there are two books that I immediately considered. In 1989, Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc. published David Dobson's The Original Scots Colonists of Early America 1612-1783. This was followed in 1998 by Dobson's The Original Scots Colonists of Early America Supplement: 1607-1707. Both of these books are arranged alphabetically. The first volume contains some 7,000 Scots colonists, many of whom were transported in chains. The Supplement makes specific mention to those transported in the 1650s as prisoners-of-war by Cromwell.

It was in the supplement that I find an entry for Robert Abernathy. Actually he is listed as Robert Abernethy, though in parentheses the surname is spelled Ebernethell, which according to the introduction of the book was the spelling as it appeared in the resources used. The entry for Robert mentions that he was in Charles City County, Virginia in 1652. The source cited for this entry by Dobson is George C. Greer's Early Virginia Immigrants, 1623-1666. This book was published by Genealogical Publishing Company.

Early Virginia Immigrants is available on microfiche through your local Family History Center. While it is available at the Family History Library, you will find that this is one of the titles that is part of the Family History Center Microfiche Project. This means that the five-card fiche is already at your local Family History Center, so you will not need to order it. The fiche number for this work is 6051247. If you ask your local FHC to show you this fiche, you will find some information on Robert in this work.

Unfortunately, you may find that no additional information is known about Robert. According to Dobson, there were at least 1,000 Scots who were transported and landed in Virginia as a result of Cromwell. However, documents regarding these individuals and their landing do not seem to exist. The entry for Robert has apparently been derived from other records. It is possible that Greer's Early Virginia Immigrants will clue you in to what resources were used. If you were hoping to find the name of his ship, you may be disappointed. My belief though is that I will check every resource that includes my ancestor. I just never know when I will turn up something that helps me in my research.

Finding a Link to Family

Q: How do I find a link to my third great-grandfather? I would like to know where he lived, when he was born and died and about his wife and so forth. -- Michael

A: Whenever you are researching your family history it is important to work from the known to the unknown. If all you have right now is the name of your third great-grandfather, then you will want to concentrate on getting more documents about your second great-grandfather. Through those records you are apt to pick up additional information on your great-grandfather.

In learning where your second great-grandfather was buried, for instance, you may discover that he was buried in a family plot. Further research in this family plot may reveal tombstones for your third great-grandfather and his wife. Tombstones often give birth and death dates or years.

If you know where your second great-grandfather was born, then you have a starting place for your third great-grandparents. At some point they must have been living there for him to be born. You can begin to search for records in the town and county where the birth took place.


Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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