by Beverly Tetterton

Where do you look for an ancestor who moves into an area after one decennial census and leaves before the next? What if they didn't stick around long enough to buy property? City dwellers, in particular, often moved into an area looking for economic opportunities and then moved on when prospects looked better somewhere else. The only record of their stay may be found in a city directory. Intended to promote business or generate sales these directories can provide a wealth of information about your ancestor whether they were permanent residents or just passing through.

Directories give the location of the person's residence and indicate if they changed residences often. You would be surprised how many families moved every couple of years. They lead you to the very street and possibly building in which they lived. Even if the structures they lived in are no longer standing you can at least walk the block where your ancestor resided and look into the history of the area of the city in which they lived.

Directories give the occupation of the city dweller and in some cases the name of the business in which they worked, ie., clerk for John Doe and Sons, Commission Merchants.

Besides name, address of residence, occupation and place of employment, city directories (depending upon the year) may reveal whether a person was a homeowner or rented, spouse's name, name of children, and number of years the family lived at the address.

You won't find everybody listed in these directories. Towns must be fairly large to warrant a city directory. Remember that they were produced to generate sales, not record inhabitants. Old cities like Charleston or Baltimore have directories back to the early 19th century. Wilmington, North Carolinas largest town and port city from about 1840 to 1910, has city directories from 1860 to present day. Directory companies went in and out of business, therefore some years may not be covered. Wilmington had directories for the following years: 1860-61, 1865, 1867 (two different companies), 1871, 1875, 1878, 1881, 1885, 1889, 1895, 1897, 1900-present day. [These directories are available at the New Hanover County Public Library, North Carolina Room.]

African-Americans can be found in the city directories from 1867 when they were listed in their own section. Thereafter and until mid-20th century their race is indicated by a "c." or an asterisk * after the name.

Another great feature of city directories is that you can look up an address and find out who is living there. This is particularly helpful if you are looking up the history of a house, business or just want to know who else lived on a particular street. Wilmington city directories do not have this cross reference until 1915.

In general, city directories provide a wealth of information about the times in which your ancestor lived. Most directories have a brief history of the area and current economic statistics, as well as indexes to businesses, churches, government offices, schools and other organizations and institutions._


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