Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Don't Just Cite Your Sources--Interrogate 'Em!

New York City directory listing for great-great uncle Joseph Jacob
Found a record? Cite your source. But that's not the end of the story.

Don't move on until you understand what, exactly, that source represents.

How was the information gathered, when, and why? What you learn by interrogating your sources may very well change your analysis of the evidence and how it reflects your ancestor's life.

City Directories Fill the Gap

A case in point: Old city directories, which I absolutely love because they can fill in the gaps between the years covered by U.S. and state census records. Many times (but not always) you can find city directories for FREE.

I use HeritageQuest Online (accessed online for free, with my local library card) when searching for ancestors in different cities.

If, like me, you're searching for ancestors in New York City, you can also browse the dozens of city directories posted for free by the New York City Public Library. I actually like to browse because it allows me to look for creative spellings, not rely only on indexing.

Date the Directory

Dates really count. Here, for instance, is one of the front pages from the New York City directory dated 1894.

You would think that means only 1894, right?

Nope. As shown here, the directory's contents actually end with people who were in the city as late as July 1, 1895.

In other words, your ancestor might have moved to the city in early 1895 and would still be listed in the 1894 directory. Or might have moved out in January, 1895, but could be listed in the 1894 directory anyway.

Note the underlined sentence saying that "names received too late for regular insertion are on preceding page." That means you need to check beyond the regular alphabetical listings to see whether your ancestor was included in the "late" names missing from the alpha listings.

Finding Great-Great Uncle Joseph Jacob(s) in 1886-1889

Today I was doing more research into my great-grandma's brother, Joseph Jacobs (1864-1918). Sometimes he's listed as Joe Jacobs, sometimes as Joseph Jacob, and other permutations.

I had previously found his naturalization index card, which shows him as a capmaker living at 49 Clinton Street on October 25, 1888. I also knew he was living at 49 Clinton Street when he married on March 2, 1890.

But when searching the New York City directory for 1888, I found Joseph the capmaker living at 103 Allen Street, "house rear" (see image at top), not on Clinton Street. Both addresses are on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, within walking distance of each other in a neighborhood filled with immigrants.

Digging deeper into the1888 city directory's date, here's what I found.

NYC directory for 1888 ends on May 1, 1888

It appears that great-great-uncle Joe was living on Allen Street sometime before May 1, 1888. Then he moved to Clinton Street later in the year. I checked the 1889 New York City directory (labeled as covering the year ending May 1, 1889) and found Joe on Clinton Street, as expected. 

Finally, I checked the 1886 New York City directory (for year ending May 1, 1887) and found Joseph Jacobs, caps, on Allen Street, as he had been earlier.

Every time I use a city directory, I'll have to check the time period covered. Otherwise, I may place an ancestor in the right place but at the wrong time.

PS: The NY Public Library has a helpful page about what to look at in city directories--see here.


  1. Excellent analysis. I once found a widow AND husband in a census record. What?? How was that possible? When I read the instructions for the enumerators, I saw that they were to include anyone who HAD been alive that year. So yes, interrogate!

  2. Great advice - learning about the sources is just as, if not more, important as citing them!!

  3. Great lessons here! Now I'm wondering about city directory entries I found before I knew how closely I should examine sources (can you tell I've found some old mistakes recently?).