Jun 3, 2010

Creating a Time Line From City Directories

I recently created a time line to track my great grandfather's location from 1900 to 1926.  I found this to be a great tool for organizing my information.  I had all kinds of bits and pieces of information and clues for him scattered over this time period.  But once I put it together all in one place and in chronological order it was much clearer.  I knew exactly the years he was missing and the data I needed to confirm.

The most important source I used to fill in blanks for my time line was city directories.  Census data is great for finding the location of your ancestors but it is only every ten years.  A lot can happen in ten years.  Directories generally were published every year. Now each city will be different but for Pittsburgh they list individuals and businesses.  I was most happy to discover the occupation listed for individuals.  If a woman was employed her occupation was also listed.  Many times if she was a widow she would be listed as Doe, J. widow of John.  Adult children living in the same household were listed also if they were employed.

Ancestry.com has the directories of many cities.  Another place to check is your local library.  Many contain historical directories for the local area.  If you have ancestors from Pittsburgh the best site to search is Historic Pittsburgh.  Under Texts you can search the directories which go back to the early 1800's and up to the 1930's.  They have a wealth of other information also including books, photos, census records, and more.

A few tips for searching directories include the obvious--check all versions of spelling you can imagine. Generally just the first initial of the first name was printed so just search on the last name.  Also use " " for the last name.  

Here are some of the things I discovered about my Eugene Ellsworth Lammay (and others) from my time line.  He is my biggest brick wall who disappears from the census after 1910 and was said to come and go from the family in previous years.
  • Confirmation of the family story that Eugene owned/ran a saloon in early 1900's
  • 1908 Eugene is not living with family
  • 1909 He is back with family
  • 1912 No Eugene, confirms info from his father's obit that he was in Ohio
  • 1913-1915 His wife is listed as a widow, is Eugene dead?
  • 1916 Not dead! He is back as head of the family
  • 1920 His wife is listed as widow again but listed as married on census
  • Pinpointed the divorce year of Eugene's daughter Roxanne
  • Discovered my grandmother and great grandmother worked at a laundry in Pittsburgh
  • Pinpointed the death year of Roxanne's second husband
  • Pinpointed the death year of my great, great, great grandfather Martin Orth


  1. Excellent post! I love doing all my genealogical notes as timelines. With some of my ancestors I not only had census, newspapers, tax records and such, but I also had my great grandfather's diary that spanned 37 years from 1870 to 1907.

  2. I also enjoyed reading your post! City directories and the census are my two favorite sources. My husband gives me this weird look when I say I could spend the entire day looking through directories and the census. I can't imagine why...

  3. I love city directories. My family thinks I'm strange because I even pick up phone books in hotels when we are in other states, just to look at the surnames! I've found tons of great information in city directories, and even confirmed residency for several ancestors that didn't show up in the censuses.