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City Directories Research Clues for Busting Genealogy Brick Walls

Genealogy Research Brick Walls Clues in City Directories

City Directories are underutilized gold mines for genealogists seeking to learn more about their individual ancestors. They also provide clues to breaking down genealogy brick walls.

Are you fully utilizing genealogy city directories in your research?

City Directories Are a Gold Mine for Genealogy

It’s no surprise that I love City Directories. I blog about them. I make videos about the directories.

I lecture about the stories found in city directories. I'm even writing a book about using city directories in your genealogy research.

City directories help us determine how people are related, how they met, and what they did in life.

City directories also help me search for clues to better understand my genealogy brick wall questions. Before I can successfully research city directories, I need to define my research goals.

What Clues am I Searching For in City Directories?

What am I searching for in city directories that can help with my genealogy research?

First, I'm trying to establish that John Townley's timeline matches the early census records I've previously researched. These records can show when John arrived in Cincinnati, and hopefully, that is after 1830 and before 1840.

I have concluded that George and Major Townley are likely not brothers. I'm looking for more clues to validate this conclusion. I'm also curious to see if cross paths in Cincinnati, and if so, how.

1834 Cincinnati City Directory focused on the last name Townley
1834 Cincinnati City Directory. Notice how John's last name is misspelled.

Finding My Brick Wall Ancestor and Others in Early City Directories

It's not enough to find one entry of your ancestor in a city directory. You want to locate every instance of your relative in each available book.

In the chart below, you'll find my brick wall ancestor on the left. I discovered John in every available city directory. City directories were not produced every year, and not every year has a preserved city directory. For now, this research is sufficient for my needs.

Table of genealogy facts for a genealogy research report
Tracing John Townley, and possible kin in Cincinnati City Directories

Also, I traced George and Major Townley in this chart. I noticed a pattern that George and Major lived at the same residence and went into business together. In 1849, another Townley, named Edward, moved to Cincinnati and lived at the same home as George and Major.

This evidence further concludes that George, Major, and Edward are closely related to each other. Meanwhile, John Townley is a cousin at best.

I know that George, Major, and John are from the same state, if not the same town. They are all listed in the 1846 City Directory from New Jersey. This place of origin doesn't often happen in city directories. However, these clues are fantastic when you find them.

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Plotting John Townley's Address on a Map

Taking my research one step further, I decided to plot the addresses on a map. I wanted to visually see where the Townley men lived in Cincinnati.

I thought about creating a research map using Google My Maps, but I couldn't find Van Horn street on a modern map. This address applied to John Townley. I also struggled to locate some of the places where George and Major lived on a current map.

The 1842 City Directory did include a contemporary map. While I still struggled to find Van Horn street, I did find parallel streets to gain a rough idea of where John lived.

1846 Map of Cincinnati with dots representing Townley residences
1846 Map of Cincinnati with dots representing Townley residences

I can see that George, Major, and Edward cluster in the same location, suggesting a closer relationship than John. Each piece of evidence helps me understand the lives of the Townley men. Not only am I tackling my brick wall, but I'm also coming to really understand the life of John.

Just for fun, I also googled Van Horn Street in Cincinnati. I found a photo collection dated 1935, which you can see here. I'll admit this was a rabbit hole, but it was fun to see that Van Horn did exist in the past.

If at any time you would like the assistance of an experienced heir hunter or forensic genealogist, check out our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.

MyHeritage Speeds Up FAN Club City Directory Research

Since I'm already in the city directories, I wanted to explore the newspapers' probate notice that suggested that John Townley was a well-known insurance man. All evidence thus far points to his occupation as a bricklayer.

Using MyHeritage, I could quickly trace John through the 1860s - 1880s. I noticed that he lived at Van Horn for many years then moved to Barr Street. All the while, his occupation is recorded as a bricklayer.

List of city directory entries for John Townley on Myheritage
Notice how MyHeritage found all of these entries with a single mouse click!

By the way, I completed this research on MyHeritage in under a minute, which is impressive. The research I did in the table above took 1/2 an hour!

Researching the FAN Club

After quickly searched Major and George Townley and discovered more details about their lives. Major Townley stays in the lumber business, lives on Broadway, and works on Vine.

Meanwhile, George Townley moves to West 7th Street and becomes involved in an Insurance Company with W. E Townley.

George's connection with the insurance business and John's continued connection with bricklaying raised a suspicion. What if there is another John Townley in Cincinnati around the time of John's death in 1890.

1890 Cincinnati City Directory focused in on John Townleys
Three John Townleys appear in the 1890 Cincinnati City Directory.

Sure enough, I found two other John Townleys. On is John Townley, bricklayer's son John R Townley. The other is John A Townley, an insurance man living at 483 W Court, which was never associated with my 4th great grandfather.

If you want your own genealogy research plan template, get a copy of my Research Plan Template and print it out or use it online.

Time to Update the Genealogy Research Plan

While I have not broken through my brick, I have more evidence for the overall case. Plus, I have resolved a question triggered by previous research in newspapers associated with John's probate case.

  • I know that John and George Townley moved to Cincinnati, Ohio from New Jersey about the same time. They’re both there by 1833. They were not there prior to 1830.

  • That timeline aligns with John’s lack of appearing in the 1830 Census in Cincinnati but potentially being in Elizabeth, NJ.

  • I’m confident that George, Major, and Edward Townley are closely related.

  • John’s relationship with George, Major, and Edward is unclear.

    • Suppose my hypothesis is correct about the father of John being Effingham Townley and Rhoda. In that case, this aligns with that hypothesis as his brothers should be Richard, William, or Caleb.

I can add all of this information to my genealogy research plan. To view the updated plan, click the link below.

Devon Noel Lee pointing to video title Clues in Death Records

Watch this research plan development process in action in this video.

Additional "Using City Directory Clues " Show Notes

Continue learning about city directories and other resources for your genealogy quest through the following blog posts and videos.

Brick wall with family tree overlay and the words- clues in city directories
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