U.S. Urban Research

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Family history research for ancestors living in big cities in the United States involves the same research processes as in other places but adds opportunities and challenges.

Sources To Use

Use the following sources while researching families:

  • City Directories
  • Church Records
  • State Census Records
  • Newspapers
  • Immigration Records
  • Naturalization Records
  • City Maps
  • "A Handy Guide to Record Searching in the Larger Cities of the United States" by E. Kay Kirkham can be found in the Library Catalog fiche # 6010059, where it can be viewed online.

Characteristics of Big Cities

Residents in large U.S. cities share the following characteristics:

  • Many families rent their home or apartment. A smaller percentage of the population are found in the land, probate, tax, and other records involving property.
  • A lot of residents are new immigrants
  • Many people are looking to move
  • Neighbors are less likely to be relatives than in rural areas

Other considerations:

  • The wide economic span--the city will have very wealthy residents and very poor residents.
  • Big cities have ethnic neighborhoods and communities. Families may move to be closer to a church congregation or ethnic group.
  • Big cities offer a variety of churches and congregations.
  • For health reasons, registration of births and deaths began sooner in big cities, but many people were missed.

Research cautions:

  • Search the indexes and records carefully because different people can have the same name.
  • More people were overlooked in vital records and other local records.
  • City and county officials may have kept separate records, some of which overlap. Check the vital records in both jurisdictions.

U.S. Cities Through Time

As an example of big cities in U.S. history, here are the ten largest for the years 1790, 1840, and 1900.

The Largest U.S. Cities in 1790

  • New York City (NY) had 33,131 residents
  • Philadelphia (PA) had 28,522
  • Boston (MA) had 18,320
  • Charleston (SC) had 16,359
  • Baltimore (MD) had 13,503
  • Northern Liberties (PA) had 9,913
  • Salem (MA) had 7,921
  • Newport (RI) had 6,716

The Largest U.S. Cities in 1840

  • New York City (NY) had 312,710 residents
  • Baltimore (MD) had 102,313
  • New Orleans (LA) had 102,193
  • Philadelphia (PA) had 93,665
  • Boston (MA) had 93,383
  • Cincinnati (OH) had 46,338
  • Brooklyn (NY) had 36,233
  • Northern Liberties (PA) had 34,474

The Largest U.S. Cities in 1900

  • New York City (NY) with 3,437,202
  • Chicago (IL) with 1,698,575
  • Philadelphia (PA) with 1,293,697
  • St. Louis (MO) with 575,238
  • Boston (MA) with 560,892
  • Baltimore (MD) with 508,957
  • Cleveland (OH) with 381,768
  • Buffalo (NY) with 352,387