Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Finding an Ancestor's Address

How many times this week did you give someone your address or directions to your home? I know I did once, at least, in conjunction with checking out books at the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library. One interesting phenomena is that we all have a tendency to think that the past was somehow "less complicated" than the present. This seems to extend to our views about our ancestors. Apparently, many of us believe that no one ever sent mail to or visited out ancestors because we cannot seem to find exactly where they lived. If you think about it for even a few minutes, what about tax assessments, military recruitment, insurance information, doctor visits and hundreds of other contacts our ancestors had with the world in general? Did all these entities and agencies just automatically "know" where your ancestors lived?

In reality, there are layers of historical documents that might provide the exact address or the location of the ancestor's farm. Sometimes, finding the specific location where an ancestor lived can make the difference between identifying the right family and going off on a wild goose chase down an unconnected family line following someone with the same or similar name. I recently wrote about using directories, but there is a lot more to be said on this subject.

One time, at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, a patron came in with a piece of paper and handed it to me, asking what it was. I looked at it and replied that it was a copy of a parish register, probably from England. After explained what a parish register was, I suggested that the document gave the ancestor's address. The patron seemed surprised, not only that the document contained that sort of information, but that the ancestor had an address. This short scene is not an anomaly. In my experience, very, very few researchers take the time to establish the exact address of the location where their ancestors lived. Many are seemingly content to know their country of origin (even when that is wrongly identified). Even more, record the district, state or province and leave it at that. Most of the time, the place where a person lived is identified only by the standard, "city, state, country" asked for on the forms.

To some, looking for the exact address of an ancestor may seem excessive and unnecessary. But it many instances, the correct identification of an ancestor may only be possible when the addresses or similar location information separates them out as individuals. Granted, as we go back in time, this task becomes more and more difficult, but in many cases, fixing the location of more recent ancestors resolves the difficulty as the researcher goes back in time. My daughter recently positively identified the English parish where an ancestor originated. This fact alone opened up the entire line to further research.

For the past 100 years or so, if I want to know where an ancestor lived, I can simply look up the ancestor in a directory. Here is Utah this task is relatively easy. For example, here is a statement from regarding Utah City Directories:
About Utah City Directories

This database is a collection of city directories for various years and cities in Utah. Generally a city directory will contain an alphabetical list of its citizens, listing the names of the heads of households, their addresses, and occupational information. Sometimes the wife's name will be listed in parentheses or italics following the husband's. Often, dates of deaths of individuals listed in the previous year's directory are listed as well as the names of partners of firms, and when possible, the forwarding addresses or post offices of people who moved to another town. In addition to the alphabetical portion, a city directory may also contain a business directory, street directory, governmental directory, and listings of town officers, schools, societies, churches, post offices, and other miscellaneous matters of general and local interest. 
To see what cities and years are currently available, view the browse table above. Begin by selecting a city of interest. Once you do that you'll be able to see all the years that are currently available for that city.
Here is an entry on for my Great-grandmother, Mary L Morgan, living in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1934.

I certainly do not want to give the impression that directories are the only answer to finding the exact address of an ancestor. In fact, I suggest that the following types of documents can contain exact location information in addition to directories:
  • Employment records
  • Military records
  • Land and title records
  • Tax records
  • Court records
  • Legal notices
  • Immigrant records
  • Institutional records
  • Cemetery records
  • Mortuary records
  • Probate records
  • Census records
  • Vital records
  • School records
  • Church records
Once you get started with this list, remember that in each category of records there are many, many sub-categories. 


  1. Also newspapers had postmasters' "left letters" lists that may give a stream, business or person as the "in care of" address that appeared on messages that were not picked up or delivered. Such data might also be known to the postmaster rather than in the message address.

  2. Does anyone know by chance if those letters that were not picked up or delivered were kept somewhere that would be available to look at today or were they destroyed after a certain amount of time. I often wonder if they still existed today somewhere.

    1. What is and what is not kept at the Mail Recovery Center is on this webpage

      Here is another link with more information