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City Directories: Mapping Ancestors

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The topic today focuses on using information in city directories for mapping ancestors. By the term mapping ancestors, I am referring to using a variety of maps to help pinpoint where your ancestors lived using different types of maps.

Since December 2016, I have discussed using City Directories for your research.  Previous posts in this series are:

Also, in June, I talked about Sanborn maps, which is relevant to today’s post.

Although today’s post is about using information in city directories, you can also apply the same methods for mapping ancestors using census, or possibly tax, information. However, this will only work if you have their address. City directories work very well for mapping your ancestors because they give addresses for those who are listed and the street directory gives information on the owner of the home. As with past posts in the series, I’ll continue using information on the Pettiford family.

Let’s get started….

Mapping Ancestors


There are many tools out there to help you with mapping ancestors. Three good tools are the Sanborn maps, the North Carolina Map Collection through UNC-Chapel Hill, and Google Maps using street view feature. Also, street directories sometimes include maps that show the layout of streets as they existed at the time.

Getting Started

First things first. Find the years you have addresses for your ancestors and then see what maps existed. For instance, Years of the Raleigh Sanborn maps are 1884, 1888, 1896, 1903, 1909, 1914. I cross-referenced those years with the years of the city directories.

Comparison to Sanborn Maps

The Sanborn maps for Raleigh are not yet online from the Library of Congress, so there are two other options. If you are a North Carolina resident, you can use NCLIVE to view the maps, but there is no color-coding to learn about the building itself. If it is important to learn about the construction of the building or if you live out of state and want to view North Carolina maps, go to the North Carolina Map Collection through UNC-Chapel Hill and choose the tab for Sanborn Maps and see them in full color.

In 1887, Roscoe L. Pettiford worked as a tinner at 224 Fayetteville Street. On the index of the 1888 Sanborn map, 224 Fayetteville Street is on sheet four. Looking at the Sanborn maps online, you need to zoom in quite a bit in order to read the building numbers and any text about a building. After viewing that sheet of that map set, we learn that 224 Fayetteville is located in the heart of downtown Raleigh. On the Sanborn map, it shows this building housed multiple things: an armory on the 3rd floor, storage area on the second floor, and it appears the first floor is divided into a hardware store (“Barber As Hardw”) and an insurance office (“Ins. Off.”). If you look at the key to Sanborn maps and the then look through the UNC-Chapel Hill collection, you see this is a brick building.

Comparison to Modern Maps

If you’ve been to downtown Raleigh, you probably know that area of Fayetteville Street is full of restaurants and cafes. I am curious which business this is as it exists now. I walk down Fayetteville Street several times a year for lunch. Next tool I use is Google Maps and type in the address 224 Fayetteville St Raleigh, NC. Using the street view feature, I can see the building is used as office space and right next door to one of the many restaurants on that street.

 The above is just one of many examples that can be used for trying to determine where an ancestor worked or lived. The State Archives of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have many Sanborn maps in full color to look at. City directories for North Carolina towns and cities can be found online at The Government and Heritage Library has many city directories for North Carolina and a few from neighboring states. Some are on microfilm that can be borrowed through Interlibrary Loan (ILL) through your local public library. Books can be viewed in-house.

One Comment

  1. Reference and Outreach says:

    Thanks for posting!

    NC Government & Heritage Library

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