* How to Research your Chicago Ancestors *
Chicago has such a rich history, and is so ethnically diverse, that it just begs you to search all the various goldmines around the city for clues to solving your family mysteries. Immigrants flooded the city in the mid to late 1800’s, which helped to shape the Chicago that we know and love today. Your ancestors could have helped build the railroads, rebuild the city after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, and design and build the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, also known as the White City.
There is a lot to learn about Chicago Genealogy and what is available to research, but here are some of my favorite resources and what they can tell you:
Chicago Vital Records – After 1871, vital records are available and fairly easy to research. The challenge is that death and marriage records before 1900 do not name parents. But other clues can be gathered, including where the person lived on a birth or death certificate, or whether the person was married in a church or by the Justice of the Peace. And the Illinois index of early marriages and deaths is a great resource, especially for finding misspelled names.
Church Records – While the Great Chicago Fire destroyed all vital records before 1871, Church Records help to fill in those early blanks and can take you back as early as 1850. Certain Catholic Churches even kept records that identified where the person was born and when. This is especially true in the Italian and Polish ethnic churches.
Cemetery Records – Not only can you find the date of death, but headstones can include place of birth, year of birth and if lucky, where they were born. You can also see who they are buried with, or near, for major clues. Don’t just rely on Find a Grave. Go visit the cemetery in person. One of my favorite stories is how I began to research the Catholic Cemetery of Calvary in Evanston. I started out by pulling the cemetery record of my Irish Great Great Grandmother. What I uncovered was a burial plot with 8 people in the same grave. Then it spiraled out of control - who were these people buried with my Julia who died in 1884? Over a period of about a year, I bet I went back to this cemetery 25 times, becoming fast friends with the office manager. But my biggest discovery was finding my 3x Great Grandfather from Quebec who was buried in the same plot with his grandson. I had no idea he even came to the US and never thought to search vital records for him. Without searching for his grandson’s cemetery record, I would have never found him in Chicago.
Voter Registrations of 1888, 1890 and 1892 – These records identify the courthouse where the person was naturalized, how long the person lived in Chicago, how long they lived in Illinois, and their current address. It is often in alphabetical order by last name so it can help you see other potential family members. This is a great replacement for the destroyed 1890 Federal Census.
City Directories & Telephone Directories – Published books began around 1839 and help you plot the areas where your family lived, and when they moved. These addresses help you define nearby relatives and what churches they may have attended.
Ward Maps – The city was constantly changing its street names and ward boundaries. It’s important to identify where your ancestors lived, but that can also be a challenge. Sometimes they lived in the same house on multiple census records, but the street names are different. Ward maps can help you figure out these changes.
Census Records – Chicago census records show the street a person lived on starting in the 1880 census.
Naturalization Records – There are 3 places where an individual could have been naturalized in Cook County: Circuit Court, Superior Court and District Court. The first 2 are found at the Daley Center, while the District Court filings are found at the NARA Great Lakes Region.
Immigration – the Newberry Library houses many books on ethnic immigration that has an index of names, making it easier to find often misspelled names.
NARA Great Lakes Region – This repository houses the District Court Naturalization records of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, along with many other court records.
Divorce Records – While records are off-site, once you find an index of a divorce, the record is a goldmine for information. The divorce of my adopted Grandmother’s birth mother led to naming her sister as a witness in the trial. That led to helping me find where the birth mother ended up dying, and ultimately where she was born.
Probates – Again, these records are kept off-site. If an index is found for that person, then it takes up to 2 weeks for them to arrive for viewing.
Land Records – Did your ancestors own the property they were living in and for how long? That can be found by researching land records.
Adoptions, Orphanages and Guardianships – There are various ways to research this difficult area of your tree. Illinois adoptee birth records prior to 1946 can now be obtained by family. Also, Catholic Charities can be helpful in finding records at a Catholic Orphanage. Guardianship Records in Cook County can be viewed on microfilm, and census records can be combed for children living at local orphanages.
Autopsy Records – These records don’t necessarily lead to family clues, but are interesting and help shape the stories of a person’s life.
Newspaper Obituaries – The challenge with early obituaries in Chicago is that the city had so many people dying on any given day, that the obits were just kept to the basics. Unless the person was of prominence or had an interesting life story, the most you can get from them are maiden names, children, if the person was single or married, along with what church they attended and where the burial will take place. On a few obituaries, it will tell you what country they were born, but that is rare.
Libraries – Several key libraries are essential to finding nuggets of Genealogy information: Newberry Library, Harold Washington Library, Family History Library, and Northeastern Illinois University Library
If any of your ancestors lived in Chicago, or even had a brief stay in this great city, then I strongly encourage you research them immediately. My simple advice is to never give up until you exhaust all avenues available to you. Based on my years of experience in Chicago, it can be an expansive yet rewarding search.