Tracking a Family with City Directories and Voter Registration Indexes


City Directories and Voter Registration indexes can supplement our research and help track individuals over time and place.  They are both often overlooked as a source of genealogical information.

To illustrate the use of City Directories and Voter Registration records let’s use the McNelly family of San Francisco, California.  At first glance, the information I already have on George L. McNelly and his family  leads me to make the following broad conclusion:  they moved to San Francisco sometime between 1900 and 1908 (they appear in Chicago, Illinois on the 1900 census and a death record for one of their children, Russell Thomas McNelly, states that he died in San Francisco, California in 1908 at the age of 3). They are enumerated on the 1910, 1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Census living in San Francisco, California.   This is a very brief summary of 40 plus years of their life and lacks any depth.

Considering that I have not been able to locate the family on the 1920 census I have a gap in time that I have not accounted for with any records. City Directories and Voter Registrations can be used to fill in that gap and begin to give a more rounded picture of the family.  By gathering the information they provide and creating a spreadsheet patterns emerge that may otherwise have been missed.


City Directories help to narrow the year the McNelly family relocated to San Francisco, CA.

Very briefly,  George L. McNelly was born about 1844 in Rochester, New York.  In 1883 he married Dora Lantry in Wilton, Iowa.  By 1900 the family had moved to Chicago, Illinois with their 4 children.  A fifth child was born there in 1905:

George McNelly Jr (born 1883, Iowa)
Winifred Margaret McNelly (born 1885, Iowa)
William Henry McNelly (born 1887, Iowa)
Genevieve Delphina McNelly (born 1893, Iowa)
Russell Thomas McNelly (born 1905, Illinois)

George L. McNelly is first located in the 1907 San Francisco City Directory which gives us a clue as to when they may have moved from Chicago, Illinois.

San Francisco, California, City Directory, 1907. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989, database,

The family does not appear in any directory in the San Francisco area prior to 1907.  After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire two City Directories were published:  one that listed only those businesses forced to relocate after the earthquake and fire, the other contained a very short post-earthquake and fire directory.   The McNelly family does not appear in those two 1906 directories.

City Directories give us an overview of the occupation of the McNelly men over the years, showing us how a son and grandson followed in George L. McNelly’s footsteps.

In Chicago, Illinois in 1900 George L. McNelly made his living working as an upholsterer.

United States Federal Census, Year: 1900;  Census Place:  Chicago Ward 3, Cook, Illinois;  Roll: T623_247;  Page: 5A;  Enumeration District: 71, citing George McNelly

By examining the City Directory information over the years we can see that only twice, in 1925 and 1940 did George L. McNelly indicate that he was an upholsterer.  In all the other years he worked as a salesman.  However the City Directories and Voter Registrations indicate that his son, George McNelly Jr, did follow in those earlier footsteps and worked as an upholsterer all his life.  In fact, George McNelly Jr’s son, George Wesley McNelly (b. 1917) also followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and worked as an upholsterer.

City Directories and Voter Registrations allow us to track the changes in family residence over the years.

Perhaps the most noticeable insight that an analysis of the City Directory and Voter Registration information gives us is the fact that we see the change in residence of the McNelly family over the years.  Census information alone would not give us this insight.  Plotting these addresses on a map gives us a way to visualize their movements:

Google Map with stars showing household locations of McNelly family between 1907-1948

We immediately notice that most of the time the McNelly family stayed close to or within the Mission District of San Francisco.  Employment in the upholstery business was good here. The Mission district rebounded well after the fire of 1906 and there were many businesses that were flourishing in the home retail trades. The American Carpet and Upholstery Journal of 1909 reported that the mission district had always been a great center of business but that it had recently become even more important in the house furnishing trades.

The American Carpet and Upholstery Journal, Vol. XXVII, January 10, 1909;  The Trades Publishing Col., John R. Kenrick, publisher;  page 68.  Via google books, public domain.

Why did the family move so regularly though?  Did they move closer to places of employment within the Mission district?  What precipitated the moves to Oakland, California in 1912 and to San Rafael, California in 1925? Was it to find cheaper rent or a bigger home as the family grew?   Without the information from the City Directories and Voter Registration Indexes these are questions we would not have even known to ask.

City Directories can help locate a family when they have not been found on a census.

The 1920 San Francisco City Directory provides us with the location of George McNelly and his wife Josie at 537 Valencia Street, San Francisco. Although they remain elusive on the 1920 census I have an address I can use to locate the Enumeration District on the 1920 Census and from there can do a search, page by page, of that district to determine if the family still lived at the same address at the time of the census.  Without the City Directory information confirming that the family was still there I might assume, incorrectly in this case, that the family had moved from the area.

City Directories can point to a marriage having taken place and can help locate a spouse’s name.

The appearance of a spouse’s name in the City Directory or Voter Registration Index (after 1911 for women in California) can alert us to the fact that an individual has married since the last Directory entry.  The name of the wife will usually appear in parentheses after the husband’s name:

Son George L. McNelly (named after his father) has married and the 1915 San Francisco City Directory provides his wife’s name as Josephine.

George and Josephine McNelly appear in the 1918 Voter Registration index, an additional source giving evidence of the name of George’s wife. California, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968 [database on-line].
Where to find City Directories and Voter Registration Indexes

City and county directories were generally published annually and listed the local residents and businesses.   The head of the household is usually the person appearing in the directory but widows, working women and adult children at home may be included.

Internet Archive has a wonderful free collection with hundreds of directories available. Ancestry and (paid sites) have large collections of directories. Sites like Online Historical Directories and Cindi’s List are great resources that provide links to various sites which have city directories available.  Public and university libraries are also good places to search for city directories.


Voter Registration Indexes add name, address, occupation and voter affiliation.  They were published every 2 years on even-numbered years and kept on the county level.  Cindi’s List is a good starting point in locating Voter Registration indexes and Ancestry (paid site) has a large indexed collection too.  Search  for local and state historical societies and state archives who may hold Voter Registration records.

Combining city directory records with census and voter registration records helps us advance our research, establishing not only residence in a particular year and place but also occupation and potential family members (to be confirmed with other evidence).  What emerges when these records are compiled is a more precise timeline of our ancestors’ life.









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