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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - October/November 2005
Birthplace of Urbanized America


The Middle Atlantic Region was the birthplace of large cities in America. During most of the Colonial era, Philadelphia and New York were the two largest cities in the colonies. The 1790 census shows those same rankings, with Baltimore in fifth, and Albany in twelfth position. By 1850, the top two cities had switched places (New York was now the largest), while Baltimore had climbed to third and Albany to ninth. Adding Brooklyn at seventh and Pittsburgh at tenth, six of America?s ten largest cities were in the Mid-Atlantic states (as well as three of the next seven). 
 
Large cities, with their teaming immigrants and larger numbers of the poorer class, are a challenge for the family historian. Fortunately, some key records are available to assist with research in these locations. Many large eastern cities were among the first to establish vital records offices. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York all began keeping limited registers of deaths or burials long before the Civil War, and began registering births decades before their respective states required such action. 
 
Even earlier, these cities began the tradition of publishing city directories listing the households within the city limits. Even recent immigrants were not excluded. Most heads of families appear within a couple of years residence in the city. Although usually only the gainfully employed persons (or widows) are listed, the renewal of the listing on an annual basis provides significant clues to understanding entire families. Locating all the members of a family in each year, and observing their addresses, occupations, and even differing names can suggest conclusions about relationships not clear in other records. 
 
The more developed and compact society typically found in large cities suggests that a greater percentage of city residents will appear in other records. It was more difficult for census takers to overlook families when they are not in a distant rural valley. Cemeteries were better regulated, which encourages better record-keeping than in sparsely settled locales. Churches, on almost every corner, represent all denominations and therefore can service virtually any person?s religious needs. 
Big city research is generally more challenging. More people mean more records to sift through and more people sharing a family name without being related. Residents migrated in and out more frequently and in greater numbers, challenging even the most experienced family historian. Take the time necessary to search every possible record. It is the surest way to successfully research in the forests of the large cities. 
 
The Middle Atlantic Region also benefited from three major ports of entry (Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia). These three ports brought more immigrants directly to this region than to any other. Even during the Colonial Era, a great number of non-English speaking immigrants chose the Middle Atlantic region for settlement. Hence, most immigrants who later settled in more western states arrived at these eastern ports. Many immigrants stayed in these port cities and their surrounding suburbs for several years before moving west. Some immigrants remained for their entire lives. Therefore, it is very possible that more Americans have ancestors and relatives who spent at least some time in the Mid-Atlantic States than in any other region. Ship passenger lists for these three ports have survived, with minimal loss, from their beginnings in 1820, well into the twentieth century. For Philadelphia, arrival lists of non-British (essentially Germans) date from the 1720s. 
 
Naturalization records for immigrants coming to the Middle Atlantic region often occurred in the cities and counties further west where the families eventually settled. However, those who stayed in the east for a few years often naturalized there before moving. An excellent collection of such records, from both federal and local (state) courts is available on microfilm from the Family History Library. Federal court naturalization records are also available through the National Archives. 
 
Laws mandating the compilation of vital records developed relatively early in most of these states. However, enforcement of these laws tended to be very inconsistent. Several states passed laws in the mid-1800s regarding the registration of births and deaths, but these laws were not well enforced and were eventually repealed. Later laws were more successful, but often only after major health issues and epidemics that occurred in tenements in larger cities such as New York and Philadelphia. The fallout from these problems demonstrated the necessity of keeping such records for health and social planning purposes. 
 
 
Bryan L. Mulcahy 
Reference Librarian 
Fort Myers-Lee County Library 
2050 Central Avenue 
Fort Myers, FL 33901-3917 
Tel: (239)- 479-4651 
Fax: (239)- 479-4634 


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