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
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
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL 33901-3917
Tel: (239)- 479-4651
Fax: (239)- 479-4634