Thursday, May 25, 2017

Using City Council Records in Your Family History Research

Searching city council records for an ancestor may be like searching for a needle in a haystack:  the volumes are generally unindexed and are handwritten.  But if you know an event date in which your ancestor was involved with the city, these records can offer additional details.  My ancestor filed a suit against the city and I was able to learn more about the outcome of that suit in the city council journals than through other records.  I also discovered that another ancestor and his business partner were hired to build a bridge for the city.  For me it was worth the search.

About these records
City council records are/may be available at FamilySearch among court records of the county where the city was located.  I checked two other county record collections at FamilySearch and didn't find any but FamilySearch continues add records to their online collection.  City council records may also be available at the physical county courthouse, city hall, or a historical society.  Some cities may be putting their own council records online.

Among other things, these records were created to detail the decisions the city council made concerning the operation and improvement of the city as well as about the handling of problems (such as suits filed against the city), and requests by citizens. 

These records were handwritten by the city clerk.  Some clerks' handwriting was easier to read than others' but since each clerk remained in office for a year or more you become familiar with the handwriting and it becomes easier to read after a few entries.

Using these records will feel like going back in time to when one read and searched pages of microfilm, or even further back in time to when one turned the physical pages of the county record books.  But you know how much easier it is to see a name on a written page when your eye is attuned to that one name?  It's that way with these records, so in some ways one can glance through the pages and the name will pop out.  Other times you may choose a serious perusal of the pages.  And sometimes, for me at least, it was just plain interesting to see what was happening in the city.

What you will definitely find
  • who the president and members of city council were
  • which committees were created by the council (e.g., finance, claims, markets, streets, etc.) and who was on each
  • city offices (weighmaster, city wardens, police, civil engineer, etc.)
  • who received money from the city and the amount, though not necessarily the purpose
  • who held government offices in the city

What you may find
  • who filed lawsuits against the city
  • when the city installed street lights and or changed from oil to gas
  • when bridges were built, who built them, and the cost
  • when roads and sidewalks were built and/or improved and with what material
  • which public buildings were torn down, which were built/rebuilt
  • when public water pipes were installed
  • when telephones were first installed in the city 

Reasons to read city council records
If you are interested in learning about the environment in which one of your ancestors, or a family of ancestors, lived, learned, and worked, I can't think of a better source of information.  City council records provide a history of a city in a way no other source can.  Combine them with a city map, a city directory, and old photographs or postcards for a more complete understanding of your ancestors' environment. 

Have you used city council records before?  Did you learn more about an ancestor?  Did you find them interesting?


Copyright ©2017 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.
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  1. I have not looked for city council records but I will now. I have done a number of indexing projects for the Greene County Historical Society in Virginia: day books for a general store and for a tailor, voter registration books, and school board minutes from when public education was just getting started. Now I recognize names and these OLD people feel like family. David Diggs bought a suit -- I bet he was wearing it to the school board meeting. Oh look Francis McMullen bought textbooks for his school. These odd sources are the best at showing you life in the community.

    1. I agree that the people we "meet" in these old records, especially when we see their names over and over again or find details about them, like the purchases your David Diggs and Francis McMullen made, begin to feel, if not like family, then at least friends. And I love the fact that it feels like being in that time and place while reading through the city council proceedings. I hope you're able to find ones for the locations of your research.

  2. Nancy, thanks for the tips. I have not checked city council records but I will in the future.

    1. I don't know how many are available online (at FamilySearch or other websites) but I hope you find them for the cities of your ancestors, Colleen.


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