Genealogical Puzzle: City Directories

Who was William Brown (abt. 1763–1827) of New York City?

Given information: William Brown married 27 February 1785 at Trinity Church, New York City, Mary Ball.[1] Their children were William, Richard, John, Benjamin Moore, Samuel Provost, Nathaniel Marston, Eliza, James, and Mary.[2] His parents and siblings have yet to be identified.

Differentiating men of the same common name, particularly in urban areas, is a puzzle in and of itself. One of the ways I typically solve this kind of puzzle is to locate my subject in city directories at his last known address, then trace him backwards in time as his address and/or occupation changes. Occasionally, an address and occupation will both change in the same year. When it does, I have to figure out another way to track my subject further.

What I generally do then is to list all people of that name in the last city directory in which my subject is clear. I then strike through all the men who are not my subject: the “wrong” William Browns. Going back another year, I similarly strike through all the men who were previously stricken through, identifying them by occupation or address. By eliminating those possibilities, I can typically zero in on my subject with his new occupation and new address (or really, since I’m going back in time, his old occupation and old address), then continue my study.

Part of the problem with William Brown is that I didn’t have an occupation for him. In the records found for him to date, those in his later life, he either listed no occupation or referred to himself as “Gentleman” or “Esq.” Those titles weren’t helping in the city directory search. Without knowing his occupation, I was hampered in looking for him in other records. There are many records for William Browns in New York City, but which ones applied to him?

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  1. March 30, 2021 11:21 pm

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