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Genealogy on Little Cat Feet

By Daniel Hubbard | February 2, 2014

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
-Fog by Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, 1916

Often in genealogy, one takes great, generation-long strides through the records. If there is census data, perhaps our strides that are merely a decade long. In small towns and villages, that can be enough, though gathering more records will make the story richer.

In a city  “stormy, husky, brawling” those great strides fail. People get lost in the multitude. They share their names with dozens.  They move from tenement to tenement and job to job faster than their peasant fathers could bring in a harvest. Clerks and enumerators stumble over immigrant tongues and record their misadventures.

All the hustle and bustle of the city forces our genealogy to slow down and travel on little cat feet. Through city directories we take tiny, year-by-year steps. 1879- father is a locksmith, daughter is a clerk, son is a plumber. 1878- father is a filer of saws, son and daughter disappear, only the address allows the step from ’79 to ’78. 1877 a new address, father is not listed, daughter is a clerk with a misspelled name but the son is a plumber at the same address as his sister; another step taken. 1876- father is a locksmith again, daughter is unlisted and son is a gas fitter and their address has changed again but father and son are at the same residence. We’ve shuffled back another year. 1875- no siblings, no residence, no occupations, only the father’s work address appears but it is the same as 1876. Their immigration is pushed back another year and so the little steps continue…

I’ve spent the day in Chicago city directories, researching hog butchers, tool makers and stackers of wheat. A day of genealogy on little cat feet.

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