Researching Pre-Fire Chicago

November 15, 2014

Matt Rutherford, MLIS
The Newberry

For family historians searching in Chicago, the Great Fire of 1871 still causes problems. The fire destroyed the county courthouse and almost all of its records, including many of the typical ones genealogists rely on: civil registrations, vital records, deeds, and so on. This loss has led to the myth that “everything went up in flames,” and that searching pre-1871 Chicago is hopeless. That is simply not true!

While it is the case that many valuable records were lost, there are also many other often-overlooked records that survived, either because the originals were never in the fire’s path to begin with or because copies of originals had fortuitously been placed out of harm’s way. For instance, Chicago newspapers are one of the most extant sources, with issues of multiple newspapers dating from 1838 to 1871 available to researchers. Sam Fink used the newspapers’ reports to create an index to pre-fire deaths and marriages in Chicago, thus creating a substitute for some of the lost courthouse records. The Proquest digitized version of the Chicago Tribune is complete from 1849 through 1992. This database allows keyword searching by name or address, always helpful when you are searching for a particular family.

City directories provide an alphabetical list of heads of households, and pre-fire Chicago directories for 1839, 1844, 1846, and 1853-1871 have survived. Many church records still exist as well, including First Immanuel Lutheran, Old St. Mary’s, and First Presbyterian, to name just a few. Census records can be useful, and they are available for the Chicago area every 10 years from 1820 through 1930, excepting 1890. Finding a relative in the census can give you their name, age, occupation, marital status, citizenship status, and place of birth. Furthermore, a census record can give you the same information for all the people in a household, so you can discover a lot about a particular family in those key pre-fire years of 1850, 1860, and 1870.

Archival sources pertaining to early Chicago and Chicagoans often name early residents of the city, making these invaluable sources as well. For instance, an 1833 treaty between the U.S. and the United Nation of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatamie Indians lists early settlers of Chicago, while an Illinois and Michigan Canal broadside details purchasers of lots offered for public sale in Chicago. Pre-fire graduation programs for many schools and colleges have survived, as have programs for various arts and cultural events. For example, you might find a relative who graduated from Chicago Medical College (now Northwestern University’s School of Medicine) or who performed at Crosby’s Opera House in a recital. Manuscript collections, such as the Thomas Butler Carter papers, the John M. Wing diaries, and the letters of Walter L. Newberry, all provide particulars of city life, including names and descriptions of other city residents. Land maps are another important and often-overlooked source, as they detail property ownership.

As you can see, many options for researching your pre-fire Chicago families do exist. Feel free to contact the Genealogy and Local History department for suggestions, tips, and assistance in your research.