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Nicknamed the Windy City, Second City and City of the Big Shoulders, Chicago also has been called the “most American of American cities.” Indeed, it has come to represent many things that are truly American: jazz, the skyscraper, and most important, a can-do spirit in the face of hardship. One unfortunate event in particular, the Great Fire of 1871, often presents an obstacle to family historians. But there’s still a vast array of genealogy resources at your disposal, so let’s channel your indomitable Chicago ancestors and uncover their uniquely American stories.
Bright lights, big city
In 1673, French-Canadians Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette explored the area. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the earliest nonindigenous settler, arrived in the 1780s; by 1833, Chicago was incorporated with 350 residents. In 1840, with a population topping 4,000, Chicago was becoming a transportation hub linking the eastern and western United States. Its expanding infrastructure also fed the explosive growth: Not only did the city raise its grade several feet, it also reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900.
Immigrants including Irish, Germans, Poles and Italians arrived in Chicago, often by way of New York, Boston and New Orleans. By the end of the 19th century, Chicago was the world’s fifth largest city—even after the Great Fire destroyed a third of it. New construction brought about the age of the skyscraper and Chicago’s famous architecture.
The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South between 1910 and 1930 increased the city’s black population fivefold and helped give Chicago a name for jazz. The Great Depression brought an influx of whites from Appalachia, who settled in the Uptown district. Today, Chicago is the third-largest US city and the seat of Cook County, the country’s second-most-populous county.
Chi-town records rundown
You can access many Chicago records, including naturalizations, coroners’ inquests and vital records, through the Illinois Regional Archives Depositories (IRAD), the state archives’ depository system. Cook County records are archived at the Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) regional depository. You can search IRAD holdings online or download a records list by county, and request a search by postal mail or phone. The state archives also has many online databases. These records will factor into your genealogy search:
- Vital records: Begin with the Cook County clerk’s online index of more than 8 million birth, death and marriage records back to 1872. Steve Morse’s One-Step site has additional search options. Click to order birth certificates (older than 75 years), marriage certificates (older than 50 years) and death certificates (older than 20 years). The state archives’ online Illinois Statewide Marriage Index includes Cook County marriages (with license numbers) between 1833 and 1901. For records lost to the Great Fire, the Sam Fink Index to Chicago newspaper marriage listings from 1833 to 1871 is essential. It’s on microfilm at IRAD, NEIU and the Family History Library (FHL); rent films at your FamilySearch Center (FSC).
- Censuses: Illinois took regular statewide censuses in the 1800s. Cook County records exist for the 1840, 1855 and 1865 censuses; they’re on subscription site Ancestry.com and on microfilm via IRAD and the FHL. Chicago first appears in the federal census in 1820. Records of extant US censuses are on Ancestry.com and on microfilm; Fold3.com and the free FamilySearch also have many censuses. For help finding elusive Chicago ancestors in censuses, see the enumeration and ward maps on A Look at Cook.
- Church records: In a predominantly Catholic city, the Archives of the Archdiocese of Chicago is an important resource. Access records including pre-1915 sacramental registers in person at the archives, or request a search via mail or phone. The FHL also has these records on microfilm.
- City directories: Chicago city directories begin in 1839 and run until 1929. The Newberry Library has one of the most comprehensive collections, spanning 1839 to 1929. Some directories are online at ChicagoAncestors.org.
- Court records: The Newberry Library has a handy chart of where you can find various Cook County court records. The Clerk of the Circuit Court Archives Department offers naturalizations, as well as divorce records, probates (see opposite page) and chancery cases. Burned records — court documents used to re-establish property ownership after the Great Fire — are on microfilm from the FHL, in the Cook County Circuit Court Archives, and through IRAD.
- Naturalizations: The Cook County Circuit Court has a database of declarations of intent to naturalize from 1871 to 1929 (the bulk are from 1906 to 1929). The National Archives has these, too.
- Probate files: The county’s Clerk of Circuit Court offers probate records dating back to 1871. See their website for instructions on requesting records. If you have a good idea of the date you need, try FamilySearch’s as-yet-unindexed collection Illinois Probate, 1819-1970.
- Property records: Chicago land records are notoriously difficult to work with. The brave can use tract books, which list areas by subdivision, at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds Chicago office. Many researchers opt for substitute records: Try the Chicago History Museum, which has an online database of building permits, address conversion guides and more. At the Cook County Assessor’s website, you can search by address to learn the age of a building and see a recent photograph.
- Cemeteries: Although it’s rumored the dead vote in Chicago, you won’t find them on election rolls. See a list of Chicago cemeteries. The Newberry Library has records listed from several large cemeteries. The site Hidden Truths reconstructs the old Chicago City Cemetery where today’s Lincoln Park is located.
- Newspapers: See a list of English-language newspapers published in Chicago. Many local papers are on subscription sites GenealogyBank and Fold3.com, and the Chicago Tribune from 1849 to 1987 is digitized in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers service (your library may offer access). The Illinois Newspaper Project catalogs more than 480 microfilmed newspapers you can borrow through interlibrary loan. Want free resources? The Chicago Public Library has the Chicago Examiner (1902 to 1918); you can read Polish paper Dziennik Zwiazkowy (now the Polish Daily News) from 1908 to 1917; and you can access the Jewish Chicago Sentinel.
Tip: Locating old addresses can be a challenge because of street name and number changes. See A Look at Cook for tools to help you.
- Settled: 1779
- Incorporated: March 4, 1837
- Nicknames: The Windy City, Second City
- State: Illinois
- County: Cook
- Area: 234 square miles
- Motto: Urbs in horto (City in a garden)
- Primary historical ethnic groups: African-American, Czech, German, Greeks, Irish, Slovak, Swedish, Polish
- Primary historical industries: architecture, filmmaking, financial services, manufacturing, meat packing, telecommunications, transportation
- Famous sons and daughters: Jane Addams, Al Capone, Hillary Clinton, Ann Landers, Barack Obama, Shel Silverstein, Studs Terkel, Frank Lloyd Wright
- 1818: Illinois admitted as 21st state
- 1871: Chicago fire kills 300 and leaves 90,000 homeless
- 1886: Pipe bomb explodes at Haymarket labor rally
- 1893: World’s Columbian Exposition takes place
- 1909: Burnham’s Plan of Chicago is published
- 1919: Chicago race riot starts at a South Side beach
- 1929: Seven gangsters are killed in St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
- 1933: Century of Progress World’s Fair celebrates Chicago centennial
- 1942: Enrico Fermi isolates plutonium at the University of Chicago
- 1968: Democratic National Convention is marked by riots
- 1973: Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) is constructed
- City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America by Donald L. Miller (Simon & Schuster)
- Finding Your Chicago Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide to Family History In The City of Chicago by Grace DuMelle (Lake Claremont Press)
- Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly
- The Encyclopedia of Chicago by James R. Grossman (University of Chicago Press)
Organizations and Archives
- Chicago Genealogical Society
- Chicago Public Library
- Cook County Clerk’s Office
- Cook County Recorder of Deeds
- Illinois Department of Public Health
- Illinois Regional Archives Depository System
- Illinois State Archives
- Illinois State Genealogical Society
- Illinois State Historical Society
- The Newberry Library
- Pritzker Military Library
Top 5 Historic Sites
- Chicago Architecture Foundation
This organization is dedicated to documenting Chicago’s architectural legacy through exhibits and tours. The Architecture River Cruise on the Chicago River spotlights more than 50 sites.
- Chicago Cultural Center
The nation’s first free municipal cultural center (once the Chicago Public Library), this is a comprehensive arts showcase with exhibits on the history of Chicago.
- Chicago History Museum
Formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society, which was founded in 1856, the museum brings the history of Chicago to life through exhibits and collections comprising millions of artifacts and documents.
- DuSable Museum of African American History
The first and oldest museum dedicated to African-American culture started as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art. It was renamed for Chicago’s founder Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who was of African descent.
- Museum of Science and Industry
Exhibits at the only remaining building from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition include a working coal mine, a German submarine, the Apollo 8 spacecraft, and others detailing the industries that helped build Chicago.
Records at a Glance
- Begin: 1872
- Privacy restrictions: records 75 years or older are available
- Research tips: Cook County Birth Registers (1871–1916) are available via FamilySearch.
Catholic Church records
- Begin: 1675
- Privacy restrictions: available prior to 1916
- Research tips: Collection contains sacramental, orphanage and school records; and church newspapers.
- Begin: 1839
- Research tips: Look for directories at the Newberry Library, ChicagoAncestors.org and Fold3.com.
- Begin: Chicago in 1872, state in 1916
- Privacy restrictions: records 20 years or older are available
- Research tips: Search death indexes.
- Begin: 1871
- Research tips: Property records prior to October 1985 involve difficult-to-use tract books. Building permits from 1872 to 1954 are at the Chicago History Museum.
Fire insurance maps
- Begin: 1868
- Research tips: Search an index to maps.
Deeds at the Chicago History Museum and Newberry Library.
- Begin: 1872
- Privacy restrictions: Records 50 years or older are available
- Research tips: Search statewide marriages 1763 to 1900.
Learn more about researching your ancestors in big cities like Chicago in The Family Tree Historical Atlas of American Cities, which contains hundreds of historical maps of America’s 16 most significant cities.
A version of this article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine