Paul K. Graham

Certified Genealogist SM

Accredited Genealogist ®

Historical Records of Urban Georgia

Originally published in the Georgia Genealogical Society Quarterly 43, no. 2 (Summer 2007), pps. 87-90.

Genealogists with Southern roots most often find themselves studying the rural lives of their ancestors. However, from the very beginning of the colonial period, cities played an important role in the region and the records created by cities can provide detailed information about the day-to-day events of people’s lives. Being able to document individuals in the urban South becomes much more important if the subjects lived in the South from the beginning of the 20th Century. In 1890, ten percent of the Southern population lived in cities. By 1930, more than a third of the population lived in an urban setting. The records created by incorporated cities are unique and generally do not exist for rural areas. Learning where to find and how to use urban records in Georgia can help fill in details about the complex lives of city dwellers in the state. This list includes the most common records specifically associated with cities in Georgia.

Locating records created by cities can be a challenge. Unlike county records, most city records have never been microfilmed. Remote access to city records is generally impossible and, because cities do not get very many researchers, city clerks may not even have a place for researchers to sit and work. As a researcher, the search for, and use of, city records should be made with a significant amount of patience.

The place to start looking for records is the city hall of the city in question. In most small cities, all the available historical records will be in one room or a vault. In larger cities, records are generally spread out. Large cities may have records centers in a completely different location, and books may have to be ordered and brought to city hall for use by the researcher. Some cities, like Atlanta, use a historical society to house records that are no longer in regular use by administrators or the public.

At city hall, the person to look for is the City Clerk. The City Clerk is generally an elected official, either by the citizenry or by the city council. Some city clerks are appointed. In small cities, you may speak directly to the City Clerk about the records. In large cities, you will have to deal with a variety of different clerks with varying degrees of knowledge about city records.

Historical records in every city begin with the city’s incorporation. No records exist for a city prior to its incorporation. Incorporation of a city requires an act of the Georgia General Assembly. The incorporation of a city generally involves establishing the boundaries of the city, appointing the first commissioners, setting a schedule of elections, giving the power of taxation, and establishing the roles of various city officials, such as the Mayor. Acts of Incorporation and all subsequent laws relating to a particular city can be found using the Georgia Legislative Documents database through the GALILEO initiative (www.galileo.usg.edu).

Immediately after taking office, the city council begins having regular meetings, at which minutes are taken. City Council Minutes are the record of a city as a legal entity. There is wide variance in the quality and quantity of council minutes among cities, but they are always the first comprehensive source to look at for understanding a city’s history and the actions of its people. City council minutes are generally housed at city hall, although historical council minutes may be found elsewhere. Historical city council minutes for the city of Atlanta are housed at the Atlanta History Center. Augusta’s city council minutes can be found in the vault at the Municipal Building and can be accessed by a request to a clerk.

City council minutes have information that is important to the research of the city history and to the research of specific individuals. General city business often recorded in the council minutes includes changes to the city code, reports of city officials (such as the sexton), the amount of collected taxes, the maintenance of infrastructure, and the enforcement of the city code. Many personal requests are dealt with by the city council and can be found in the minutes.

One of the first acts of any new city council is to develop a City Code. City codes are a set of laws governing the incorporated area. City codes are modified on a regular basis and changes can be found in the city council minutes. City codes were published yearly or on a semi-regular basis, with modifications published in the interim periods. Current city codes can often be found online. Cases in city and recorder courts originate from infractions of the city code, and the specific code language can provide context for understanding a legal offense.

Numerous courts existed in cities across Georgia. The most common court in the 1800s was the City Court. City courts had concurrent jurisdiction with the Superior Court of the county where the city was located. “Concurrent jurisdiction” was defined as the right for the City Court to try cases over “minor offenses” that would otherwise be tried in the Superior Court. The City Court did not have jurisdiction in criminal cases where the offender was subjected to the possibility of “loss of life, limb or member or to confinement in the Penitentiary.” Criminal cases tried in City Court may be for gambling, serving alcohol without a license, or keeping a “lewd house,” among other offenses. Civil cases tried in City Court involved small amounts of money, usually under $100.

City courts in Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, and Rome were all established by the same law on March 5, 1856. The Court of Common Pleas and Oyer and Terminer for Savannah was converted to the “City Court of Savannah” on December 9, 1853. The Court of Common Please for Augusta was converted to City Court on February 15, 1856. Almost all of the city courts as they were structured in the mid- to late-1800s have been abolished. After abolition, jurisdiction over cases in the various city courts was transferred back to the Superior Court. If the records of abolished city courts survive, they may be with the Superior Court or they may be in storage with the city.

Another common court in Georgia cities was the Recorder’s Court. The Recorder was an elected official vested with the jurisdiction to “try and determine” cases involving violation of city ordinances. The Recorder was severely limited in the level of punishment he was able to give out but was empowered to forward the case to the Superior or City Court. The Recorder’s Court was also known as the Mayor’s Court or the Police Court, depending on the city. All three court names represent the same basic jurisdiction over city ordinance cases.

An expose of Judge Andy Calhoun of Atlanta Police Court was published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1893 and points clearly to the multiple roles of a judge of a very local court. “The law is the end, not the means, in Judge Andy Calhoun’s court. Where a man is judge, jury and attorney all in one and required to dish out justice in petty cases as a man would decide upon the merits of a dog fight he cannot be expected to carry the law in his head or follow it to the letter. More familiarity with human nature than with the law is required of a police judge. He must have that knowledge of men that enables him to read what lies in their face and what is often very different from their words.”

Just like every other government, cities collect taxes from their citizens. City tax records are very similar to the same records at the county level. They often provide details about luxury items owned by taxpayers, such as billiard tables and pianos. The most common tax record is the tax digest, which is a summary of the amount of tax owed by each individual. Some cities have tax receipts, or the record of payment of an amount of tax for a year. At least in Atlanta, a small number of tax assessor books have survived. Tax assessor books are the record of property that should be taxed. The available Atlanta assessor books give a detailed description of the land owned by each individual in the city, whereas the tax digest only tells the amount of land owned.

Another source of revenue for cities is licensing. Three common types of licenses in cities are business licenses, liquor licenses, and automobile licenses. Like today, business licenses were paid yearly and were recorded in ledger books. Usually, business license records are very brief, providing the business name, location, and license fee paid. It is lucky to find a business license book that includes the names of business owners other than when they were used in the business name. Automobile licenses start in 1904 in Atlanta and around that same time in other cities. During those early years of the automobile, husbands and wives obtained a license as a couple, qualifying to drive only required the sworn statement of two disinterested parties, and license tag numbers began with the number one.

Liquor licenses were a big deal and were a rich stream of money for cities. The yearly list of issued licenses was published in local newspapers and can give a good impression of the more exciting streets of any given city. On January 3, the Atlanta Constitution announced “Drinks for 1885” with the instruction to “Cut this out and paste it in your hat.” The article includes “A Full List of the Establishments Whereat the ‘Oh, Be Joyful’ is Dealt Out to a Thirsty Town.”

Documentation of buildings and infrastructure in Georgia cities is much easier than in rural areas. For a variety of reasons, city development has had to be carefully managed. Building Permits are available in larger cities from the 1890s and many smaller cities from years predating the Depression. Almost a century’s worth of building permits for the city of Atlanta were microfilmed and are available at the Atlanta History Center.

Fire was a constant concern, since an uncontrolled blaze had the potential o wiping out an entire city. Fire insurance was a regular purchase by city property owners. In 1867, the Sanborn Map Company was formed with the specific purpose of providing information to fire insurance underwriters. With detailed information in hand, underwriters could base the cost of policies on the risk of fire in a particular area. Many early Sanborn maps have been scanned and made available online for free. Some of Georgia’s maps, dating from 1844 to 1922, are available through the Digital Library of Georgia (dlg.galileo.usg.edu/sanborn/). Beyond the Sanborn maps, numerous maps were made of urban areas. Most historical societies based in urban areas have significant map collections related to the immediately surrounding area.

One urban source that is widely available and used heavily is the city directory. City directories are produced by private companies and were not necessarily published every year. Atlanta’s first city directory was published in 1859, and the next one was published in 1867. Augusta has an 1841 city director and an 1859 directory. Savannah’s directories begin in 1848.

In general, city directories contain two sections. One is an alphabetical listing of (theoretically) all the people and businesses in the city. For any individual, the directory will provide his occupation and residence. Other information included might be his employer, business name, and telephone number. Some directories tell whether the person owned the house in which he lived. The other main section in city directories is the street listing. This is a list of houses by street and house number. Like a census, this lets researchers see an entire neighborhood in one moment in time. Each city directory is given a year in its title, such as 1895 Atlanta City Directory. The canvas of the city for one year’s directory occurred in the fall of the previous year, generally between September and November.

Another private source for urban information that is quickly becoming widely available to researchers is the newspaper. Many newspapers are on microfilm, and major companies are currently scanning and indexing them. ProQuest has made the historic archives of numerous large newspapers available online. The Atlanta Constitution from 1868 to 1929 is available at pqasb.pqarchiver.com/ajc_historic. Access to images requires payment of at least one dollar per article, but the free search returns a summary, the date, and the page number. That information can be used to access the newspaper on microfilm at a library.

In some Georgia cities, vital records pre-date the state’s registration that began in 1919. Atlanta’s birth records begin in 1896 and death certificates begin in 1887. Savannah has birth records from 1890 and death records dating from 1803. Savannah deaths from 1803 to 1853 have been transcribed and indexed in six volumes titled Register of Deaths in Savannah GA. Macon’s birth records are available from 1891 and death records are available from 1882. Early vital records vary in the amount of information they provide, but they will include the date, place, and cause of death, along with the date and place of burial. The names of parents generally are not listed.

All large cities have a city cemetery and the availability of burial records varies by location. Most large city cemeteries have a register of burials. These books include the name of the deceased, burial date, and the location of burial. Some burial registers include cause of death, birth place, and age. Records of Milledgeville’s city cemetery, Memory Hill Cemetery, have been published in Dead Book: Burials in the City Cemetery, 1869-1904. The early records of Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta are available on microfilm at the Atlanta History Center, and some are at the Georgia Archives. Another cemetery record is the burial permit. Burial permits are often filed with cemetery records, or may be found in a separate collection among city records. Burial permits authorize the sexton to bury an individual and generally provide the date of death of the individual along with limited personal information.

These are some of the most common and readily available historical records created by cities across Georgia. Like counties, each city has its own administrative history. Some cities have maintained excellent records, while others have very limited records or severely limit access to records. Research in Georgia’s cities requires patience and perseverance, but the information available at the city level can provide unique insights into the lives of our ancestors.