Finding Your Own Gary Story - Local Genealogy Tips & Resources
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
GARY INDIANA - Founded in 1906 the city was subsequently coined 'The Magic City' by the 1930's out of the city's sheer exponential population growth. With nearly several dozen residents in 1907 to 100,000+ residents by 1930 the city emerged into reality like magic. The effect of the rapid population growth of the city brought about construction of the time period's most cutting edge infrastructure and social institutions. Gary attracted new residents from both across the country and the globe seeking to carve out an opportunity through employment in United States Steel's sprawling industrial complex along the southern shores of Lake Michigan.
As the decades transpired, Gary grew to become Indiana's second largest city. Bursting at it's seams of fifty square miles to its peak population of nearly 180,000 residents by 1970. By the mid-1970's global industrial competition, the consequential redlining and substandard housing dealt Gary an unprecedented perfect storm of job loss, disinvestment and structural institutional collapse that resulted in substantial population decline that persists in Gary through today.
It's very easy to judge the Gary in it's current context without understanding colorful and engaging stories of pride and struggle our primarily one industry town fostered. Gary's histories are retained through various resources.
I'm elated to share with you resources to help you re-create YOUR OWN relative's life experience Gary. It is up to us, those who love and know Gary's legacy to embody and preserve the city's culture.
Trying to determine your own relative's connection to Gary on the surface may feel daunting and you may have no idea where to start but luckily, with fourteen years of personal genealogical experience I'm pleased to share with you that I find researching genealogy in Gary or Lake County, Indiana for that matter enjoyably easy!
Why is that you ask? Essentially because Gary was truly a city of the 20th Century. By the 1910's vital records such as birth and death records, photography, school yearbooks, school enumeration indexes, telephone directories and periodicals had become established as standard practice in medium sized and large American cities for all races and classes of people. This practice lagged by decades in many rural and Jim Crow communities in the American South.
If you have an ancestor that lived in the Gary Area here some common tips and resources that can help connect you to your own relative's life experience in 20th Century Gary.
#1 Where To Start? The Basics.
It is imperative to interview as many relatives as possible in effort to gather a base of information to research your own family or person of interest in Gary. This is exceptionally important if you are searching for someone that has a common surname such as Williams, Smith, Johnson & etc. The goal is collect as much information about your of person of interest (i.e. birth places, birth dates, death dates) as possible. The quality of your search will also be enhanced if gather information about vital data on collateral family members such as in-laws of your direct ancestors parents & grandparents and your ancestor's siblings through your uncles, aunts and cousins to help you discern if you are actually reviewing the correct records of your relatives born prior to 1960.
As we continue to social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, I will recommend both digital and traditional institutional resources. Please understand that many useful traditional walk-in institutions have limited access for both social distancing and collection perseveration reasons.
Digital Genealogical Databases
FamilySearch.org - Is a free genealogical database founded and maintained by a non for profit organization (Genealogical Society of Utah) via the Church of Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City. The organization's primary mission is collect as many records globally of every person that ever lived. Understand that Family Search has maintains MORE records, indexes and searchable databases than Ancestry.com. I'd recommend you create an account here to get started with your research. Members of the LDS collect, scan and index records from communities nationally and internationally preserving them for both posterity and their religious faith.
Ancestry - Ancestry.com offers text searchable databases. Often Ancestry will partner with local governments, Family Search, Newspapers.com and Fold3.com to make databases fully searchable via text. Ideally this is why you actually pay a subscription for Ancestry, although Family Search has an extensively large searchable by text database many of their collections are unindexed and not searchable. Some collections on Family Search exist but you may have to literally search a collection page by page in order to find the information of a of person of interest or family member. As Ancestry continues to collaborate with Family Search an other genealogical data collection organizations creating fully text searchable databases take people and time to transcribe their collections into a searchable text format.
#2 Starting your Local Database Search
Once you have a base of information on whom you desire to research you can use the information you gathered to utilize the collections and databases resources below.
Indiana's Public Vital Records
In celebration of Indiana's bicentennial in 2016, state leadership pushed for the state's vital records to be digitized and made available for the public's use. This effort was monumental because prior to 2016 you personally had to request these vital records in person at your local health department and provide some convincing reason or relationship to whoever's record you attempted to obtain a copy. Today, you can obtain most of these vital records with no hassle in the comfort of your own home in your underwear!
These vital records are available through Family Search and Ancestry.com.
Indiana Birth Records - Digitized and text searchable through 1907-1940
Indiana Marriage Index & Certificates - Digitized and text searchable through pre 1816 -1960
Indiana Death Records - Digitized and text searchable through 1899-2011
Through these vital records you can obtain key information such as exact birth and death dates, birth location, parents names (mother's maiden name), birth locations of parents and the address at time of your person of interest's birth or death.
You use the information above to search your ancestors in the Federal Decennial US Census records. The most recent Census you can search is the 1940 Census, for privacy reasons each Census is made accessible to the public every 72 years after it is conducted. For instance the 1950 Census will be released in 2022, the most recent 2020 Census will not be released for public use until 2092 and the data collected in the next Census in 2030 will not be released until 2102! You want to find your family or person of interest in the Census because it describes that individual's age, occupation, employment status, family unit and neighbors.
City Directories - This is my favorite tool to use! You can search old city directories digitally (via Ancestry/Family Search) and traditionally at the library. You can search by last name which lists your ancestor's phone number, street address, spouse and occupation. The primary reason why the city directory is my favorite tool is because you can also search the directory by street address which give you a clearer picture of what your relative's neighborhood was like at the time the directory was published. You'll find relative or person of interest's neighbors names, local shops, restaurants and advertisements offering a colorful contextual view of how vibrant many neighborhoods were within the city.
High School Yearbooks, its highly probable that your ancestor or your person of interest may have been photographed in a high school yearbook during their life in Gary. Former Gary high schools include Emerson, Horace Mann, Froebel, Roosevelt, Lew Wallace, Edison, Tolleson, Wirt, West Side, Pulaski. Some middle and elementary schools offered yearbooks as well. Although many yearbooks have been sporadically digitized on Ancestry.com more complete yearbook sets are available at traditional walk-in institutions that I'll mention later in this post.
#3 Digital Additional Resources
If you want more context regarding specific neighborhoods in the city these digital resources will help you.
Aerial Maps (Lake County Surveyor's GIS Website)
Aerial maps of Lake County are available for 2018, 2013, 2005, 1998, 1978 https://portico.mygisonline.com/html5/?viewer=lakeinsurveyor
Aerial Maps (Indiana Geological Survey)
Aerial maps of Lake County are available for 1939, 1954, 1958, 1965 and 1973
Sanborn Insurance Maps (now available via the Library of Congress)
Sanborn insurance maps offer general details on regarding the building footprint, construction and building use of homes or businesses illustrated. These maps provide much context of the built environment in Gary in 1907, 1908, 1911 and 1944-49. Gary's notorious 'Patch' neighborhood immediately South of 9th Avenue immediately West of Broadway is clearly illustrated in the 1907-11 Sanborn Maps depicting nearly 100 salons, bars and taverns that served the city's early rambunctious workforce.
Gary, Indiana Sanborn Map, 1945 https://www.loc.gov/item/sanborn02345_005/
Home Owner's Load Corporation (HOLC) Redlining Maps
Redlining was real in many mayor American cities, as the Federal Government created the HOLC to guide what neighborhoods were the best and least favorable to invest and lend. This map makes it easy for anyone to see how neighborhoods were characterized based on the % of persons of color and foreign born persons to discourage investment. I plan to create a detailed post soon about how the Lake County neighborhoods were redlined in 1940 but, if you want the scoop immediately check out the link below. https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=11/41.595/-87.541&mapview=graded&city=lake-co.-gary-in&area=D6
Google Maps, Street View
If you're researching abroad and desire to see the home or block your ancestor or person of interest once lived you can easily type in that address into Google Maps and select 'Street View' to see the neighborhood as it exists today. Some neighborhoods in the city have multiple Street View layers between 2008 and today so you can toggle between years view how neighborhoods have changed overtime in the 21st Century.
#4 Traditional Walk-In Institutions
Lake County Public Library - Merrillville Branch (Genealogy & Indiana Rooms)
Research librarians at the information desk here are true gems, they're exceptionally effective and can assist you with obtaining any local news article, obituary, marriage, birth, death and internment records. Personally speaking, the Merrillville Branch offers the most organized Microfilm Periodicals. You can search every newspaper published from the following local periodicals. The Merrillville Branch also has a detailed Obituary Index if you are interested in obtaining a copy of an obituary, please have an approximate death year handy as you can search the index alphabetically by year and the librarian can pull the Microfilm of the day that obituary was published so you to make copies or take photos via an electronic device. This branch also offers local cemetery internment records if you decide to visit your relative or person of interest's gravesite.
Primary Local Periodicals
Post Tribune 1974 - Ongoing*
Gary Post 1908 - 1921
Gary Tribune 1910 - 1921
Gary Post-Tribune 1921 - 1974
Northwest Indiana Times -2002-Ongoing
Lake County Times - 1906-1933
Hammond Times - 1967 - 2002
I've been told that unlike The NWI Times, you will not find the Gary Post, Gary Tribune or the most modern Gary Post-Tribune on Newspaper.com. Unfortunately the city's history in that regard is not available digitally after the Gary Post-Tribune was sold and now owned by the Chicago Tribune Media Group and Tribune Publishing. Thus at least for now, the only way to access any variation of the Post-Tribune is to review Microfilm through the traditional in person institutions I'm sharing with you now.
Context Alert - You as a person of color like myself as you research further the Gary Post-Tribune collections pre-1970 you will recognize large photos of marriages and births announcements of Gary's white residents and disproportionately small sections of 'Gary's Negro News & Happenings' despite the fact than even as early as the 1940's Gary's Black population made up nearly 20% of its total 112,000 residents.
BEWARE: It is very easy to spend hours on the Microfim machine reading headlines of events that happened both in Gary and Nationally as you search for past obituaries! I've found several intriguing stories that were forgotten by time that I've drafted to share with you soon!
To surmise Pre-COVID in my experience, the Merrillville Branch is the most accessible and resourceful institution to pursue traditional genealogy research on individuals and families in Gary and Lake County as a whole.
Gary Public Library - Main Library, Indiana Room
Indiana Room - Possesses old public school yearbooks, Gary Memorabilia and even original blueprints (the actual blueprints) of Gary's most iconic buildings such as the Knights of Columbus Building, the former Hotel Gary or Genesis Towers as we know it today.
Please call this branch in advance prior to visiting, the accessibility of this room varies.
Indiana University Northwest - Calumet Archives
If you have a person of interest or relative that was involved in politics, labor unions, social or non for profit organizations, I highly recommend you search the Calumet Archives for both records and potential photos of your ancestors. Last, although yearbooks exist at both the Merrillville Branch and the Gary Public Libraries the Calumet Archives have the most complete collection of Gary public school yearbooks in near mint condition.
Currently the Calumet Archives room is open Wednesday's and Friday's from 11am - 4pm
prior to arriving please be sure to schedule an appointment ahead of your visit. Archivists managing the collection can pull special archives and photographs ahead of your arrival. The room is full of well preserved books, articles, documents regarding Gary and the surrounding Calumet Region's history.
The Calumet Archives was by far the most impressive place to research on city and neighborhood history.
A link to the Calumet Archive's collection index is below.
Calumet Archives Collection
Please feel free to share your own Gary story, tips/tricks here in the comments on Instagram using #MyGaryIndianaStory or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to share your Gary connections and tips with our followers and subscribers!
Best of Luck!