Finding the History

It may seem like complicated work to put all of this information together, but it is actually very simple and just about anyone can do it. On the Resource Archives page you will find a list of free online sources that I have used to discover some of the history of San Francisco. The best way for me to help you go through this process is to show you, so let's get started.

1. Pick a Location

The first step is to pick a location in the city that you have an interest in. Perhaps you are currently living or working in the city, or maybe you have some history there. In my particular case, my family was among the San Francisco pioneers. But I want to show you something from scratch, that I have no prior knowledge of, so that we can go through the process together. I LOVE the beautiful old homes in Pacific Heights, so I've walked around the city with Google Streetview (since I live in Los Angeles now) to find an old house that's begging me to look them up. And it looks like I've found my place!!!

These three houses (picture below) on the 2000 block of Vallejo street are actually located right across the street from where my 3rd great-grandfather, Carl Leichter lived in the 1890s. When he stepped outside his house every day, this is what he saw. Or was it? Carl died in 1899 and I have no idea when these homes were built, who built them, who lived there or even what the house numbers are (or were!) but I'm guessing by the architecture that their history begins sometime in the late 1890s. Lets see if I'm right! :) For the purpose of this tutorial I'm just going to pick one of the houses. The one on the left seems to be the easiest because it has the most unique architectural features - all those towers! And it's just cool looking.


2. Find a Name

The next step is to get a name of someone who lived or owned the building at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. You're first thought might be to look up the address in an old city directory - but there are two major problems with that. One, finding an address without knowing the name is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and two, the house number today is not necessarily the same house number that it was in 1900. In fact, house numbers in Pacific Heights seemed to have changed somewhat regularly prior to 1905 as more and more buildings were popping up and the numbers had to be re-evaluated. So the best place to start is with the property and building itself. And for that I go to the old block books and the 1899/1900 Sandborn Insurance Map.


Start by looking through the index of the Sandborn map at the top of this page to locate the detail of your block. The block I'm looking for is located between Vallejo on the north, Broadway on the south, Buchanan to the west and Laguna to the east. The index tells me that this is Block 919 and should be on Page 296. Now I've found the block and posted it here (above). This is an aerial view of the block. I've turned it around so that Vallejo Street is on the top, or north, which is the correct baring for this block. I've done this to make it easier to compare the block to google maps today, although I don't really have to do that in this case being that it is so clear which building is which.

See Vallejo St? (it's written in Caps upside down). And that cluster of three buildings on the top half of the block, facing the word "VALLEJO", are the same three in the picture! The round towered architectural features are clear. Now the house I'm interested in is the eastern most house of the group - the one on the right in the Sandborn map and on the left in the Street View picture. I still don't have a name, but now I know what the house number was in 1900 - it was 2027 Vallejo Street. The house in the middle is 2029 and the last house, the one that is kinda of a grayish-green color with one tower today, is 2031 Vallejo. Knowing these numbers will come in handy later.

Next lets go to the 1901 Block Book to get some names of the property owners. Keep in mind, the name of the property owner was not necessarily the name of the person living in the house that year. People did rent out their homes! Go to the Block Book on this page. The first few pages of the book have index maps similar to the Sandborn maps that we were looking at earlier. Pacific Heights was in the Western Addition on page viii. It's easy to spot by looking at the parks - Alta Plaza and Lafayette. Zooming in I see that the block I'm looking for is Block 242, and the listing below the map tells me that Block 242 is located on Page 181.


So this is the block with the names of the property owners in 1901! If we compare this map to the Sandborn map, it's pretty easy to see all the property lines and who owns what. The largest property, that big section on the left, was owned by Eleanor Martin. Our three houses are next to it on the top. From left to right: 2031 Vallejo was owned by Frank H. Powers; 2029 Vallejo was owned by Florin L. Jones and our house, 2027 Vallejo, was owned by Thomas F. Boyle. We should also take note that the next house, on the other side of the empty lot owned by the Savings and Loan Society, was a house owned by Jonathan J. Boyle, probably a relative to Thomas. But lets concentrate on Thomas, and most likely Jonathan will show up as well.

3. Who Lived There?

Now we know that Thomas F. Boyle owned the house in 1901. But we don't know for sure if he ever lived there. The best place to start from this point are the city directories. But before we do that I'd like to take a look at the 1900 Federal Census. The census is like a little snapshot of the people that lived on the block in June 1900 and will also confirm if Thomas actually lived in the house. Luckily, it is available for free on FamilySearch. You'll have to log in to view the images, but again it's free and I have never received junk mail from them. Click here to go to the search engine for the census. Now let's type in "Thomas Boyle" for the first and last name and "San Francisco" for location. A list of men named Thomas Boyle comes up, but they are all either children or not living in San Francisco, so let's try a neighbor. If we type in "Florin Jones", the second option on the list is a "Floren L Jones". This looks like our guy.

Looking at the census record, it looks like the enumerator was having a hard time that day. Usually they would work block to block, starting with a house on a corner and going house to house around the block until they reached their starting point. But here he had some issues. We see 2009 Vallejo St which actually starts on the previous page, then he moves to 2615 Laguna Street, then back to Vallejo, number 2011, the home of John Boyle. Remember Jonathan? Probably a relative to Thomas. Next is Florin at 2029 Vallejo, but wait! Where is Thomas at 2027? He's supposed to be between these two houses! And for that matter, the home of Frank Powers at 2031 Vallejo is also missing! So what happened?? To be honest, I'm not sure, but it's interesting. Usually if a house is not occupied, the enumerator would still make a note of it and show it empty. They weren't just counting the people, they were counting the dwellings as well. It could be that the house was just in the process of being built in June 1900, and so the enumerator decided not to include it, as it wasn't finished yet, but that there was still enough information for the Sanborn Map people to get it into their detail. But this seems unlikely to me. Most of the Sandborn information was collected in late 1899 and the house should have been ready by June 1900. So what, did the enumerator guy just mess up? That is my guess. But before we continue and find out, I still want to walk you through a census record and all it's parts. Most people that are unfamiliar with them tend to only look at the names and miss the extra little features that are available.


So we'll take a quick look at John Boyle instead. We read these from left to right.

  • 1. Name of the street - "Vallejo"
  • 2. The house number - 2011.
  • 3. The house as counted - 204th house counted by the enumerator.
  • 4. The household as counted - 204th household counted by the enumerator. (he seems to have skipped the empty houses)
  • 5. Name - Boyle, John J.
  • 6. Relationship to head of the house - John listed as "Head", Julia as "wife" and their three kids as "son"/"daughter"
  • 7. Race - "w" for White; "b" for Black or "neg" for Negro; "i" for Indian (Native); "c" for Chinese; "Jap" for Japanese; "m" for Mulatto
  • 8. Gender - male or female
  • 9. Month of birth (only asked in the 1900 Census)
  • 10. Year of birth
  • 11. Age
  • 12. Marital status - "m" for married; "s" for single; "Wd" for widow; "d" for divorced
  • 13. Number of years married.
  • 14. Number of children (only women were asked)
  • 15. Number of children still living (the sad question) - Julia had lost a child.
  • 16. Place of Birth (state or country)
  • 17. Father's place of birth
  • 18. Mother's place of birth
  • 19. Year of immigration
  • 20. Number of years in the country
  • 21. If "Alien" or "Naturalized"
  • 22. Occupation
  • 23. Months NOT employed
  • 24. Months attended school
  • 25. Can they read?
  • 26. Can they write?
  • 27. Can they speak English?
  • 28. If the house is "rented" or "owned"
  • 29. If owned, is it owned "free" or "mortgaged"
  • 30. Is it a "house" or "farm"
  • 31. If farm, number on the farm schedule (an addition to the census)

So now that you've seen a census record, let's continue looking for Thomas. We'll start with three the 1900 City Directory to search for "Thomas F. Boyle". If you're weird like me you might find it cool to think that this is the exact same way someone else would have tried to find Thomas back in 1900. Well, sans the computer screen and keyboard. So we go to "Boyle" and then "Thomas" and there he is!!! Now we know that Thomas F. Boyle was a business manager for "The Bulletin", a San Francisco newspaper that is no longer in operation. His office was at 233 Kearny and his residence - the "r" - was at 2027 Vallejo. That's our house! But we're not done with this directory yet. Look through the other people named Boyle and see if anyone else lived on the block. We already know that we should find John, but we might also come across some adult sons or, on rare occasions in 1900, a woman who has a more independent life. Now I've looked through and found John J. Boyle at 2011 Vallejo. He was a deputy for the Tax Collectors Office. There isn't anyone else named Boyle living on the street but I did see a Joseph Boyle who was working as a the chief mail clerk at The Bulletin. He lived elsewhere in the city but he could be a relative considering that they have the same last name and work for the same company. It's good to keep an eye out for these types of clues if you're working on a genealogy.


So now I'm curious, when did Thomas move into this house? The house is listed in the 1900 Sandborn map and he's in the 1900 City Directory, but the 1900 census guy missed him. Did he just make a mistake? My next job is to go through the list of City Directories and work my way back starting from 1899, and then again from 1901 forward, to figure out how long he was at this address. The complete list of Directories is on the Resource Archives page. As you go through the years be sure to take great notes. Write down each listing exactly as it was originally written. Do not take certain abbreviations for granted, they may surprise you later. As an example: "Leale, William str Pioneer" doesn't mean he lived on Pioneer Street, it means he was the captain of the Steamer Pioneer. A residence will always be marked with either "dwl" for dwelling, usually before 1880, an "r" for residence, usually about 1880 to 1930 or an "h" for home, usually after 1930.

  • 1895 - Boyle, Thomas F., cashier Call, r2110 1/2 Larkin
  • 1896 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager San Francisco Call, 710 Market, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1897 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager The Bulletin, 622 Montgomery, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1898 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager The Bulletin, 233 Kearny, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1899 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager The Bulletin, 233 Kearny, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1900 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager The Bulletin, 233 Kearny, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1901 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager The Bulletin, 233 Kearny, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1902 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager The Bulletin, 233 Kearny and Election Commissioner, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1903 - Boyle, Thomas F., business manager The Bulletin, 233 Kearny and Election Commissioner, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1904 - Boyle, Thomas F., member of Board of Education, City Hall, r2027 Vallejo
  • 1905 - Boyle, Thomas F., member of Board of Education, City Hall, r2807 Steiner
  • 1906 - (no directory due to earthquake)
  • 1907 - Boyle, Thomas F., member of Board of Education, r2807 Steiner

So now I've gone through the city directories and found some good information. It looks like Thomas moved into the house in 1896 after receiving a promotion for "cashier" to "business manager" at the San Francisco Call. The next year he started working in the same position at The Bulletin and in 1902 he began working in public office, first as the Election Commissioner and later as a member of the Board of Education. He moved to Steiner street in 1904/05 and worked at the new City Hall. Notice that "City Hall" is no longer listed in 1907 - it was completely destroyed in the earthquake. So this also tells us that the house was most likely built in 1896, (I was right!) unless someone else lived here before him, which I think is unlikely. It also tells me that he was my grandpa Carl's neighbor for about four years from 1896 to 1899. I'll do further research on Thomas and his time in the city later, but for now lets take a look and see who else we can find who lived here.

I would start by going through the rest of the block books, of which I have links to five others (all the Resource Archives page), one of which, 1907, only has the outskirts of the city. The 1894 Block Book shows that the property was owned by the Savings and Loan Society, so that further supports that Thomas Boyle was the first owner. The other three, in Jan 1906, Oct 1906 and 1910, all show that the new owner was Phin. F. Ferguson. The last time we saw Thomas in the house was in 1904, so I'm going to pick up in 1905 and search for "Phineas Ferguson". I wont bore you with all the gory details (you can check his page for the full listing) but the rest of the city directories tell me that Phineas F. Ferguson, who owned the Metropolitan Laundry Company, lived in the house starting some time in 1906 or 1907. It could have been 1906 or even late 1905, but a city directory was never made for 1906 due to the earthquake and fire. Instead, they just made temporary business and telephone directories. Phineas lived with his wife Annie in the home until his death in about 1924. Two men, who may have been there sons, in 1909 and 1910. They were Howard and P. Frank Phineas. After Phineas Sr died, his wife was listed in the directories as a widow and she continued to live there until 1935 - then her name no longer shows up. She may have passes away, or she may have moved away, but no one else by the name of Ferguson is shown with that address after 1935.

So now we have a 40 year history of the residents of 2027 Vallejo Street! First Thomas F. Boyle and family from 1896 to 1904, and the Phineas F. Ferguson and family from 1905 to 1935. So now it's time to move on to the next step…

4. Finding the Heart

We are almost done. The next, and most difficult step, can also be the most rewarding. Now we know who the people are and when they lived there, but we don't really know WHO they were. Sometimes this is just impossible to find out and, certainly, everyone has secrets, goals and dreams that we will never have the ability to know - not unless they left behind a diary for us to read. And, perhaps, it's not our place to know. There is a reason, after all, why these things are, or were, private. So we have to do the best that we can with what we have, and one of the best places to find this type of special information is the newspaper. Luckily for us, a large portion of three newspapers are online - the San Francisco Call and the Daily Alta in San Francisco and the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, which covered a lot of San Francisco stories. And they are digital and ready to search for free!

So lets take a look at the California Digital Newspaper Collection. This site also has a lot of great pages from the LA Times and other papers, but the information for San Francisco is just priceless. I'm going to start with the first owner, Thomas Boyle, and I'm going to type his name into the search with quotes like this: "Thomas Boyle". Using the quotes means that the engine will search for that specific phrase rather than just any page that happens to have both of those words on it - and that could be a lot of pages. In fact, let's see. If we type "Thomas Boyle" with the quotes, we get 224 hits, that is already a LOT! If we do it without the quotes, we get 5,500 hits! That's over 5,000 pages that we don't need to see. But 224 is still a lot and I really don't feel like sifting through all of those, so I'm going to add San Francisco and search "Thomas Boyle" "San Francisco". This type of search will give me all of the pages that have both the phrases "Thomas Boyle" and "San Francisco" in them, but not necessarily as one long phrase. This gave me 74 hits, a MUCH better number. Lots of info to go through with a greater chance of getting something good, but not so much that it would seem overwhelming. In fact, I may go back and check the other 224 pages, because it does go quick, but the likelihood is, with such a common name as Thomas Boyle, most of those hits are for other men in other cities. If you're searching an uncommon name like Guerraz or Pitbladdo, I would only search the last name and see what comes up as there is a greater chance that anyone you find is connected to your subject in some way. Likewise, if you are searching for someone with a common name like Smith or Johnson, never assume that the person you are reading about is actually your subject unless their is additional information like a unique occupation or specific address to identify them with. With that said, let's see what comes up for Thomas Boyle…

Searching through the various articles, which highlight the words "Thomas Boyle" making information very easy to find, I learn that he was a Democrat and very well respected in the political circles of the city and that he was appointed to his various positions, rather than elected. In fact, the papers say that he had never shown any direct interest in politics until his life-long friend Eugene Schmitz was elected Mayor of San Francisco. And look! They printed his portrait in the paper! :) Now we know what he looks like. Not a bad looking guy! Let's see what else we can find out.


One very interesting article pops up in August 1908 when Miss Donaldine Cameron, the head of the Chinese mission orphanage in the city, tried to enroll three young Chinese-American girls in her care into one of the cities schools. The principal refused to admit them because California law prohibited non-white children to attend school with white children. It also notes that the girls were born of Chinese parents but given to the orphanage as infants and were raised entirely in the western culture, making the issue completely about race rather than, say, a language barrier. Thomas seems to have been genuinely sympathetic to the situation and tried to come up with a solution. He was quoted as saying - "We know they are charming and lovely girls, and we discussed the problem from every viewpoint. But under the law no other decision was possible." A lawyer was also hired by Miss Cameron, but a loop hole could not be found by him either. Another article tells of how his brother was tragically crushed by a streetcar on Geary Street. Then an article notes that Thomas, and another brother John (yes, the same John Boyle that lived next to him on Vallejo Street, he was related after all), had both been dismissed from their civic positions. Odd considering all of the wonderful and nice things I have read about him. So many people with high praises, various moments when he was brought in to make peace between parties, trying to find ways to better education in the city and to work around prejudicial laws.

Then I found a paper that finally gave a reason: "Thomas Boyle, whose open association with the disgraced ex-Mayor Schmitz led to his being dismissed summarily from the city service." So he was fired because of something that his old best friend had done. What was it? This calls for a google search. Wikipedia (and let me be clear, do not trust anything on Wikipedia as hard evidence, rather use it as a guide for further exploration) says that Schmitz was charged and found guilty of extortion in 1907. I'm sure there is far more detailed and accurate information in the San Francisco papers, but I'm not ready to sift through that just yet. But at least we've gotten a good amount of info on Thomas.

Now I'm sure that there is quite a bit more that can be found on Thomas and I haven't even started to look further into Phineas Ferguson, but I will stop for now and complete the research on them later and add them to the Wiki so you can peruse them if you like. For the purpose of this tutorial, you now know what to do :) Have fun in your search!!! And if you ever have any questions or aren't sure about something you have found, please feel free to send an e-mail and I will be happy to help :)

- Dale Sheldon (moc.liamg|atanostilm#moc.liamg|atanostilm)
Founder of San Francisco, Block by Block