New York Genealogy

In the United States, generally speaking, each state has jurisdiction over the government records that are kept regarding their inhabitants' births, marriages, deaths, divorces, land transactions, probates, health, disease, education etc. They are not responsible for private record-keeping efforts such as those done by churches, cemeteries, community groups, companies, businesses etc. The federal government oversees the taking of the national census every decade, but not of state censuses. Certain cities have also participated in early record-keeping efforts even prior to their state's commencement of such things. And then there are numerous other entities involved with keeping records; these include shipping lines, publication companies (city and county directories, and phone books), orphanages, hospitals and military organizations.

If you are researching your genealogy in New York, then this article is for you. Since all states have essentially the same basic types of federal records (census and vital or civil registration), we will devote this article to sources that are specific to New York genealogy. Much of the information I give in this article comes from Val D. Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (2nd Edition, 1990), a standard in its field. This is not a complete list of sources.

In the past, genealogists have dubbed New York "the genealogy grave yard". Part of the problem has been the difficulty in finding records but that is changing as people put more information online. New York is not a state whose records are at risk, so the Family History Library has not previously emphasized microfilming them. Another problem is one of abundance rather than scarcity. New York City is one of the largest cities in the world and the landing place of most American immigrants. Since many immigrants tended to move out of the city as soon as they were able, finding your ancestors on the move can be difficult. There are, however, immigration and naturalization records for both the city and the state. Researchers should first check subscription web sites such as for these records, although many of them are simply indexes. Original passenger lists, 1820-1897, are on film at the National Archives, from which Footnote gets most of their material. The Family History Library has also filmed these passenger lists. The Mormon Church also has lists of converts who came through New York on their way west from Europe, the British Isles, the Scandinavian mission, the Netherlands mission and the Swedish mission for various time periods. Another source is published indexes by country of emigration. For example, there are volumes of Irish who emigrated to America during the Potato Famine of 1846-1851, and the Hamburg (Germany) Passenger Lists.

Land records can be a valuable source for genealogy in New York, since it is one of the original thirteen colonies. Early land records give much more family information than do later ones. Knowing where your ancestors lived, if before censuses, can lead you to church records or cemeteries for vital information. Families tended to live near each other so, once you find one family, look at their neighbors. Taxes were levied on property so don't ignore tax records, or probates. You may be able to find land ownership maps in local libraries or historical societies. Land transactions for New York, as in most states, were recorded in the county clerk's office, but not so for New York, Kings, Queens, or Bronx counties). These counties' records are with the Register of the City of New York. Genealogy is made much easier by looking at these records.

Libraries, historical societies and archives are invaluable for doing genealogy in New York. Some of these are Grosvenor Library (Buffalo), Holland Society of New York (NYC), Huguenot Historical Society (New Paltz), Long Island Historical Society (Brooklyn), New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYC), New York Public Library (NYC) and the New York State Library (Albany). The Family History Library subscribes to almost the same genealogy periodicals that the New York Public Library (NYPL) gets. NYPL also has a collection of American Loyalist claims papers, and the New York Historical Society has military muster rolls from 1755-1764.

As you can see, there are many sources for researching genealogy in New York - you just need to know where to find them!

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