Researching Your New York Ancestors

by Thomas MacEntee | Dec 13, 2011

I grew up in New York and as a child I marveled at all the historic locations my family and I visited in every part of the state. As an adult, when saying that I was from New York, most automatically assumed "New York City," which is quite common. The truth is that the entire state of New York was vital to the westward expansion of the young United States after the Revolutionary War and was pivotal to the economic growth of the nation as well.

Luckily, New York is a treasure trove of records for researchers, as long as you understand where to look and know some of the tricks to locating what you need.


Research Strategy

  • Overall strategy: once you've gathered basic information from your family, determine what records you want to find. Archives.com is a good place to start your search. Look for census records and vital records and don't forget the vast newspaper holdings!
  • Next, evaluate those records and determine if they fit into your other research and family history. Enter your findings in an online family tree (again, check out Archives.com) and don't forget to share your discoveries with family and other researchers!
  • One valuable resource unique to New York is the town historian; state law requires that each town have one. Search for them on a county level in any listing of other town and county governmental offices.
  • Finally, remember that not all records are available online! Get out and visit your local library or a FamilySearch Center.

History

  • Early history: the Dutch were the first Europeans to claim the area beginning in 1609 until 1664 when the English took over and renamed New Netherland to New York. A pivotal player during the Revolutionary War (despite having the largest percentage of Loyalists), New York became a magnet for New Englanders desperate for land and economic opportunity.
  • 19th Century: the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought settlers heading to the Midwest, but many workers remained behind to establish businesses along the canal route. During the Civil War, almost 1/6th of Union forces were New Yorkers. From the 1840s through the early 20th century immigration vastly expanded New York's population.
  • 20th Century: immigration also heralded financial success as settlers seek opportunity, building New York into a financial powerhouse. During the Great Depression, those in the rural areas flocked to the cities in search of work or tried their luck out West. Post-World War II New York was marked by expansion of its transportation system with the St. Lawrence Seaway as well as the New York State Thruway. The later part of century saw an exodus to the suburbs leading to explosive growth on Long Island and other areas surrounding New York City.

Regions

As for regions, some say there are only two: "The City" which means New York City and perhaps even Long Island and "Upstate" meaning anything outside of New York City. Here are some commonly recognized regions for New York:

  • North Country New York - includes city of Watertown; a rural area of the Adirondacks at the very northern part of the state.
  • Western New York - includes the cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse; the area below the North Country and west to Canada.
  • Central New York - includes the cities of Troy and Utica; also includes the Finger Lakes region.
  • Capital District - includes the capital city Albany, Schenectady and parts of the Mohawk Valley.
  • Southern Tier - includes the cities of Binghamton and Elmira; an area along the Delaware River border with Pennsylvania.
  • Hudson Valley - includes the cities of Kingston, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie and White Plains; an area along the Hudson River from Yonkers up to Albany.
  • New York City - includes all five boroughs: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.
  • Long Island - all of Long Island except for Brooklyn and Queens.

Migration Patterns

Prior to the Revolutionary War, most settlement was from New York City north to Albany. The post-war era brought a migration of Yankees from New England across New York. The construction of the Erie Canal (finished in 1825) attracted those seeking work. Once completed, many of these workers settled in the canal cities such including Utica, Troy, Rochester and Buffalo or followed the timber trade into the North Country of New York, as well as Ohio and Michigan. The mid-19th century saw an influx of German and Irish immigrants and the late 19th to early 20th century was marked by immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.


General Websites


Vital Records

Records are kept on both the local and state level depending upon the record type and the date at which statewide registration began. Remember, you can also order vital records for New York through Archives.com.

  • Birth Records - State has records since 1881 but in some cities such as Albany and Buffalo, records before 1914 are kept locally. New York City records from 1910; prior to 1910.
  • Death Records - Again, the state has records since 1881 but check locally. New York City records from 1949; prior to 1949 see http://www.nyc.gov/html/records/home.html.
  • Marriage Records - Start on the town level rather than the county or state level for marriage records.

Note: due to its sizeable population, New York City records are often separated out from the rest of the state records and must be ordered from a different agency.

The Italian Genealogy Group has vast online databases of birth, death and marriage records. And don't forget Steve Morse's One Step Webpages especially for the Bride and Groom Index of New York City.


Census

New York conducted a state-wide census every 10 years starting in 1825 through 1875. In addition, a census was taken in 1892, 1905, 1915 and 1925. Not all counties are included. See the FamilySearch Research Wiki for detailed information.


Cemeteries

Many of the cemeteries in New York have been inventoried and transcribed. Here are some sites to access these records:


Church Records

Church records for New York are varied and most reside on the local level. The best starting point is the FamilySearch Research Wiki article on New York Church Records.


City & Business Directories

Don't limit yourself to the big cities - even small towns had directories of businesses and organizations. Check out City Directories - New York.


Court Records

The maze of courthouses and jurisdictions is not an easy one to navigate from the New Netherlands colony to the present. Again, FamilySearch Research Wiki to the rescue with its timeline of the New York Court System.


Immigration & Naturalization

New York is the home of Ellis Island as well as its predecessor Castle Garden where millions of immigrants streamed in to the United States. Many settled in New York, especially in New York City.


Land Records and Deeds

Land records were not kept until the English arrived after 1664 and most of these are in the form of land patents and manor records. Both patents and manors contained tracts of land parceled out by the governor, and land companies thrived after the Revolutionary War to satisfy the needs of New Englanders streaming into New York. Most land records are stored on the local level meaning towns and counties.


Maps

Get a better understanding of New York, especially its changing borders with Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, by consulting historical maps. See New York State Historical Maps.


Military Records

New York has an extensive military history, especially during the Revolutionary War. Start with the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center and don't forget FamilySearch resources on New York Military Records.

In addition, note that many New Yorkers were "Loyalists" who sided with the British and left for Canada at the end of the war. See The King's Men for more information on the different Loyalist groups in New York.


Newspapers and Periodicals

There are many newspaper resources available for New York, many at Archives.com. Some of the lesser known online resources include:


Wills and Probate Records

New York wills and probate records are not easily located due to the fact that many different courts and venues handled such records. Again, the FamilySearch Research Wiki is the best starting point to sort out time periods and locales for these records.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society has a free database for New York Wills from 1626 - 1836.


Tools & Miscellaneous

Here are some interesting tools and sites to help with your New York research.


Conclusion

The modern concept of New York as a bustling urban metropolis doesn't give an accurate depiction of a state that has been pivotal to the development of the United States. Various waves of residents, starting with the Dutch in 1609, have left behind an abundance of records for the family historian with New York ancestry.


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