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Genealogical Research in New York

Genealogy Research New York

Home to one of the first immigrant settlements in America, and one of the country’s all time most popular ports of entry, it’s quite possible that the “Empire State” could hold some answers to your ancestry. But with a population of nearly 20 million, and a history stretching back four hundred years, finding your ancestor there will require a consummate strategy. The racial, religious, and cultural demographics of New York State however, add to its richness of character, and make for fertile researching grounds for family historians.

We have sought high and low to find you the very best resources and the most accurate information available for doing genealogical research in New York State, both online and off. There are and abundance of genealogical records available for New York, and we’ll show you:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

Initially we’re going to cover the early history and settlement of New York State. Knowing where its population came from, where they settled, and where they may have migrated to is valuable information to the genealogical researcher. That type of knowledge can direct you as to where you should look for a particular surname, even what period to search for it in.

A Brief Genealogical History of New York

It is believed the earliest inhabitants of New York State arrived in the area around 12,000 years ago. These peoples grew into what became the Algonquian and Iroquoian cultures, which included the Iroquois, Mohawk and Cherokee nations. The first Europeans to discover New York were the French, who arrived in 1524, but the first to lay claim to the land were the Dutch in 1609.

The Dutch initially made up the majority of New York’s population, and this remained so until the 18th century. By that time colonists from England had settled, and the Pilgrims of New England slowly began to migrate into Long Island and Staten Island by way of Connecticut. Others expanded into the areas that are modern day Westchester and Albany.

Revolutions across the European continent in1848 saw many liberalist Germans arrive in New York during that year. The Germans immigrants were generally warmly received, and established shops, schools, newspapers, and some like Carl Schurz (US Senator and Secretary to the Interior) became political leaders. In the 1850’s alone more than three quarters of a million Germans passed through New York via Ellis Island, and established communities such as Little Germany (now Alphabet City, Manhattan), and Yorkville on the Upper East Side.

The bulk of Irish immigrants began arriving during the 1850’s, but they were present in smaller numbers before that time. Irish names have been found on some of the ancient registers of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Earl of Limerick. Irish continued to immigrate to the New World throughout the Revolutionary War period, and following the War of 1812, a steady stream of them made their way to American shores. The greatest numbers came during the course of the Great Famine, and soon made up a quarter of the east coast population, many of them settling in Lower Manhattan

The Italians weren’t as warmly welcomed as the Germans and Protestant Irish, and so clustered together in their own small communities as a matter of survival. Over 600,000 Italian immigrants arrived in New York between 1890 and 1900, most of them from southern Italy and Sicily.

Jewish immigrants arrived in the wake of the Germans and Irish in the late nineteenth century. Many came from the Russian Empire of that era, which would have included Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland and other Russian satellite nations.

  • Important Genealogical Dates in New York History
    • 1625 – New Amsterdam founded by the Dutch West India Company.
    • 1674 – The Dutch cede New York permanently to England after the Third Anglo-Dutch War.
    • 1702 – Yellow fever epidemic kills more than 500 people.
    • 1783 – New Yorkers celebrate Evacuation Day, the day George Washington returned to the city and the last British forces left the United States.
    • 1795 – Yellow fever epidemic kills 732
    • 1798 – The "great epidemic", a major yellow fever epidemic, kills 2086 people
    • 1805 – Yellow fever epidemic, during which as many as 50,000 people are said to have fled the city.
    • 1832 – Cholera pandemic breaks out in New York City on June 26, peaks at 100 deaths per day during July, and finally abates in December. More than 3500 people die in the city, another 80,000 people, one third of the population, are said to have fled the city during the epidemic.
    • 1863 – Approximately 50,000 people riot in protest of President Abraham Lincoln's announcement of a draft for troops to fight in the American Civil War. Over 100 are killed and many African Americans flee the city. The movie Gangs of New York takes place during the draft riots.
    • 1918 – The "Great Influenza Pandemic" rages across the country and worldwide. On one particularly virulent October day, 851 people died in New York City alone.
    • September 11, 2001 – The two 110-story World Trade Center towers and several surrounding buildings are destroyed by two jetliners in part of a coordinated terrorist attack by radical Terrorists ("9/11"). In 2004, the count of the dead in New York City alone from the 9/11 attacks is set at over 2,600 people.

Common New York State Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching New York ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of New York.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

New York Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

New York Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.

New York Genealogical and Historical Societies

Genealogical and historical societies have access to extensive catalogues of genealogical data. They are also able to offer expert guidance for genealogical researchers. Many members are professional genealogists who are most willing to share their expertise in finding ancestors. 

New York Genealogical Society – census, vital records, religious records, city directories, military records, family histories
6000 Douglas Ave.
P.O. Box 7735
Des Moines, IA 50322
Telephone: 515-276-0287

Old Fort Genealogical Society – cemetery records, township maps, old settlers list
Ft Madison Public Library
1920 Ave E
Ft Madison, IA  52627

New York Family History Centers

Additional New York Genealogical Resources

New York Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on New York genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of New York Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

New York Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the New York Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

New York Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

Historical New York Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

New York City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in New York is the New York Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available city and historical directory related to New York.

New York Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find New York vital records

Some county clerks kept vital records as early as 1838. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of these documents for many counties which can be accessed at New York Family History Centers. Existing originals are found in the county clerk’s office or in the New York Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) for that county.

Original copies of New York Vital Records for death, birth, marriage, and divorce may be ordered from:

New York Department of Public Health
Division of Vital Records
605 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, IL 62702-5097
Telephone: (217) 782-6553
Fax: 217-785-3209

The New York State Archives has an New York Statewide Marriage Index, 1763–1900 which contains one million marriages, or two million names.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Federal census records for New York exist from 1800 to 1990. Unfortunately the 1800 census was lost, and the 1810 census contains only a few names from Randolph County. The 1890 census was destroyed, though a few names from Mound Township in McDonough County remain.

New York Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records. Below are links archives that maintain church records, as well as a few databases that can be viewed online.

The Family History Library contains many church records from a variety of denominations on microfilm.

The New York State Archives collected some early New York church records that are now held by the New York State Library.

St. Clair County Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has compiled the Index to Bethel Baptist Church Minutes and Membership Lists, 1809 - 1909 for St. Clair County, New York

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

New York Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

New York Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for New York Cemetery records
    • New York Tombstone Transcription Project - death and burial records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – huge database of New York cemetery record transcriptions
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

New York Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our New York Newspaper Obituaries Listings from hundreds of New York newspapers online for free.

New York Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors. Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

Since 1964, the circuit court in each county has custody of the earlier court records including those of the former Cook County Superior Court and a few other Chicago area courts. They can be found at:

Clerk of Circuit CourtArchives Room 1113
Richard J. Daley Center
50 W. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602
Telephone: 312- 603-6601
Fax: 312-603-4974

The New York Regional Archives has a huge database of court and county records for the entire state of New York

Family Search – has an online collection of probate records, which includes will, indexes, dating from 1819-1970

New York Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

US National Archives – Immigration and Naturalization records for the entire United States

Family Search has two searchable online indexes, the New York, Northern District (Eastern Division), Naturalization Index, 1926-1979, and the New York, Northern District Naturalization Index, 1840-1950

New York Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female New York Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in New York State where traditional records may not reveal them.

Marriage and Divorce Records

The State Department of Health in Concord has the following indexes of marriages and divorces from county to state level on microfilm that can be very useful for finding female ancestors.

  • New York Marriage Register, 1829-1887, (film 1671684 ff.) – Municipal Archives
  • Brooklyn Marriage Certificates, 1866-1937, (film 1653852 ff.) – King’s County Clerk’s Office, Brooklyn
  • Manhattan Marriage Records and index, 1866-1937 (film 1522995 ff.) – Municipal Archives
  • Queens Marriage Records, 1881-1937, (film 1908328) – Queens County Clerk’s Office
  • Bronx Marriage Index, 1898-1937, (film 1983782 ff.) – City Clerk’s Office, Bronx
  • Albany (city) Marriages, 1847, 1870-1917, and Albany County, 1908-1936, City clerk’s Office, Albany
  • Buffalo County Marriages, 1811-1935, - Erie County Clerk’s office, Buffalo
  • Yonker Marriages, 1870-present, Health Center Building, Yonkers


  • In the Eyes of the Law; Women, Marriage and Property in 19th Century New York, Norma Basch (Cornell University press, 1982).
  • Women and Property in Colonial New York: The Transition From Dutch to English Law, 1643-1727, Linda Briggs Biemer, (University of Michigan Press, 1983)
  • Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars; Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925, Elizabeth Ewen, (New York Monthly Review Press, 1985)
  • New Immigrant Women at Work; Italians and Jews in New York City, 1880-1905, T and BB Caroli Kessner, (Journal of Ethnic Studies)
  • Immigrant Life in New York City, Ernst, Roberts, (Columbia University Press, 1949)

Selected Resources for New York State Women’s History

Adirondack Women in History
5 Middle Road
PO Box 565
Willsboro, NY 12996

James Wheelock Clark library
Russell Sage College
45 Ferry St.
Troy, NY 12180

National Women’s Hall of Fame
PO Box 335
Seneca Falls, NY 13148-0335

Common New York Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in New York and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Adams, Alderman, Aldrich, Alexander, Allen, Andrews, Armstrong, Babcock, Baker, Barber, Barnes, Benjamin, Bennett, Bingham, Bishop, Bosworth, Brewer, Brooks, Brown, Burdick, Butterfield, Campbell, Casey, Chandler, Chapman, Church, Clark, Coates, Cole, Cook, Coon, Cottrell, Corbin, Crowley, Davis, Dean, DeVeaux, Dodge, Driscoll, Dunham, Earley, Elliot, Ely, Evans, Fairbanks, Farwell, Finch, Flanagan, Foster, Forbes, Fuller, Gee, German, Gilbert, Gleason, Gordon, Graves, Grey, Green, Gross, Hall, Hammond, Hardy, Harrington, Harris, Haskins, Hill, Hitchcock, Hooker, Horton, Hungerford, Hunt, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson, Jones, Kellogg, King, Kingsbury, Knight, Lee, Leonard, Lewis, Lowell, Madison, Marsh, Maxson, McCarthy, McDonald, Merrick, Miller, Mills, Moore, Murphy, Nicholls, Norton, O’Brien, Oliver, Osborn, Parker, Peck, Perrin, Perry, Peterson, Potter, Randolph, Reynolds, Rice, Rich, Robbins, Robinson, Rogers, Sanford, Scott, Sherman, Sherwood, Slocum, Smith, Spencer, Stevens, Stuck, Swift, Taylor, Thomas, Ward, White, Wilcox, Williams, Wilson, Young

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