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Doing genealogy research in New York is challenging, but possible

By   /   February 7, 2013  /   Be the first to comment

Climbing the Family Tree

The Egg at the Empire State Plaza, right across the street from the state library and archives, is probably Albany’s most famous structure, and is a center for the performing arts.

Leonard J. DeFrancisci

The Egg at the Empire State Plaza, right across the street from the state library and archives, is probably Albany’s most famous structure, and is a center for the performing arts.

I took a research trip to Albany, N.Y., with the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in July. My Gardiner/ Gardner line started in Newport in 1640 and my ancestors moved to Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts before returning to Rhode Island in the 1920s. I also have a couple of female lines with New York ancestors.

I heard New York was a black hole; so, a trip with experts seemed like a good idea. It was. NEHGS trips are great. This was my second and I will definitely go on more.

A plus is how much of the planning they do for you. I received rules for the N.Y. State Library and N.Y. State Archives, where to eat in and around the hotel, a rundown of records useful for genealogical research in the State Archives, and tips on searching the library and archives online in advance.

Once in New York, there were talks by the experts, handouts from them, orientations at the library and archives on the first morning, and one-on-one sessions with the experts.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from trips, it’s that you can never do too much preparation in advance.

I focused on nine surnames. I made a list of what I wanted to discover for each. We had to create this for the experts anyway, so they could do advance research for us. But, this is a great idea even if researching on your own. It forces you to focus.

We got copies of each other’s research lists, too, but I didn’t discover relatives among the other researchers, who came from all around the country.

I started gearing up a month before the trip. I did copious research online at home. I didn’t want to waste time in New York looking for items already available online.

I went to the websites for the state library and archives and searched through Excelsior (the online catalog) for books, newspapers, state censuses, articles, manuscripts and anything else pertaining to my people and places. I printed out call numbers for what I wanted to save time.

Then, I created other items to bring:

— A separate list for vital records I wanted, with possible dates and places.

— A historic timeline of New York for the years in question and maps for my areas of interest.

— Family group sheets and pedigree charts.

— A list of N.Y. state censuses to check (based on a list online of what towns and years were available).

The library and archives

Between the archives and the library, I could have used a month instead of four days. And, I never made it down the street to the Albany County Hall of Records. I will have to make the trip again sometime. It’s about a four-hour drive.

Conveniently, the state library and state archives are in the same building, on the 7th and 11th floors, respectively. You need a photo ID to get into the archives.

Laptops, iPads, etc., are allowed. They recommended a locking cord for your equipment (something that never occurred to me).

Scanners aren’t allowed in the archives, so I practiced taking pictures of documents with my digital camera (no flash is allowed on the 11th floor). Copies were 10 cents and I made quite a few, but it’s easier to take pictures of photos, posters, maps, etc.

Pens and mechanical pencils aren’t allowed in the archives. Pens are OK in the library.

Also not allowed are three-ring binders, spiral notebooks with pockets, computer and camera cases, overcoats, briefcases and suitcases, handbags and pocketbooks, backpacks and fanny packs. There are lockers on both floors for stuff you can’t take in.

The results

So, what’s research like in New York? It’s a challenge. There is a microfiche index in the archives for vital records (except Buffalo and NYC) from 1881 to 1956 for marriages and deaths and through 1931 for births. Earlier records were mostly destroyed in a fire in the capitol in 1911. I found a grand total of one vital record.

To make up for that, the New York DAR has compiled Bible records, cemetery transcriptions, obituaries and more into slim volumes. There are long shelves of these books, all hand-typed by members. Names listed in the records are in the library card catalog, which is great. But, there were lots of people with the same names as my ancestors. I looked up about a hundred, but none were mine and I ran out of time.

I found some genealogies, local histories and photos of towns my ancestors lived in. The state censuses didn’t turn up anything (they’re not indexed by name) and the microfilms are hard to read. And, I didn’t find anything in the few local newspapers in my areas.

The experts were a big help. Knowing New York, they could steer us in the right direction. I never looked at the settlers of the Beekman Patent (available online at NEHGS), because I had no one living in Dutchess County, but Henry Hoff recognized a name and there was my Cornell Northrop, with a fascinating story, too.

I also have lists of possibilities recommended by the experts for searching, such as New York probate records in the Family History collection, the Connecticut Nutmegger, lots of books, church and gravestone searches, New York GenWeb, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record.

If you go …

If you’re planning a trip, check out www.nysl.nysed.gov for what’s at the library.

Click on www.archives.nysed.gov for the state archives (click on Online Catalog to get to the Excelsior search) or click on Research for research tools such as pathfinders for probate and naturalization records. Or, click on Research Tips for links to the most informative collections. And, under Topical Guides, there is a genealogy section.

In that section, click on “An introduction to genealogical research” in the archives for links that detail each type of record and what they have — from vital records, census, military, naturalization and court records to property and tax records, prisons, poorhouse censuses, Indian records and more.

The Family Search wiki

The Family Search research wiki is a great source for finding out what records are like in a particular location — and it’s free. Go to familysearch.org and click on Learn and then on Research Wiki. When I typed in New York, I got 5,429 hits for articles on New York research. You can narrow it down by adding a city or town. And, check out the link to New York Online Collections.

NEHGS also has a lot of New York records now, including abstracts of wills, administrations and guardianships; court, land and probate records, vital, Bible, cemetery and church records, military and naturalization records, town records, diaries, genealogies and much more.

Upcoming trips

NEHGS is offering upcoming trips to Washington, D.C., in March; Hartford, Conn., in April; London in May; Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk County record offices in England in May; and another trip to Albany, N.Y., in July. Check them out at www.americanancestors.org/tours.

Lynda Rego has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/lynda.rego where she shares tips on genealogy and other topics. Stop by, click on Like and share any interests you have for upcoming columns.

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