As a Manhattan native and professional genealogist in New York City,
I want to say that my hometown isn’t really the black hole of
genealogy. But it is a complicated and vast storehouse of documents,
made even more complex by the fact that depending on the part of
present-day New York City and the time period you want to research, it
is a conglomeration of different systems of record keeping and documents
kept in various repositories.
In these columns, my goal is to show you how to mine those
repositories and find what you’re looking for, whether you research here
in New York City or from a distance, via mail, microfilm, or online, no
matter what your level of expertise, no matter what your ancestry. I’ll
describe some ins and outs of New York City research. I’ll tell you
about lesser-known record groups that might hold the answers you’re
looking for when the obvious sources lead nowhere, and where to access
documents that substitute for records not yet in the public domain.
Today, New York City is made up of five counties and five boroughs:
New York County/Borough of Manhattan, Bronx County/Borough of the Bronx,
Kings County/Borough of Brooklyn, Queens County/Borough of Queens, and
Richmond County/Borough of Staten Island. But it wasn’t always that way.
Depending on the time period of interest, you’ll need an understanding
of the geography of New York City and surrounding areas to know where to
look for records and what types of records exist. For an excellent
description of how New York City was formed, see the article by Harry
Macy, Jr., “Before the Five-Borough City: The Old Cities, Towns and
Villages That Came Together to Form ‘Greater New York.’”
Records were created by and are kept at various government levels:
federal, state/county, and municipal. To make matters more challenging,
the same type of record can be found at different levels, such as
military records and naturalizations. Among the major challenges of New
York City research is to know what can be found where. We’ll be
discussing that in this column.
Some record groups are the responsibility of the federal government
and are kept in federal repositories, such as federal censuses and
federal naturalizations. Other records are state holdings and are housed
in county repositories, such as estate and guardianship files and state
censuses. Still other record groups are the responsibility of the
borough, town, or village and are kept in municipal repositories, such
as vital records, the 1890 “Police Census” of Manhattan and the Western
Bronx, and voter registrations.
There are a couple of reference books I’d like to recommend at the
Guide to Genealogical and Biographical Sources for New York City
(Manhattan), 1783-1898, by Rosalie Fellows Bailey, AB, FASG. The
book, originally published in the Register, (vols. 106-8,
1952-54), was reprinted in 1998 by the Genealogical Publishing Co. This
packed little volume of 96 pages, in spite of being outdated here and
there, is an invaluable resource.
The other book that no New York City researcher should be without is
the newly updated Genealogical
Resources in New York, edited by Estelle M. Guzik and
published by the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc., P.O. Box 286398, New
York, NY 10128. Although the book’s focus is on late nineteenth- and
twentieth-century research, there is much for any genealogist interested
in any period of New York City.
My first three columns will feature the New York City Research Guide
and an overview of some major nineteenth-and twentieth-century record
groups—civil vital records, property records, estate files,
naturalization records (federal and state), immigration records, court
records (case files, business records, name change petitions, divorce
files), records of religious institutions, city directories, censuses
(federal and state censuses, juror censuses, tax lists), cemetery
records, military records, and newspapers—on microfilm, on paper, and
online. A contact list for the major New York City libraries completes
the New York City Research Guide. Later columns will feature more
in-depth descriptions of those resources and others from these and
earlier time periods, with explanations of how to search for them.
Addresses and phone numbers are given for every repository mentioned.
If a repository has a website, you can click the hyperlink for more
information and order forms, if available, to send for documents. If
you’re traveling here, be sure to check into repository hours and
closings before you visit. For instance, certain repositories are closed
on local election days, and you don’t want to show up and be
Fees and methods of payment (cash, check, money order) are also
subject to change. Currently, cash is accepted at all of the
repositories noted below, with the exception of the Office of the City
Clerk, where only money orders are accepted. Personal checks can be used
at the New York City Municipal Archives and the National Archives
Northeast-Region (NYC). Be sure to come equipped with change for
photocopying. Most repositories do not have change machines, and few of
the copiers accept bills.
When researching in New York City in this post-9/11 world, bring a
photo I.D. You will need it to gain entrance to every government
building. You will also have to walk through a metal detector and pass
your bags and outerwear through a scanner. If your cellular phone has a
built-in camera, be prepared to have it taken away for the duration of
your stay in a New York City courthouse, where cameras are not
Look for more in-depth descriptions of records and repositories and
how-to guides in later columns. The following is an overview of the main
New York City resources of interest to genealogists. It is not meant to
be, nor could it be, an all-inclusive compilation. New York City
research being what it is, such an effort would require several volumes.
Because of space limitations, most of the records discussed will be
those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Many, but by no means all, of the indexes and records of New York
City repositories can be ordered through the Family History Library and delivered to your local Family History Center.
CIVIL VITAL RECORDS
There are three major repositories for civil birth, marriage, and
death records, all in Manhattan. Depending on the locality of the vital
event, the New York City Municipal Archives stores birth records
from 1847 to 1908, marriage records from 1829 to 1937, and death records
from 1795 through 1948. (Records from the earliest years are extremely
rare.) Later birth and death records, all with restricted access, are
housed at the New York City Department of Health. Marriage records from
1930 to the present—with restrictions on records less than fifty years
old—can be obtained at the Office of the City Clerk of the City of New
The most complete indexes to vital records can be found at the
archives noted below and also at the New York Public Library and the New York
Genealogical and Biographical Society, which also has all early
vital records in register format and 1866 death certificates. Some
indexes are also available at the New York Historical Society. Many indexes and records
can also be obtained on microfilm through your local Family History
Published sources can lead you to vital records. Such sources include
newspaper abstracts of marriage and death notices, such as Gertrude
Barber’s Deaths Taken from the Brooklyn Eagle, 1841-1880; Marriages
Taken from the Brooklyn Eagle, 1841-1880; New York Evening Post:
Deaths, 1801-1890 (searchable
on NewEnglandAncestors.org); and New York Evening Post:
Marriages, 1801-1890 (searchable
Divorce files are sealed in New York State for one hundred years.
Indexes for all years and divorce records one hundred years old and
older are open to the public at the county clerk’s office in the county
where the divorce took place. There is no city-wide divorce index. One
index to divorces, legal separations, and annulments in New York City
(Manhattan/Bronx), Index to Matrimonial Actions, 1784-1910, is
available in the original volumes at the New York County Clerk’s
Office/Division of Old Records and on microfilm at the New York
Genealogical and Biographical Society, New York Public Library, and
through Family History Centers.
Following are the government repositories for birth, marriage, and
death records in New York City. Fees and years of holdings are subject
to change. For more information and mail-order forms, visit their
York City Department of Records and Information Services, Municipal
Archives31 Chambers Street, Room 103New York, NY
Vital record holdings
• Birth records: 1909 and earlier• Marriage records: Dept.
of Health certificates, 1937 and earlier Office of the City
Clerk’s licenses, 1908-29/30 (Indexes from 1908-51/52-4)• Death
records: 1948 and earlier
All indexes and vital records in the possession of the Municipal
Archives are open to the public. Their website provides a detailed list of vital record holdings by locality.
Mail-order forms and instructions for birth, marriage, and death records are also available online.
Most of the Municipal Archives’ vital record holdings, with the
exception of City Clerk’s license indexes and records, have been
microfilmed and are available through Family History Centers.
Fee-based Ancestry.com currently offers some indexes to births from 1891 to 1902 and deaths from 1892 to 1902 in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The Italian Genealogical Group has transcribed indexes to deaths
in New York City, 1891-1911, and is in the process of transcribing the
Brooklyn Brides’ Index, 1871-1937 (many gaps, including from 1910-29).
Both databases will be available free for searching on their website.
City Clerk's Office, Marriage License BureauMunicipal
Building1 Centre Street, Room 252New York, NY 10007212-669-8898
• Office of the City Clerk’s marriage licenses, 1930-present, all
boroughs (Marriage records less than fifty years old are restricted.)
Only marriage records from 1930 are accessible here. City Clerk’s
marriage records from 1908 to 1929 must be obtained at the New York City
Municipal Archives across the street (see above).
From 1908 to 1937, City Clerk’s licenses and Department of Health
marriage certificates (stored at the Municipal Archives) were issued for
the same event, but licenses have more information. (See my article, “ City Clerk's Marriage Licenses, 1908-37: One of
20th-Century Genealogy's Best Primary Sources.”)
Currently, no City Clerk indexes or records are available on
microfilm through the Family History Library.
New York City Department of Health and Mental
Hygiene, Office of Vital Records125 Worth Street, CN-4,
Room 133New York, NY 10013-4090212-NEW YORK
Vital record holdings:
• Birth records: 1910-present• Death records: 1949-present• Indexes
for all years
This repository has birth and death records only. Marriage records
are available at the NYC Municipal Archives and the Office of the City
Clerk, as described above. Every record at the NYC Department of Health
is under restricted access, so proper identification and authorization
are required. It is almost impossible to obtain a birth certificate,
unless it is yours or you have a court order. See the website for
Mail-order forms and instructions are available on the web pages:
• Birth records Order
form (pdf) Instructions
• Death records Order
Some of the indexes, but none of the certificates, have been
microfilmed and are available through Family History Centers, the New
York Public Library, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical
The caretaker of deeds, mortgages, and other types of property
records is the New
York City Department of Finance. Records are kept in City Register’s
offices in four of the five boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and
Queens. Richmond (Staten Island) property records are kept at the County
Research must be done in person. No mail order research service is
available, although, if you have the citation for a property record
(date, borough, liber—called “deed books” elsewhere—and page number,
etc.), you can order the record from the appropriate office.
Many indexes and some of the records—availability varies by locality
and year—can be ordered through Family History Centers. The New York
Genealogical and Biographical Society in New York City also has many of
these microfilms in its collection, including copies of deeds through
1850 and indexes from as early as 1630 to as late as 1973 (with gaps).
There are some published grantor/grantee indexes of New York City
property owners, such as the multi-volume set compiled circa 1857-64, Index
of Conveyances Recorded in the Office of Register [sic] of the City and
County of New York.
City Register's Office, Manhattan66
John St., 13th FloorNew York NY 10038212-361-7550
City Register's Office, Bronx1932
Arthur AvenueBronx, NY 10457718-579-6821
City Register's Office, BrooklynMunicipal
Building, Room 2210 Joralemon StreetBrooklyn, NY 11201718-802-3590
City Register's Office, Queens144-06
94th Avenue, 1st FloorJamaica, NY 11435718-298-7200
City Register’s Office at the County Clerk's
OfficeState Supreme Court, Richmond County130
Stuyvesant Place, 2nd FloorStaten Island, NY 10301718-390-5386
Probate files (estate files where the decedent died testate, with a
will) and administration files (estate files where the decedent died
intestate, without a will) are the property of Surrogate’s Courts in New
York City. Guardianship records can also be found in Surrogate’s
Courts, as can such types of files as Orders to Open Safe Deposit Box
(SDB), Transfer Tax (TT), and others. Orders to Open Safe Deposit Box
and Transfer Tax files, while not the stuff of genealogists’ dreams,
can, if probate and administration files are not available, be useful in
denoting next-of-kin, date and place of death of the decedent, and
address. Search for an estate file in the county where the person
resided, not where he or she died.
The earliest date original files are available varies from one
Surrogate’s Court to another. Indexes are available for all years, and,
depending on the years and office, can be found on cards, in books
(libers), and, for later years, on computer.
Mail order requests are fulfilled at the cost of $30 for a search for
files less than twenty-five years old and $90 for older files. Copies
of the documents are $6 per page via mail order.
To do the research yourself at a distance, order the “Indexes to
Wills” or “Indexes to Administrations” for the appropriate county from
your local Family History Center. The years available vary per county.
With the file number and/or date of execution of the estate (be sure to
specify if the file is an administration or probate), you can then order
a copy of the file at the per-page rate, without having to pay the
Various published volumes of will and administration indexes and
abstracts are available. Among them are the seventeen volumes of the New
York Historical Society's Abstracts of Wills on File in the
Surrogate's Office, City of New York, covering wills from 1665 to
January 14,1801 (also available on CD-ROM
and online at Genealogy.com
and Gertrude Barber’s Index of Wills Probated in Kings County, New
York, from January 1, 1850 to December 31, 1890.
Surrogate's Court, New York County31
Chambers Street, Room 402New York, NY 10007212-374-8287Record
Room 402Liber Room 405
Surrogate's Court, Bronx County851
Grand Concourse, Room 317Bronx, NY 10451718-590-3616
Surrogate's Court, Kings County2
Johnson Street, Supreme Court Building, Room 109Brooklyn, NY 11201718-643-8016
Surrogate's Court, Queens CountySupreme
Court Building, Room 700 88-11 Sutphin BoulevardJamaica, NY
Surrogate's Court, Richmond CountyCounty
Court House18 Richmond Terrace, Room 201Staten Island, NY 10301718-390-5400
The next New York City research column will feature the second
segment of the three-part New York City research guide, which will cover
naturalization records, immigration records, court records, religious
records, and city directories.