THOSE OF US FROM THE MIDWEST WHO HAVE HAD TO trace our New England ancestors
through upstate New York have had a challenging time. Fortunately that job is
getting easier, although challenges remain.
The challenges arise from the fact that vital statistics were not kept until
the late nineteenth century and church records are sparse. Some records were
kept by traveling ministers and cannot be located today. People moved often,
making it difficult to find the records they left behind.
New Englanders moved into the Hudson River Valley, particularly Dutchess
County, in the mideighteenth century. After the Revolutionary War, settlers
moved into more areas, such as the southern New York counties along the
Susquehanna River.However, it was after the War of 1812 that migration really
started. My Benson family left Danby, Vermont, in 1816 for Jefferson County, New
York. My wife’s Read family coincidentally also lived in Danby and left in 1818
for Chautauqua County,New York.
As this growth continued, new counties and towns were formed. A settler might
be listed in Tioga County in the 1820 census and in Tompkins County in the 1830
census without having moved.The town of Caroline was formed from Spencer, Tioga
County, in 1811 and transferred to Tompkins County in 1822. An essential
research tool is French’s Gazetteer. French tracks the formation of
each county and town, indicating also the counties and towns from which each was
formed. It is necessary to understand such changes in order to know where to
look for census, land, probate, and cemetery records.
Sometimes researchers do not know the county in which to search. They may
have seen a census record that merely says “born in New York State.”The first
step is to try to find sources that identify the town or county. Death
certificates, gravestones, or obituaries might help. Sometimes county histories
profile residents and tell from where they came.The first deed outside New York
may identify an ancestor as “now of Jackson County, Michigan, previously of
Jefferson County,New York.” If the name is unusual, finding someone in a New
York census index may be possible.The downside of unusual names is that they are
often spelled differently in different records. Of course, if the name is John
Brown, there will be many entries in census records and it will be difficult to
tell which, if any, relates to the appropriate family.
Sometimes records in your own home or in the home of a relative may have the
answers. For years I tried to identify the parents of my wife’s ancestor, Mary
Jane Herrick, who died in Chautauqua County,New York, in 1856 after marrying
there in 1844. I tried to trace dozens of Herrick families that had lived in the
county, without success. It was only when reading a family diary from the 1890s
that a reference to Aunt Libbie and Uncle William Herrick of Erie County,
Pennsylvania, was noted.Their father, Ezekiel Herrick, had been a carpenter and
moved from county to county without buying land.There was no trace of him in
Chautauqua County. Records in Erie County, Pennsylvania, helped make the
records are now easier to use in tracking families.They used to require
combining whole rolls of microfilm in large libraries, using often incomplete or
inaccurate printed indexes. Now indexed copies of census records for all
available years are online. Certain years have been indexed by
Ancestry.com and others by HeritageQuestOnline.com. Access to
the indexes and census page images on both websites is available for a fee. Many
libraries have subscriptions. The 1880 census is online at
FamilySearch.org. Starting with 1850, the census lists all household
members, and in 1880 it also shows where each person’s parents were born.The
U.S. census records begin in 1790 and are available for every ten years (except
1890, for which the records were lost to fire). Also helpful are New York State
census records, available for some counties as early as 1825 and every ten years
Once a county is identified for your ancestor, land and probate records for
that county need to be searched. Visiting the county courthouse can be an
adventure. However, most of us settle for borrowing microfilms of these records
at a local Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints. The first deeds may show from whence a settler moved. Later deeds may
identify children to whom land was deeded. Not all deeds were recorded. In some
areas the original purchases are not available in the county clerk’s office,
particularly if made through the Holland Land Company or other large
Probate records are in the County Surrogate Court’s office in New
York, rather than in a probate court. Beginning around 1830, they may show names
of heirs and where they were living. A good guide to these records is Gordon
Remington, New York State Probate Records: A Guide to Testate and Intestate
Records, published by NEHGS in 2002.Not much is online; most probate
records will have to be ordered on microfilm from the Family History Library.
When checking the Family History Library catalog at FamilySearch.org
for probate data, be sure to check what other types of records are available for
the county and town.
Some vital records have been published in newspapers. Thousands of
marriage and death notices have been transcribed and published by Fred Q.
Bowman. Other newspaper extracts have been published for Washington and
In the absence
of vital records, cemetery data can be very valuable. The good news is that
websites for the New York counties on the USGenWeb project, hosted by
RootsWeb.com, contain more and more transcriptions of cemetery records.
These websites may also contain census and other primary records. In some cases
the entire contents of the website can be searched for a name.
Other cemetery records are available through “New York DAR Cemetery, Church
and Town Records,” a multi-volume manuscript in the State Library in Albany and
the DAR Library in Washington, DC. Other church records, tombstone
inscriptions, and family records were published in Early Settlers of New
Many records are published in periodicals, particularly The
New York Genealogical and Biographical Record and Tree Talks. More
good news is the recent publication of Worden’s Index to The New York
Genealogical and Biographical Record 1870–1998. This CD-ROM,available from
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, allows you to find your
ancestors in the 129 volumes of this periodical. The annual indexes to Tree
Talks should be searched. I spent years looking for information about my
great-great-great-grandfather, David Cook of Washington County,New York. But I
found no probate records or gravestone there. It turned out that six months
before he died in 1824, he moved to live with a son in Genesee County, New York.
He wrote his will there. I found this information when I noticed his daughter,
Phebe (Cook) Benson, listed in an index to Tree Talks.
We often make fun of the “mug books.” These were county histories published
in the last part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are
called mug books because people submitted information and pictures (their
“mugs”) of their families, then bought copies of the books. Much of the
information provided on their early ancestry is suspect. However, for people
living at the end of the nineteenth century, data on immediate family members is
usually accurate. Some of these “mug books” are being published on county
Family Bible records and obituaries are sometimes the only available sources
for upstate New York. The problem is where to find them. Some have been
published in sources described above; however, others may be sitting in
someone’s attic. It is probably worthwhile to place queries on family message
boards sponsored by Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com. There is
always a chance of finding a cousin with access to these records.
With more data online and more indexes available, upstate New York research
is getting easier. However, be aware that undocumented genealogies available
online often contain errors. Stay with primary source records such as census
listings, wills, deeds, church records, and cemetery data. Good searching!
Notes1 If your ancestors were considerate
enough to settle in the Beekman Patent of Dutchess County, the multi-volume
Settlers of the Beekman Patent by Frank Doherty can be invaluable [see
his article at page 17 of this issue].2 J.H. French,
Gazetteer of the State of New York (Syracuse, N.Y.: R.P. Smith, 1860,
with several reprintings).3 For a listing of thousands of
early Holland Land Company transactions in several counties of western New York
see Karen E. Livsey, Western New York Land Transactions,1804–1824
(Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1991) and Western New York Land
Transactions,1825–1835 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co.,
1996).4 Harry Macy, Jr., “Treasure in the Surrogate’s Court,”
The NYG&B Newsletter, 14:4 (Fall 2003): 49–51.5
Some counties are putting more information online. The Ontario County Records
and Archives Center has placed indices to Surrogate Court records from 1789 to
1926 and to deeds from 1789 to 1845 online at
raims.com.6 See sidebar on the previous page for a
list.7 A list of all the transcribed cemetery inscriptions,
Bible records, and local and family records in these volumes is found in General
Peter Gansevoort Chapter, D.A.R., Revised Master Index to the New York State
Daughters of the American Revolution Genealogical Records Volumes (2 vols.,
Zephyrhills, Florida, Jean D. Worden, 1998)8 Janet Wethy
Foley, Early Settlers of New York State, 9 vols. (Akron, N.Y.: T.J.
Foley, 1934–42, reprinted as 2 vols., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co.,
1993), also available on CD-ROM.9 A recent source is “Upstate
New York Research,” a lecture video by Henry B. Hoff (Boston: NEHGS, 2003). The
syllabus for this video is at www.NewEnglandAncestors.org under
“education.” RICHARD H. BENSON is a retired partner of Arthur Andersen & Co.
and former treasurer of NEHGS. He has been doing genealogical research since he
was twelve years old and has been a member of NEHGS since 1974.Reprinted
by permission of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Frank J.
Doherty, "Settlers of the Beekman Patent." New England Ancestors vol.
5, no. 2 (spring 2004):17-21.