History

On February 27, 1869, at the home of Dr. David Parsons Holton, New York's largest genealogical organization, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B), was founded.

Less than a month later, on March 26, the group of seven founders filed a certificate of incorporation with the office of the Secretary of State of New York, providing the original focus of the organization, "to discover, procure, preserve and perpetuate whatever may relate to Genealogy and Biography, and more particularly to the genealogies and biographies of families, persons and citizens associated and identified with the State of New York." The first bylaws were adopted in April 1869 and the society's first officers were elected. Noted historian and genealogist Dr. Henry Reed Stiles was elected as the NYG&B's first president. The formal seal was adopted on May 8, 1869, which is still used today as a symbol for the organization.

Unlike other genealogical organizations during the time, the NYG&B elected both men and women to membership. The first female member of the NYG&B, Frances K. Forward Holton (the wife of founder, David Parsons Holton) was elected as a member on May 1, 1869. 

By the of end of 1869 the Society had established a library published an eight-page bulletin. Soon after, the NYG&B published the first issue of The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record in January 1870. Since that time, publication, known as "The Record" would be issued quarterly, and is New York's longest running genealogical publication and the second-longest running publication in the field of genealogy and biography. 

Table of Contents

 

The First 100 Years

The NYG&B found its first permanent home at Mott Memorial Hall, a house at 64 Madison Avenue in New York City. In 1888, the NYG&B moved to the Berkeley Lyceum Building at 19 West 41st Street, and two years later moved to the new Berkeley Lyceum building at 23 West 44th Street, just a few steps away from where the NYG&B is today.

In addition to The Record the NYG&B undertook several publication projects and in 1890 released several volumes of its collections, starting with the marriage and baptismal registers of New York State's oldest church, the Reformed Dutch Church of New Amsterdam and New York City.

In 1891 Mrs. Elizabeth Underhill Coles left the NYG&B a bequest of $20,000. Five years later, these funds allowed the organization to purchase a four-story brownstone at 226 West 58th Street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The address would soon become known as "Genealogical Hall," and would be the home of the NYG&B for more than 30 years.

The NYG&B began to play an active role in preserving the stories of New York's past. One of the most ambitious early projects was the placement of a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Mall in New York's Central Park to mark the quadricentennial of Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492. The bronze statue, a replica of a work by Spanish sculptor Jeronimo Sunol (1849-1902), arrived in New York on June 8, 1893. Adlai E. Stevenson, Vice-President of the United States, unveiled the statue in 1894 on the spot where it stands today.

By 1912 the NYG&B's growth required the organization to find a new home. The adjacent building lot for expansion was selected and a fundraising campaign was established to raise $65,000. J. Pierpont Morgan contributed $10,000 to the cause, on the condition that the NYG&B raise the remainder. By 1913 members and friends of the NYG&B had raised the total funds, under the leadership of Clarence Winthrop Bowen who served as the NYG&B's President. However, various factors intervened to prevent the proposed expansion from being built and 16 years later the NYG&B moved across town to 122-124-126 East 58th Street.

The new facility, built at a cost of $300,000, was designed by the noted New York architectural firm of La Farge, Warren and Clark. The building's dedication, held on December 11, 1929 included President Calvin Coolidge, former Governor of New York and Secretary of State (and future Chief Justice of the United States) Charles Evans Hughes, and many other noted guests.

By the end of the year, each issue of The Record had expanded to more than 100 pages, and was recognized as one of the leading scholarly journals of genealogy.

The Great Depression and World War II slowed the NYG&B's progress. The Record, for example, became greatly reduced in size. Overall in the years following the war interest in genealogy declined and some may have questioned whether the Society could survive.

 

Genealogical Renaissance: 1970 - 2000

The 1970s ushered in a significant interest in genealogy. Millions of Americans discovered Alex Haley's Roots and the celebration of the 1976 Bicentennial both served as catalysts that precipitated this new wave of interest.

All over the country new genealogical societies, publications, and activities developed, and the older institutions began to experience unprecedented growth as well.

In 1977 the NYG&B began a formal educational series, which gradually expanded to include programs throughout the state of New York and New Jersey including Albany, Saratoga Springs, Buffalo, Tarrytown, and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Many of these programs were conducted in partnership with local genealogical organizations.

The NYG&B also continued to grow its member resources, and in the late 1980s the first computers appeared in the building. The library began to expand its holdings to facilitate research for those tracing late 19th century and early 20th century families, while also expanding its materials for those researching colonial New York families. In 1990 The NYG&B Newsletter was first published, providing a frequent touchpoint for NYG&B members.

In the mid-1990s the advent of the internet took ahold of the genealogical world and the NYG&B launched its first website in December 1998. The website included access to the NYG&B eLibrary, a growing set of databases of materials from the NYG&B's archives. The NYG&B also undertook a capital campaign drive and by 1999 launched the first stage of a plan to grow the NYG&B in the future.

 

New Beginnings: 2001 - Present

In 2001 the NYG&B created a Technology Center which allowed visitors increased access to microform and digital materials. 

In the early 2000s the NYG&B’s leadership analyzed the organization’s current practices and programs. It was determined that a change was needed in order to ensure the NYG&B’s long-term growth in the future. Soon after the NYG&B collections were transferred to the New York Public Library, along with a gift to ensure that the materials would be cataloged and added the library’s collections.

The NYG&B also moved to its present home at 36 West 44th Street. There, the NYG&B refocused itself on three priorities: education, publications, and digital communication.In addition to ensuring the ongoing publication of The Record, the NYG&B Newsletter was reintroduced as the New York Researcher and its contents expanded. Expansions to the NYG&B’s eLibrary were also undertaken.

The NYG&B also began creating the first statewide guide to New York genealogy, which when published in 2014 represented more than 800 pages detailing records from across the state – and guides for each of New York’s 62 counties.Shortly thereafter, the NYG&B undertook the project of developing a guide for researchers to New York City’s archives. The final publication, New York City Municipal Archives: An Authorized Guide for Family Historians was released in 2016.

The NYG&B’s leadership once again examined the strategic direction of the organization, and established a multi-year plan for the future of the NYG&B. Today the NYG&B remains focused on its mission to help everyone discover, share, and preserve the stories of New York’s families.

 

Appendix A: Women in the Early Years of the NYG&B

The NYG&B openly welcomed male and female members since the begining. The first woman, Frances K. Forward Holton (Mrs. David P.), was elected to membership on May 1, 1869. She was followed over the next twenty-five years by:

  • Miss Elizabeth Clarkson Jay
  • Mrs. Leroy Newcomb Shear
  • Miss Annie Elizabeth Boutecon Shepard
  • Caroline Gallup Reed (Mrs. Sylvanus)
  • Martha Joanna Reade Nash Lamb (Mrs. Charles A.)
  • Martha Bayard Dodd Stevens (Mrs. Edwin A.)
  • Margaret Herbert Mather (Mrs. DeWitt C.)
  • Katharine Newton Youmans (Mrs. Edward L.)
  • Emilie Ketchum Platt Owen (Mrs. Thomas J.)
  • Mary Macrae Stuart (Mrs. Robert L.)
  • Janet Van Rensselaer Townsend (Mrs. Howard)
  • Aurelia Davis Schoonmaker (Mrs. Lucas E.)
  • Catharine Romana Marsiglia Baetjer (Mrs. Herman)
  • Ester Van Ysen Herrman (Mrs. Henry)
  • Eba Anderson Lawton (Mrs. James M.)
  • Miss Ann Hasbrouck
  • Mary Ann Hart (Mrs. Coleridge)
  • Miss Carrie Allen Middlebrook
  • Katharine Berry di Zerega (Mrs. John A.)
  • Lilly Jones Earle (Mrs. Ferdinand P.)
  • Miss Bessie Thayer Sypher (later Mrs. Charles C. Marsh)
  • Miss Margaret Morris Norwood
  • Elizabeth Ward Doremus (Mrs. Charles A.)
  • Miss Mary Mildred Williams
  • Georgie Harrington Boyden St. John (Mrs. Gamaliel C.)
  • Ellen Hardin Walworth (Mrs. Mansfield T.)
  • Miss Lucy Dubois Akerly
  • Mrs. Mary Wright Wootton
  • Margaret Innis Young (Mrs. William H.)
  • Mrs. Cornelia Catharine Jay Dyer
  • Miss Mary Close Purple
  • Elizabeth Romaine McMillan-Stanton (Mrs. John)
  • Miss Reba Bird Whitfield

After 1894 there was a noticeable increase in the number of women on the lists of new members.

It was not until 1941 that Bertha King Benkard (Mrs. Harry Horton Benkard) became the first woman Trustee, followed in 1943 by Mrs. Myron C. Taylor and Mrs. John M. Dickinson, in 1945 by Mrs. Ethelbert Ide Low, and in 1946 by Mrs. Wyllys Terry. In 1983 Mrs. William R. White became the Society’s first woman President.

 

Appendix B: A Note About Elizabeth Underhill Coles 

Elizabeth Underhill Coles’ bequest of $20,000 made it possible for the Society to purchase in 1896 the building at 226 West 58th Street which was our home (called Genealogical Hall) until the the Society moved to East 58th Street in 1929.

Genealogists familiar with early Long Island family names will immediately suspect that Elizabeth Underhill Coles’ roots may have been in Oyster Bay. She was indeed born in that town, in the section known as Musketa Cove (now the City of Glen Cove). She was descended from a long list of early Long Island families, and many of her distant cousins are undoubtedly present day NYG&BS members.

Elizabeth Underhill Coles, who was born ca.1813, kept her name by marrying a first cousin, William F. Coles, in 1833. Her parents were Oliver and Margaret (Underhill) Coles, and her grandparents were Gen. Nathaniel and Hannah (Butler) Coles and Amos and Mary (Woodhull) Underhill. Her great-grandparents were Wright and Sarah (Birdsall) Coles, John and Martha (—) Butler, Amos and Elizabeth (Seaman) Underhill, and Richard and Margaret (Smith) Woodhull. Further details may be found beginning in the Underhill Genealogy (1932) 3:557.

Mrs. Coles’ father, and her father-in-law John Butler Coles, were both prominent New York City merchants, who created fortunes that made it possible for her and her husband to lead very comfortable lives. William F. Coles died in 1865. Their only son, William Franklin Coles, was one of the first members of The NYG&B Society. Elected to membership October 30, 1869, he became a Life Member in 1871, and died unmarried in 1881, at age 43.

Elizabeth Underhill Coles died December 29, 1891, at her residence, 677 Fifth Avenue, and was buried in the Coles vault at Trinity Church. She left an estate valued at between two and three million dollars. In her will written June 4, 1885, in addition to the bequest to the NYG&BS she gave a like amount to the Metropolitan Museum, along with a collection of paintings, sculpture and other works of art. She left her property at Newport to establish “Coles College” in memory of her son. The remainder of the estate was to be divided, half to go to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in memory of her husband, and from the other half, $50,000 to the children of her brother Edward Coles, $100,000 in trust for Coles College, and the rest to her brother Alexander Coles and his family.

Edward Coles, who had been executor of the estate of Mrs. Coles’ husband, had expected to be treated more generously by his sister, and tried to have her will invalidated on the grounds that she was not of sound mind at the time she made it. At a hearing in the New York County Surrogate’s Court he persuaded some of Mrs. Coles’ servants and his own wife to give testimony in support of his case, and the matter achieved some notoriety in the press. The Surrogate, however, was not impressed; he ruled that the will was valid and admitted it to probate. (For further details see The New York Times, Oct. 27-Nov. 4, 1892.)

The NYG&B Record of April 1892 (23:95) had reported Mrs. Coles’ death, noting that “by her will Mrs. Coles left a legacy of twenty thousand dollars to this Society. If the intentions of our generous benefactor are not frustrated, by relatives who are endeavoring to break her will, it is believed that the Society will soon be in the possession of a firepoof building where our valuable collections will be safe from possible destruction by fire.” In the April 1894 issue (25:95) Henry R. Stiles noted in an obituary of Charles B. Moore that “his last work of love to us seems to have been the securing for our Society the valuable bequest received from the late Mrs. Coles. His influence, so unobtrusively yet effectually exercised in this matter . . . must ever be a pleasant remembrance to us. . . .”

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society received the bequest which provided it with Genealogical Hall, its first permanent home. In 1898 Mrs. Coles was made a “perpetual member” of the Society. The sale of Genealogical Hall in 1929 helped to finance the Society’s next home on East 58th Street. And the proceeds from the sale of that building helps to finance the current operations of the NYG&B. And so Mrs. Coles’ legacy lives on.