New York genealogy tips from D. Joshua Taylor and Susan R. Miller: Volume 2

Immigration, Land, Repositories
YouTube Live Genealogy Q&A

Earlier this summer, we hosted our second YouTube Live Q&A, in which our New York State research experts - D. Joshua Taylor and Susan R. Miller - answered questions submitted by our viewers. 

We had a large audience and some excellent questions that will apply to everyone's New York State research.

Our next YouTube Live Q&A is scheduled for August 23 at 1:00 pm ET. Click here to learn more, sign up, or submit your question

Read on to see a roundup of the questions and answers, as well as links to all of the resources mentioned by Josh and Sue.

If you would like to hear the entire answer to the question, you can play the video clips by clicking the play button on the embedded YouTube video underneath each question. 


Question: Where can I find land records for Western NY State prior to 1850? 


Western NY is a large area, so you'll want to narrow down your search to the county level at least.

This part of New York wasn't very settled in the early part of the 1800's, so most records will cover the middle and later parts of the century. Sue suggests looking through the many digitized maps on New York Heritage, where you can search by county or town.

Josh suggests using Holland Land Company survey maps as a possible resource as well. He also noted that it's worth checking with local historical societies, libraries, and town historians to see what else may be available. 

Finally, Sue suggested what many people do - finding descriptive land records and creating your own map! 


Question: How do I find a naturalization record for someone with a common name? 


Unfortunately for those with ancestors who came into New York in the Castle Garden era, many of those records - from about 1820 to 1897 - have been destroyed by fire.

Some of the only viable substitutes are the records from the U.S. Customs House, but those are not nearly as detailed - customs officials weren't concerned with capturing many genealogically relevant details. In many cases, names on customs lists will be as simple as "Mr. Smith."

Josh notes that for families with common surnames, finding details about our ancestors that define them other than their surname is a crucial strategy. To create a solid foundation, we should cultivate what we know about that family beyond their surname whenever possible. These additional clues will help distinguish our ancestors from others with common names. 

Sue points out that you may wind up developing a list of candidates, some of whom you are later able to eliminate only after you have gathered further information through research. For instance, you may discover the date of a significant event, which allows you to cross one "John Smith" off of your list because he hadn't arrived in America when that event occurred.


Question: Where can I find New York State land deeds - specifically Erie County? 


Land records for most counties in New York State - including Erie County - have been digitized and are available on FamilySearch. Click here to visit the New York State land records collection on FamilySearch

Although these records have not been indexed, the images are well worth sifting through. We recently had Robert Raymond, Deputy Chief Genealogical Officer of FamilySearch, conduct a webinar on using FamilySearch's non-indexed record sets.

NYG&B members can watch the recording of Hidden Treasure from FamilySearch by clicking here

Josh also added that not every land transaction was recorded, especially in earlier times - you may also want to look at mortgage and probate records for land clues. Both Josh and Sue suggest tracing the land ownership backward from more current owners if you're feeling stuck.

They also agree the New York land records on FamilySearch are fantastic resources and well worth the time spent digging through them!   


Question: What are the "NYS Red Books" and how do I access them?


The so-called Red Books are record set surveys done by the WPA during and shortly after the Great Depression Era. They include information about specific record sets and types of records sets contained in the counties throughout New York State. 

29 WPA volumes are digitized and available in our eLibrary. Click here to see the WPA Archive Inventories & Abstracts eLibrary collection.

We also published a blog with some more in-depth details. Click here to read our post about the WPA collection, which has some background information on the WPA program, as well as details about our collection.

Josh notes that these are great resources for finding records that aren't yet online or that you don't even know exist.

If you do find where a record set was at the time the survey was created, it may still be there. However, record sets can move around and you may need to track it down. If you find something in a Red Book, it's best to inquire with the organization listed to learn where it might be located now.  


Question: How do I determine a location name that could refer to two places? e.g. "Washington, NY" 


Josh suggests looking at the record set that lists the location name - examine the names of other places that are referenced and see if you can determine if all of the locations listed were at the same level of municipality.

This may give you a clue as to whether the name is a town or a county. You may need to look at multiple families in multiple places to see which better fits the information you have already confirmed. 

Sue also points out that, especially since the early days of the colony, many New York location names have been changed, re-used or represent now-defunct entities.

Our New York State Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer and our New York County Guides have very useful charts that outline the changing names and boundaries of all municipalities at the state and county levels. 


For more clips from the Q&A, or to watch the entire YouTube Live broadcast, visit the NYG&B YouTube Channel.

Click here to sign up for our next live Q&A or submit your question.


More Genealogy Tips

New York genealogy tips from Joshua Taylor and Susan R. Miller: Volume 1