Great news for researchers with ancestors all over New York State - the New York State Birth Index, and the New York City Municipal Archives collections of Almshouse Ledgers and Bodies in Transit records are now online!
All of these collections are incredibly useful for genealogists and are also fascinating records that can be used to tell important historical stories.
The New York State Birth Index (1880 - 1942) holds the birth certificate number for millions of people in New York State - a crucial piece of information for anyone seeking their ancestor's birth certificate.
The Almshouse Records (1758 - 1934) cover a large time period and are excellent sources for tracking the urban poor, who can be notoriously hard to find in other records, especially in earlier times.
The Bodies in Transit (1859 - 1894) collection is a unique record set that contains information about a wide range of individuals, including many Civil War soldiers (both Union and Confederate). Even the record of President Abraham Lincoln's body can be found in this collection - see the image below to learn more about why it appears in this record set shortly after his assassination in 1865.
One of the best things about these new online collections from MUNI is that they both consist of recently-digitized, high-quality images of the original ledgers. Researchers have previously been able to access these records on microfilm and digitized copies of microfilm, but vastly superior images are now easily-accessible online.
This blog includes more information about all three of these collections and some tips to ensure you get the most out of them. We also have some examples of the fantastic, high-quality images of these records, along with links to the online collections themselves.
New York State Birth Index
At long last, New York's state birth index is online! This index is crucial for researchers who need to order an ancestor's birth certificate from the New York State Department of Health. Finding an ancestor in this record set will tell you their birth certificate number - this piece of information is crucial for ordering the full copy of the birth certificate.
Before this week, the only way to access this index was on microfiche at one of only 11 repositories throughout New York State. This Ancestry.com collection, New York State, Birth Index, 1881-1942, is name-searchable and images of the index are linked to search results. If you aren't an Ancestry.com subscriber, remember - many public libraries have access to the Ancestry.com Library edition as an alternative to a subscription. Check with your local library for details.
Important note: This index does not cover all of New York State. New York State vital records are slightly complicated - depending on the time and location of the event you're investigating, you may need to find the birth certificate in a different index, and order the certificate from a different governmental authority.
In general, the New York state birth index covers everywhere except New York City (with only a few exceptions) and does not include birth records for Albany, Buffalo, or Yonkers prior to 1914.
If you're looking for a New York birth, marriage, or death certificate, we recommend reading our guide, Finding New York Birth, Marriage, and Death Records. This guide has links to all indexes, and instructions for finding birth certificates for all time periods and locations in New York State.
New York City Almshouse Records
This record collection consists of records from several related institutions that supported New York City's poor and infirm, all located on Blackwell's Island, which was renamed Welfare Island in 1921 and is now Roosevelt Island. The embedded video from Library of Congress below shows buildings related to several of the institutions contained in this record set - a detailed description of the video can be found on the Library of Congress website.
The full collection, which captured hundreds of thousands of people, consists of hundreds of volumes, with the bulk of the material covering the 1830s to the 1920s. New York's poor can be difficult or impossible to find in other records, which makes these ledgers incredibly valuable.
You can read more about the Almshouse digitization project on the NYC Department of Records and Information Services website.
It looks like the entire collection isn't yet available in the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery, but here is what is generally available right now:
- Admission and discharge ledgers
- Census Ledgers
- Hospital Records
- Death records
There are also a few miscellaneous volumes related to business receipts and records of children.
The information contained within these records will vary depending on the year and individual, but researchers may generally hope to find the following information about their ancestors found in this collection:
- Remarks about their condition
- Reasons they arrived at the institution
- Where they came to the institution from, and who sent them
Here's an example of an admission ledger for the City Home for the Aged and Infirm from 1920, which also contains the individual's address and some names of friends and relatives:
At this point in time, not all of the important records in this collection are available digitally in the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery. If you do locate an ancestor in the online records, it may be worth a trip down to the Municipal Archives - your ancestor could very well appear in more records, some of which may not be available online.
For instance, Aaron Goodwin notes in his Guide to the New York City Municipal Archives, the "Histories of Inmates" records (which begin in 1846) are rich records that he considers "easily the most useful set of Almshouse records for family historians." But at the moment, you need to access them via microfilm at the Municipal Archives in person.
Goodwin details these records and all others in this collection in the Municipal Archives Guide - an entire chapter is devoted to Almshouse records and contains guidance on the must-know idiosyncracies of each different type of ledger. Researchers should also examine this thorough finding aid to the Almshouse Ledger Collection from the National Archives, which also contains a comprehensive overview of the records.
Visit the Almshouse Ledger Collection in the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery to begin exploring these records today.
New York City Bodies in Transit
Due to the rapid increase of New York City's population in the first half of the 1800s, the City began to pass ordinances regulating interments on the island of Manhattan. By 1851, burials below 86th street were generally prohibited, and no new cemeteries could be created in New York County at all.
In 1859, the Health Department began recording data about all bodies being transported through New York City, likely to certify that there were no sanitary risks related to the body and to ensure that a responsible party would be disposing of the body in a way that complied with City ordinances.
This practice resulted in the creation of a really fascinating and useful collection of records that include details related to the death of the individual:
- Date of passage through New York City
- Cause and date of death
- Name and residence of the person overseeing the transportation of the body
- Other remarks
Sometimes other details, such as birthplace, occupation, residence were also included, but not in all cases. Below, we find an entry for President Abraham Lincoln's body, passing through New York City on its way to Springfield, Illinois, shortly after his assassination:
The record set contains a large number of bodies being reinterred away from New York City, as well as bodies Civil War soldiers - from both the Union and Confederacy - in transit to their final resting place.
Davids Island, located in the Long Island Sound, was the location of the United State Army's largest general hospital for Union soldiers, and after the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, also held Confederate prisoners of war. Some, but not all, bodies of Union soldiers were identified as such in the records. Far fewer Confederates were identified as such, though some were.
In his Guide to the New York City Municipal Archives, Aaron Goodwin provides an excellent list of contextual clues researchers can use to identify bodies of Civil War veterans from both sides in the chapter dedicated to this record set. He also uses a number of examples to teach researchers how to analyze and interpret the information contained in these records.
Visit the Bodies in Transit collection in the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery to begin exploring the records immediately.
Stay tuned for more records
The Municipal Archives is in the process of digitizing many of their key collections and making the images available online. Make sure to sign up for our email newsletter to stay up-to-date on the newest online records available for New York researchers!
More Genealogy Reading
About the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society
Since 1869, our mission has been to help our thousands of worldwide members discover their family's New York story, and there has never been a better time to join.
The cost of an Individual Annual Membership is less than six dollars a month, and includes the following benefits:
- Access to over 50 exclusive digital record sets covering the entire state of New York, including the fully searchable archives of The Record.
- A complimentary subscription to all of Findmypast's North American records, as well as U.K. and Irish Census records.
- Access to hundreds of expert-authored Knowledge Base articles and webinars to help you navigate the tricky New York research landscape.
- Exclusive discounts and advanced access to conferences, seminars, workshops and lectures to learn more about researching people and places across New York State.
To learn more or join us, please visit our member benefits page.