Vital records - records of birth, marriage, and death events - are some of the most important records to pursue when piecing together your family history. Many states in America have complete, well-preserved vital records that date back well into the 1700s or even earlier - but not New York!
As many family history researchers with New York State ancestry know, finding vital records from before the 1900s can be a very frustrating endeavor. In this blog article, we'll take a brief look at exactly why that's the case, and suggest some ways to use religious records to overcome this common challenge in New York State research.
Why New York State vital records are so difficult to find
New York State did not keep vital records completely and systematically until 1913 when new, comprehensive (and enforced) legislation went into effect. If you're looking for vital records after that time, you'll most likely be very successful.
For information on locating twentieth-century vital records (which can still be a little complicated), see our New York Vital Records Guide.
But what about the nineteenth century and before? Let's start with a very brief overview of vital records history in New York, beginning with the Dutch. For more information, see our recent article about New York vital records history - a general overview of the landscape will help you determine if vital record substitutes will be needed in your case.
There were very few government-kept vital records for the colony in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, because the Dutch viewed this to be a function of the church, not the state. When the English took over administration in 1664, they took a similar approach.
A new law, established in 1665, required every parish to "well and truly and plainly record all births and marriages and burials." However, Governor Andros noted in 1677 that "noe account can bee given" of the number of births, marriages and deaths because "Ministers have been soe scarse, and Religions many." More information on this law and its lack of enforcement can be found in an article in the Record - New York's Vital Records Law of 1665.
Little happened to make the keeping of vital records more methodical until the 1840s, although sporadic records can be found from local governments (including New York City) during this time period.
Finally, in 1847, New York answered a call from the National Medical Convention, which vigorously urged state governments to begin keeping vital records. New York State passed "An Act Providing for the Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths." But many local governments objected and refused to comply due to the difficulty of collecting such information.
The state took another crack it at in 1880 and created a Bureau of Vital Statistics, but again, compliance was a problem - after three decades of additional legislation and disagreement over the responsibility of this record keeping, everything finally became consolidated in 1913.
However, it's important to note that local governments everywhere slowly caught on and complied, so there are many records that do exist for the latter half of the nineteenth century, but not for all locations.
Religious records as substitutes
Even though finding official state vital records can be challenging, many satisfactory substitutes do exist.
Since religious institutions have been so involved in recording events related to birth, marriage, and death, their records are a natural place to start.
It's important to keep in mind that (perhaps with the exception of some marriage records), religious records are considered derivative sources.
They weren't created at the exact time and place of the event that they are used to provide evidence of, but were usually a little removed - for instance, baptisms give us an excellent idea of a birth date, but did not take place on the exact date of birth. Likewise, burials can give us a great idea of the time and place of death, but occurred after (and sometimes in a different place than) the death itself. These records will often list the exact date of the relevant event, but these dates are sometimes inaccurate.
That said, if you can't find an official state certificate, religious records are an excellent alternative. In general, it's best to consider the following things when determining what kind of religious records to look for:
- What religious denomination your ancestor's family was.
- Where the event of interest may have occurred.
- When the event of interest may have occurred.
- What relevant congregations were active in the surrounding area and time period of the event you're investigating.
Read on for some resources to help you answer these questions and locate the religious records you're seeking.
New York State religious records in the NYG&B eLibrary
Our eLibrary contains a large collection of religious records from all over New York State, covering 1639 - 1914. Many of these are meticulously done transcriptions completed in the early twentieth century by NYG&B Historian and Archivist, Royden Woodward Vosburgh.
Vosburgh visited many churches throughout New York State, leaving no stone unturned and capturing the information in the records with meticulous and professional clarity and care.
These transcriptions contain vital records from 120 churches in 22 different New York counties. Read this blog about our religious records collection to see what you can find, and learn about the unique quality of this set. The religious records collection page in the NYG&B eLibrary contains a list of all congregations included in the collection.
We also have a Church Records Survey of New York State, which was sent to churches by the NYG&B at the turn of the twentieth century. The survey requested detailed information about the records they held, their history, and other denominations located nearby
We also have some other specific collections of religious records:
- Dutch Church Baptism Index, New York City (1639-1675)
- Reformed Dutch Baptisms, New York City (1639-1730)
- Reformed Dutch Baptisms, New York City (1731-1800)
- Reformed Dutch Church Marriages (1639-1801)
- German Lutheran Baptisms, New York City (1869-1906)
- German Churches of Metropolitan New York: A Research Guide
- Methodist Protestants and the Union Cemeteries of Brooklyn (1844-1894)
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Record
The NYG&B Record, published continuously since 1869, is an excellent source for information on religious records, including many transcriptions of records that no longer exist. Researchers can use the indexes to The Record, which are free and open to the public, to find articles related to this subject. The full archive of The Record is available for NYG&B members to search or browse in the NYG&B eLibrary.
We recommend reading our blog on the 5 indexes to the NYG&B Record for detailed information on each one - although all are very useful, three of them are especially useful in this case.
There are two subject indexes - one compiled by Jean Worden, for articles published up until 1983, and another compiled by Harry Macy Jr., FASG, FGBS, for articles published from 1983 until present. Finally, the index listing articles by title is also useful - many religious record transcriptions are published as serialized articles, so this will be useful for tracking articles occurring in multiple installments.
WPA archive Inventories & Abstracts
Also known as the New York State Red Books, these inventories were created as part of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Many, though not all, are available digitally in our WPA Archive Inventories & Abstracts, New York State eLibrary collection.
We also have a blog about the eLibrary collection, which explains the interesting history behind this project and more about what the records contain.
Overall, there are ten volumes related to religious records in this collection, containing over 2,500 pages worth of religious inventories all throughout the state. These records are essential to tracking down records from a wide variety of congregations in New York.
There are also numerous inventories detailing early state and local vital records in New York state as well. See our blog article for a full list that includes the title of each volume.
The New York Knowledge Base
The New York Knowledge Base on our website has many useful articles that will help you find the religious records you are seeking. We recommend filtering by the subject "religious records" from the Knowledge Base browse page to see all of our articles on the topic.
There are articles related to many counties and regions of the state, as well as many related to particular time periods or religious denominations. Our Knowledge Base also contains guides to each county in New York State. The selected bibliography section of each guide will mention useful resources related to the religious records of the county as well.