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? A complete answer requires a brief overview of vital records history in New York, beginning with the Dutch. For a more detailed overview, see our recent article about New York vital records history.
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.
New York State didn't create laws that required civil vital record-keeping until the 1840s, although sporadic records can be found from some local governments (including New York City) from the mid-1800s and earlier.
Finally, in 1847, New York 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 compliance was once again a problem - after three decades of additional legislation and disagreement over the responsibility of this record-keeping, everything finally fell into place in 1913.
It's important to note that local governments slowly caught on and many began complying before 1913, so many records exist for the latter half of the nineteenth century. See our New York vital records timeline for a detailed overview.
Why religious records are often used to substitute for vital records
Researchers of all levels should never get too focused on finding a specific record such as a birth certificate. Remember, as a genealogical researcher, your mission is to satisfactorily prove life events, not track down specific documents.
People seek out vital records because they tend to have lots of reliable information that can be used to prove genealogical events and relationships, but that certainly doesn't mean they are the only type of records that can do so.
Baptism records will often contain similar information to birth certificates, religious marriage records are similar to civil marriage licenses or certificates, and burial records contain some of the same information found in death certificates.
And don't forget that volumes of religious records often contain far more than just baptisms, marriages, and burials - researchers can use lists of members received, dismissed, or departed to trace migration, understand relationships, and more. That's just one example - our guide to using the NYG&B's religious records has more information.
How to Find Religious Records
The challenge with religious records is that - with some exceptions, like New York Catholic Records - most congregations kept records relatively independently. This means there is no central place to find or search all New York church records at once, so you will have to look for church records with a very local focus.
In general, we recommend the following process when crafting your research plan:
Use other records or information you have - census records are a good option - to come up with a possible geographic area and time the event occurred in.
Once you have that hypothesis you need to do some general research to find out what religious congregations were around at the time and place you're investigating - this is a crucial step.
Town and county histories are some of the best sources to use for this - and the good news is there are many detailed, digitized, and searchable sources like this available online. Search Google Books or Internet Archive for histories written about the area your ancestors lived in at the time you're investigating. It may be a good idea to start broad and narrow down the area if you're able to - i.e. begin by looking for histories of the county, then the town, and then the village (if available).
You will be surprised at how many volumes of this kind exist - many are extremely detailed and contain information that is immensely valuable to genealogical researchers. This excerpt from The History of Dutchess County, New York, Volume 1 (published in 1909) is a good example of what can be found:
This short passage suggests the possibility that some Catholics could have travelled quite far for special events like baptisms or marriages, and reveals that many often worshipped in their homes. There are many similar pieces of information to glean from this thorough chapter dedicated to the history of religious practice in the county.
Armed with the information contained in this chapter, a researcher can now begin to seek records from specific congregations that are relatively more likely to contain records on their ancestor.
If you cannot find anything online, it's always a good idea to call local historical or genealogical societies - they can provide the most authoritative assistance. Our New York County Guides for Family Historians have comprehensive listings of all such organizations for each county in New York State.
Searching by Denomination
Having an idea of the religious denomination of the family you're researching can be helpful, but don't let that information limit you. It's always possible to find a family in the records of a congregation that is different than what you hypothesized or concluded from other information.
NYG&B President D. Joshua Taylor notes that there is a lot of variance in the way our ancestors chose their congregations - "Some followed specifics ministers and leaders, others chose the nearest congregation (or the only one in their area), even if it wasn’t a denomination they followed. Geographic distance and accessibility certainly played a factor for some."
He shared his advice for a strategy - "If I know a potential religious affiliation, I’ll look at the congregation that is nearest that matches that affiliation. If that is unsuccessful I begin searching all congregations in a five-mile radius and expand by five miles until I find something or complete what I feel is a reasonably exhaustive search."
NYG&B Religious Records
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 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 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.
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.