Vital records—records of birth, marriage, and death events—are some of the most important records to pursue when piecing together your family history. Some 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 excellent vital record substitutes
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. The NYG&B has a growing collection of county histories.
You can also 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. 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 specific 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."
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 on the NYG&B website
Our online collections contain many religious records from all over New York State, covering 1639 - 1914. Many of these are meticulously crafted 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 are organized by couny, and contain vital records from 120 churches. Read this blog about our religious records to see what you can find, and learn about the unique quality of this set. View a list of our religiou record collections.
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record
Go ahead, search The Record for family names you're working on—especially New York families before 1900—you may be surprised how much you find!
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 search a name-index to The Record (best for name searches) and a full-text version of The Record (best for keyword and location searches) on our website. A full article and location index is also available, which may help when seeking specific congregations or denominations.
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