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Research in 19th and 20th Century New York

by Donna Przecha
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A Look at Resources Unique to New York City
Looking for New York ancestors? Find out how siblings, the Social Security Death Index, census records, naturalization records, city vital records, immigration records, directories, and maps can help you in your search.

Those yeomen farmers who settled the midwest may be a bit boring, but they do have the advantage of being fairly easy to locate. Even if you have to look through an entire county in a census, it is not an impossible task. It is quite a different story for those who arrived on the peak of the immigration wave in the 1890s and disappeared into the New York tenements.

If you find yourself looking for ancestors in New York City at the turn of the century, it may seem that you start with three strikes against you: the 1890 federal census was destroyed, there is no index for the 1910 census for New York, and the ships' passenger lists aren't indexed before 1897. If your ancestor arrived around 1888, the search may seem hopeless, but there are an incredible number of resources unique to New York City.

By using several of these resources, you can begin to pinpoint certain dates and locations. One thing in your favor is so many of the immigrants were young. Either young people in their twenties came alone, or families with young children traveled together. Most of them lived well into the 20th century which means there are many possible sources of records.

Reliability of Dates

One fact that must be considered is the inaccuracy of dates on all records. Information on death records came from a family member who may never have known the correct date of birth or immigration. Birth dates were simply not as important to these people, many of whom could not read or do math. I have often wondered how they remembered their ages — did they try to mentally add another year or did they remember their birth year? Many could not have done the subtraction required to arrive at their ages if they only remembered their birth year. Probably many never knew their exact year of birth. If it was written down anywhere, it would be in the family Bible and that may have remained with the parents in the "old country."

For many of the documents we find, such as census or naturalization applications, the individual was asked by a clerk the date of birth or arrival in the U.S. He didn't have an opportunity to look it up or even to think about it. He probably said "I think it was about 1888" but that went down in black and white as the actual date. In a census, one member of the household may have answered the questions and may have been a small child when they arrived and didn't know the date. You will find many different dates for the same event in different records.

Don't Overlook Siblings

Families were usually large and it is important to gather information on all the siblings of the immigrant generation and the first generation born in the U.S. Your ancestor may not have remembered the year of immigration, but his brother may have given the exact date on his naturalization papers. Your great-grandfather may have died in 1920 and you don't know where he was born. His younger brother may have lived to 1970 and his Social Security application gives his place of birth. Or his nephew's death certificate gives the place of birth of his mother, your great-grandfather's sister.

Social Security Death Index

One of the most accessible sources is the Social Security Death Index, which is available both online and in all Family History Centers of the LDS Church. Although Social Security began in 1934, the records were not computerized until 1962 so you can't expect to find any information in this database unless the person died after 1961. (However, if he or she died before that year and you do have the Social Security number, you can still apply for the original application.) Remember that the index shows the place where the original card was issued, and that this is not necessarily the birth place. Once you have obtained a number from the Index you can request a copy of the Social Security application. The cost is relatively minimal and you may be able to learn the applicant's address, birthplace and date, and parents' names. Send your inquiries to:

Freedom of Information Officer
4-H-8 Annex Building
6401 Security Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21235 USA

1900 and 1920 U.S. Census

Another excellent source is the Soundex index for the 1900 and 1920 census. The index itself gives a lot of information. Each household is indexed under the name of the head of the household and gives his or her name, birth date (1900) or age (1920), year of arrival and whether or not naturalized. The 1920 index also gives the year of naturalization.

The index also gives the names, ages or birth dates and place of birth of all in the household. The volume, enumeration district, sheet and line also allows you to go to the actual census which will give you occupation and the place of birth of the parents. The 1900 census tells how many children a woman had and how many were still living. Although the index has a lot of information, it is always worthwhile going to the actual census because other family members may be living nearby. It also helps to look at both years so you can compare birth dates and immigration years.


Naturalization papers usually are extremely frustrating to find. A person could file a declaration of intent in any court he wished and could take out final papers in a different court. You usually end up writing to many different courts in the area, waiting weeks and turning up nothing. New York City is much easier. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) indexed naturalizations from twelve New York City courts, covering a period from 1792 to 1906. This soundex index is on 294 rolls of films at the Family History Library (FHL), beginning with 1,419,807. The index cards can include name, occupation, date of birth, date of arrival, date of naturalization, address, occupation and witness. Unfortunately, not all cards contain all this information, but you can learn quite a bit about many of the people from the cards — either to eliminate them or to decide to look at the actual records.

Before looking at too many naturalization records at the Family History Library Catalog, it would be a good idea to study a copy of the "New York Research Outline" by the Family History Library. There are several sets of indexes, petitions and declarations for various parts of New York City. Most of them are contained in the WPA index above so you don't want to spend time and money for films duplicating your work. Once you have looked at the index, you may have to write to National Archives (see web pages below) but many of the records are available on film from the Family History Library. A collection of 2,167 reels, titled "Naturalization Records, 1792-1906, Court of Common Pleas, New York County" is on film. However, this is not just the Court of Common Pleas. After those records comes the Supreme Court (New York County) 1868, 1896-1906 and then the Superior Court (1828-1895). There are also records for declarations of intentions for these courts as well as the U.S. Circuit Court, New York Southern District for 1845-1911. (All naturalization records after 1906 are at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, DC.)

New York City Vital Records

If your ancestor did not survive long in the new world, you still have an excellent source of information in the index to deaths in New York City, 1888-1965. The early indices are arranged alphabetically only by the first letter of the surname, then broken down by month but within a few years it becomes one alphabetical index by year. The indices include the name, age, date of death and the certificate number. Once you have a certificate number, the FHL has filmed the certificates for Manhattan for 1866-1919. If you have the film number, date and certificate number, you can order a copy from the FHL and not have to order the entire film. A copy service is available for any film or book where you can provide exact reference numbers. The actual certificate usually gives date of death, location, age, marital status, place of birth, how long in the U.S., parents' names and birthplace, and cause of death. There are also marriage records 1866-1937 and an index to births 1881-1916.

Vital records for all five boroughs of New York City are kept in the city itself, not at the state level in Albany. They are divided between two administrative offices as indicated below.

  • Older records (births prior to 1909, deaths prior to 1948, and marriages before 1937) are kept at the following address:

    New York City Department of Records and Information Services
    Municipal Archives
    31 Chambers Street — Room 103
    New York, NY 10007 USA

  • Later records are kept through the Department of Health:

    Bureau of Vital Records
    New York City Department of Health
    125 Worth Street
    New York, NY 10013 USA
    Phone: (212) 788-4520

Ships' Passenger Lists

One of the most frustrating searches can be for the proof of the arrival of the immigrant. Somehow it is nice to know exactly which ship brought them, where it sailed from and when it actually docked. After 1897 there is an alphabetical index to 1902 and 1902-1943 has a soundex index. For earlier dates, if you know the name of the ship, you can limit your search by using the Morton-Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrival at the Port of New York, 1890-1930 and at the Ports of Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1904-1926. Without a date (at least a month) or a ship's name and port of embarkation, it is extremely difficult to find the name on a manifest. During this time period, the arrivals for a month take up two or three rolls of microfilm. One year can cover 20 rolls. This is why it is important to gather information from census, naturalization and death records to try to narrow down the time period when they probably arrived.

In a worst case scenario you may find yourself going through reel after reel of New York arrivals. Depending on the origin of your ancestor, this might not be as bad as it seems. There were many ships that came from other regions (such as South America and the Caribbean) that can be ignored if your ancestors were European. There are also many ships with just a handful of passengers. The big immigrant ships came from Germany, Great Britain, Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, and some from Scandinavia. The passenger lists generally indicate citizenship and usually they are grouped somewhat.

An Austrian may have gone any direction — Germany, Holland, England, even Italy, but most nationalities used certain ports. If your ancestor was Irish, you can skip the long lists of passengers from Bremen, Hamburg and Naples. If you are not looking for an Italian, you can skip pretty quickly through most ships from Italy although many carried people from Greece and the Middle East. Scandinavians usually went through Germany or the British Isles. Germans, Russians and other Eastern Europeans frequently went from Germany, but also through Holland, France and England. If you are looking for a German, you can look quickly down the columns and go past all those from Sweden and Denmark.

Once in a while you will come across a list in alphabetical order. Don't assume it is in exact order. Scan the entire list anyway. Sometimes a stray name may be put in next to a traveling companion or there may be more than one alphabet. If you are looking for a family, it is easy to spot the families with the surname repeated or, more often, the use of ditto marks ( " ). Be careful also to determine if the list is in first name/last name or last name/first name order — or a combination! For further information see They Came in Ships by John P. Colletta (Salt Lake City: Ancestry 1993).

Directories and Other Censuses

If you have researched all of the above and still haven't found your answers, there are more resources, but a bit more difficult to use. There are city directories for many years including 1860-1925 (except 1919). These directories are not limited to businesses, but list home addresses for individuals of all types, including "laborers." It even lists some relations, such as "Kenny, Anna wid. Thos."

Once you have an address, you can then look for your ancestor in the state censuses which are not indexed or the 1910 federal census which is not indexed for New York. The state census was taken every 10 years ending in 5, as in 1895, 1905, 1915, and 1925. The Family History Library has street indexes for the 1905, 1915 and 1925 Manhattan census. With the street address you use the index to find what assembly district and election district covered that area. The 1925 census reports when and where the person was naturalized.

There was also a police census taken in 1890 which lists every individual at each address. There is no name index, but there is a map index which shows assembly and election districts. The election districts cover fairly small areas so if you have an address it is possible to find the person on the census. The difficulty is that many immigrants seemed to move frequently.

Map Programs

A map program, either on CD-ROM or on-line, can be very helpful in doing this type of research. If you are not familiar with New York streets and addresses, the street and house numbers can have little meaning. By being able to plot the various addresses on a map you can see if a person always stayed in one neighborhood or if two people who may be related are living around the corner from each other.

It is especially helpful if the program can pinpoint a block for a certain address. For example, 1951 2nd Avenue is just a couple of blocks from 200 E. 102nd St. but quite a distance (about 27 blocks) from 2490 2nd Avenue. Pinpointing the block also helps to locate the assembly and election districts for the state and police census, especially on the long north-south streets.

There are many, many more records for New York City research, many related to specific ethnic groups or religions. These are just the highlights of some of the larger collections to give you an idea that tracking immigrants is not as impossible as it might appear. While all the films can be ordered from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, many of the larger Family History Centers have these important indexes on permanent loan.

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