City Guide: New York City

By Fern Glazer Premium

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Since its beginnings, New York City has had a unique pull on people from all over the globe. One of the first Europeans lured there was Giovanni da Verrazzano, who, exploring for the French, encountered the area and its native Lenape inhabitants. Englishman Henry Hudson, in the employ of the Dutch East India Co., was seeking a passage to Asia in 1609 when he sailed into the river now named for him.

People worldwide have since journeyed to the tiny island of Manhattan seeking a better life, fame and fortune, or excitement. Whether your Big Apple ancestors arrived in the city’s infancy or later, you can easily connect with them through a treasure trove of records, repositories, historical groups and museums. Consider this your official guide.

Big Apple seeds
The Dutch who settled in the area around 1624 named it New Amsterdam. Others began arriving in what’s now Brooklyn and The Bronx in 1636. Queens had a few farms and rural settlements. Staten Island remained unsettled.

In 1664, England seized the colony and renamed it New York. More than a century later, the area saw many Revolutionary War battles, including the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn. The British occupied New York until late 1783, but the Colonists prevailed and George Washington was inaugurated as the first US president in 1789 at Federal Hall on Wall Street. New York City was the country’s capital until 1790.

The New York Historical Society houses artifacts and a research library with millions of manuscripts, photographs, prints, maps and books. Select the Library tab for digitized materials or search the society’s online museum catalog.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, New York City grew as a cosmopolitan economic center. Immigration, which had slowed during European wars, resumed. Most notable was the influx of Irish potato famine refugees; by 1860, nearly one quarter of the city’s population was Irish.

After the Civil War, their city became the nation’s busiest gateway for millions of immigrants, especially Irish, Italians, Jews and Poles. If your family was part of this immigration wave, you can search Castle Garden and Ellis Island arrivals for free.

Borough unification
In 1898, New York City’s modern boundaries were established with its five boroughs, each in its own county: Manhattan (New York County), Brooklyn (Kings County), The Bronx (Bronx County), Queens (Queens County) and Staten Island (Richmond County; this borough was named Richmond until 1975). When you search for records, be sure to look under the borough name as well as New York City.

The “outer boroughs” — a common term for all but Manhattan — were originally made up of little villages, each of which kept its own records. Brooklyn started out as the village of Brooklyn Ferry, absorbed little settlements such as Flatbush and Gravesend, and became the city of Brooklyn in 1834. In 1855, it was the third largest city in the United States. You can search The Brooklyn Daily Eagle issues from 1841 to 1902 free on the Brooklyn Public Library website.

Critical collection
Researchers have a wealth of resources to work with. “It was a city that grew fast,” says Maira Liriano, manager of the New York Public Library (NYPL) Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. “There are a lot of records.”

The Milstein Division, one of the nation’s largest public genealogical collections, is home to a rich mix of sources, including vital records indexes, city directories, coroner’s reports, a vast historical newspaper collection, local and state will and estate records, and a complete set of New York state and city censuses. In addition, the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society has gifted the NYPL its holdings, including manuscripts from prominent New Yorkers. You can search the NYPL catalog online and request paid research services through its NYPL Express.

The local Italian Genealogical Group has created searchable online indexes to many New York City records — naming those of all nationalities, not just Italians — including naturalizations and vital records.

For the records
New Yorkers were recorded in the first federal census in 1790 and each census thereafter. The 1890 census was lost, of course, but an 1890 police census for Manhattan — available on FHL microfilm — can substitute. Many New York City and borough records from the state’s regular censuses, taken from 1825 through 1925, also are on Family History Library microfilm, with a few on and

City directories, naming heads of households with their occupations and addresses, span 1786 to the early 1930s. The NYPL Milstein Division has a complete collection of these; the FHL also has some on microfilm. has directories covering 20-some years between 1832 and 1915. See for links to other online New York City directories (some free).

The Big Apple’s death records date back to 1795; birth records, to 1847; and marriage certificates, also to 1847. The Municipal Archives has records of births in the five boroughs prior to 1910, deaths prior to 1949, and marriages prior to 1930. Later birth and death records are with the city department of health; the city clerk has marriage records. You can search New York City vital records indexes at the NYPL Milstein Division and on FHL microfilm (do a place-names search of the catalog on New York City or the borough name, then click the vital records heading).

Many New York City urbanites didn’t own land, but if your ancestors did, look for records at the New York City Commissioner of Deeds.

From May 1787 to today, county surrogate’s courts have recorded probates, but records were often relocated. You could search various courts to find your ancestors’ wills — or you could use the NYPL Milstein Division, which has consolidated these records going back as far as the 1600s. Not only does the library have an index to wills, but it also houses copies of them. Also view the FHL’s holdings of microfilmed New York City probate indexes and records.

New York City newspapers are key for tracing local ancestors. You can search the New York Times online article archive and download up to 20 pre-1923 articles per month for free; later articles cost $3.95 each (a digital subscription gets you more access). Old issues of the Times, the New York Tribune and the African-American New York Amsterdam News are part of ProQuest’s American Historical Newspapers service, available at many public libraries.

The volume of New York City records can be intimidating, says David Dearborn, a New England Historic Genealogical Society archivist. He recommends using online resources and guides, such as those mentioned here and on the society’s New York Ancestors website, that can help you focus your search. Do that, and soon you’ll be adding branches to your Big Apple family tree.

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1624
  • Incorporated: 1653
  • Nicknames: Big Apple, The City That Never Sleeps, Gotham
  • State: New York
  • Counties: New York (borough of Manhattan), Kings (Brooklyn), Bronx (The Bronx), Queens (Queens), Richmond (Staten Island)
  • Area: 468.9 square miles (Manhattan)
  • Motto: Excelsior (“ever upward”)
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: African-American, Dutch, English, Irish, Italian, German
  • Primary historical industries: Shipbuilding, garment-making, food-processing, banking, media, tourism
  • Famous residents: Norman Rockwell, George Gershwin, Malcom X, Lou Gehrig, Mario Puzo, Calvin Klein, Martin Scorsese


  • 1524: Giovanni da Verrazzano lands in New York
  • 1624: Dutch settle New York
  • 1792: Stock Exchange founded
  • 1901: New York Public Library opens
  • 1904: IRT Subway begins operation
  • 1913: Grand Central Station opens
  • 1926: Integrated Savoy Ballroom opens in Harlem
  • 1929: Stock market crashes
  • 1964: New York hosts World’s Fair
  • 2001: World Trade towers collapse after terrorist attacks




  • The Historical Atlas of New York City by Eric Homberger (Holt Paperbacks)
  • Encyclopedia of New York City, Second Edition by Kenneth T. Jackson (Yale University Press)
  • Genealogical Resources in New York by Estelle Guzik (Jewish Genealogical Society)
  • Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (Oxford University Press)
  • Guide to Genealogical and Biographical Sources for New York City (Manhattan), 1783-1898 by Rosalie Fellows Bailey (Clearfield)

Archives & Organizations

TIP: Records for your early New York City ancestors may be under the name of a borough or a village, rather than New York City.

Records at a Glance

Birth records

  • Begin: 1847
  • Research tips: Use church or other religious records as substitutes for missing records, especially during wartimes.

Death records

  • Begin: 1795
  • Research tips: Records generally name the parents of the deceased, except for Brooklyn’ records prior to 1898.


  • Begin: late 1600s
  • Research tips: Once people became more mobile in the late 1800s, many moved just outside city limits. If you can’t find a deed in New York City, try searching in nearby places such as Long Island, Newark or Jersey City.

City directories

  • Begin: 1786
  • Research tips: The earliest directories are sporadic.

Coroner’s reports

  • Begin: 1823
  • Research tips: If your ancestor’s death was unexplained or suspicious, look for a coroner’s report at the NYPL or on FHL microfilm.

Immigration records

Marriage records

  • Begin: 1850
  • Research tips: Pre-1898 Brooklyn records may be under the name of your ancestor’s village.

Top 5 Historic Sites

1. Tenement Museum
108 Orchard St., New York, NY 10002, (212) 982-8420
Built on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1863, this tenement apartment building was home to nearly 7,000 working class immigrants. Schedule a guided tour for a look at what many of our ancestors’ lives were like.

2. Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Ellis Island, New York, NY 10004, (212) 363-3200
This gateway for millions of who entered the United States between 1892 and 1954 is now a museum. Visitors can explore history through self-guided exhibits, documentaries and live performances; and search the passenger database.

3. Empire State Building
350 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10118, (212) 736-3100
Many consider this 102-story Art Deco skyscraper to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Erected in 1931, it was the world’s tallest building from 1931 till 1967.

4. Statue of Liberty
Liberty Island, New York, NY 10004, (212) 363-3200
This towering statue, a gift from the French dedicated in 1886, is a symbol of freedom to US residents old and new.

5. World Trade Center Site
Between Vesey Street, West Side Highway, Liberty and Church streets
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, seven buildings, including the 110-story twin towers, occupied this solemn site in Lower Manhattan. A memorial to those who died is being constructed, along with six new skyscrapers.

Related Resources

From the September 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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