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Genealogy : Getting Started at The New York Public Library: The records

A guide to getting started with genealogical research at The New York Public Library

Records used by genealogists

Fred Douglass 1860 Census Rochester Ward 12 Monroe New York Page 300Identifying which record will best answer your genealogy question is central to successful genealogy research. For instance, what record will tell you where your ancestor lived? Presuming your ancestor lived in the the United States, you might go searching for them in a digitized historical city directory, or a census.

The United States federal census is perhaps the best place to start your family history research, starting with the most recently released census - currently 1940 - and working back.

Key records used by genealogists are

  • Censuses
  • Vital records
  • Ship passenger lists
  • Naturalization records

This page provides resources to help you identify what information those records contain, the history of the records, and where you can find them.

Left: 1860 Census, Frederick Douglass, Rochester, Ward 12, Monroe, New York Page 300


It bears repeating; censuses are a great place to begin your research. The United States first began enumerating its citizens in 1790, and has continued to do so every 10 years since. A varying amount of information was recorded, depending on what the government wanted to collect; generally speaking, the earlier the census, the less information was recorded. The U.S. Federal census is released to the public 72 years after it is taken.

When genealogists talk about the census, they are invariably referring to the census population schedules, that variously recorded the names, ages, and addresses of individuals each census year. You'll see recorded who lived in a household, and what their relationships were. The census captured information about work, place of origin and immigration, race, and property ownership. This is data that provides clues to the existence and location of other records, like property deeds, ship passenger lists, naturalization records, and records of birth, marriage, and death.

Besides population, the U.S. Federal census had different schedules. The 1850 and 1860 census, for instance, included a slave schedule that recorded the names of slave owners, and provided information about the race, gender, and age of slaves, but not their names. There have also been schedules of military veterans (in 1840 and 1890), mortality (1850-1880), business, industry, and agriculture, and different censuses of Americans Indians. In addition to the federal census, many states conducted their own censuses, typically every ten years at the five year point between the federal enumerations.

The census is an excellent tool for tracing lineage. Working backwards from the most recently released population schedule (1940), the examples below trace the lineage of the Wilson family, from Henry Wilson, born in New York in 1938, to his great-great grandfather William Godfrey Wilson, who lived in Seneca Village, New York, in 1850.

Wilsons in 1940 census

1940 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Henry Wilson, age 1, with his parents Peter H. Wilson Jnr, 20, and Catherine Wilson, 18.

Wilsons in 1930 census

1930 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Peter Henry Wilson Jnr., 10, with his father Peter Henry Wilson, 47.

Wilsons in 1900 census

1900 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Peter Henry Wilson, 14, with his father Isaiah Wilson, 56.

Wilsons 1850

1850 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Isaiah Wilson, 6, with his father William Godfrey Wilson, 39.

Key facts and uses

  • United States Federal Census taken every ten years from 1790
  • Released to the public 72 years after enumerated
  • Describes household members (relationships), age, birthplace (of self & parents), year of immigration, naturalization status, addresses (varies by year)
  • 1790-1880, 1900-1940 population schedules mostly survive (some exceptions): 1890 mostly lost in a fire in 1921
  • Starts basic, more detailed as time progresses
  • 1790-1840 names household head only; enumerates others by gender / age / race / if a slave
  • 1850 -1940: identifies all household members, and describes relationships, work, addresses, immigration, and more biographical data
  • The slave schedules of 1850 and 1860 identify the names of slaveholders and demographic data about slaves, but not their names
  • Consider also nonpopulation census records, state censuses, and international censuses


Solomon Northup in the 1840 census

Solomon Northup in the U.S. Federal Census of 1840

Access to the census

The U.S. Federal census, and other censuses, can be accessed in most genealogy databases

NYPL has many census on microfilm, and many print indexes for censuses: ask in the Milstein Division or email more details below.

Ship passenger lists

History and content

Ship passenger lists and border crossings are the most common record of immigration. The Steerage Act of 1819 mandated the creation of ship passenger lists (sometimes called manifests). Passenger lists prior to this date are few and far between, and may have been compiled later, from different sources.

Customs Passenger Lists (1820-c.1891)

Early ship passenger lists were less detailed than those that would follow, but still included:

  • Ship’s name and master
  • Port of Embarkation
  • Date and port of arrival
  • Passenger’s
    • name
    • age
    • sex
    • occupation
    • nationality

Ruchel Goldstein Passenger List 1921 Port of New York

Immigration passenger lists (1891-1924)
The Immigration Act of 1891 established the Office of Immigration, and immigration receiving stations begin operations, notably Ellis Island, in 1892. Passenger lists from this period asked more questions, providing more and more data useful to genealogists, including:

  • More specific information about the passenger's birth place
  • Name and address of contact (possibly a relative) in US
  • Name and address of closest living relative in native country

With the The Immigration Act of 1924 and the introduction of the visa system, ship manifests began to ask fewer questions,. Nevertheless, through the mid-20th century the records continued to include a lot of information useful to genealogists.


FamilySearch has a comprehensive list of US passenger lists, border crossings, and other immigration records available online. Some databases link to The NYPL subscriptions to Ancestry Library Edition and FindMyPast provides free access to those records at the point of service.

United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records

Ancestry Library Edition

100s of different collections of ship passenger lists and other immigration records, including:

  • New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957
  • Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963
  • Baltimore, Passenger Lists, 1820-1964
  • Pennsylvania, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1800-1962
  • New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813-1963
  • UK and Ireland, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960
  • Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934

 One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse

Tools for searching passenger lists for the Port of New York (including Ellis Island and Castle Garden) and other ports.


Ellis Island Passenger Search 

Print sources

Ships -- Passenger lists.

Further reading

Genealogy Tips: Using NYPL Resources at Home to Research Immigrant Ancestors

Vital records

Vital records are records collected by the local government that record births, marriages, and deaths, and are sometimes referred to as records of civil registrations. Individuals and families often have copies of their own birth and marriage certificates and licenses. Records of civil registration are not the same as records of baptisms marriages, burial, and so on, recorded at various houses of worship and cemeteries. In the absence of vital records, religious records, however, can be the best way to find information about these life events. 

Generally speaking civil registration is a recent phenomenon, beginning in the 19th century, but not really taking hold until the 20th century. 

For more information consult the further reading sources listed below.

The birth certificate, below, for instance, records the birth of musician Melvin James (Sy) Oliver, at 20 Peninsular Street, Battle Creek, Michigan, December 17, 1910. His father is recorded as Melvin C. Oliver, 37, born Pulaski, Tennessee, occupation waiter. His mother is Alice Taylor (her maiden name), age 21, born Little Rock, Arkansas. The family live at 20 Peninsular Street, where Alice is a homemaker. 

Malvin James Oliver, birth certificate, 1919.


New York City: Digitized vital records

The New York City Municipal Archives is undertaking a mass digitization project to provide online access to 13.3 million historical birth, death, and marriage records, that are now available to search by name and certificate number online, from approximately 1855-1949.

Though coverage varies, birth certificates are available through 1909, and marriage records, and death certificates through 1949.

For more details, see the Municipal Archives guide to New York City historical vital records.


Researchers can also use the following indexes to locate vital records in the Five Boroughs.

Italian Genealogy Group and German Genealogy Group (pre-1910)
Family Search New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909  (may include parents’ names but no certificate #)
Ancestry Library Edition, New York, New York, Birth Index, 1910-1965

pre-1938 certificates
Italian Genealogy Group and German Genealogy Group
Family Search (“marriage records 1827-1940”)
1908-1972 applications, affidavits and licenses: Reclaim the Records
1950-1995 licenses: Reclaim the Records
Ancestry Library Edition, New York, New York, Marriage License Indexes, 1907-2018

Italian Genealogy Group and German Genealogy Group pre-1949
Family Search New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949
Ancestry Library Edition

  • New York, New York, Extracted Death Index, 1862-1948
  • New York, New York, Death Index, 1949-1965 

Note: The German and Italian Genealogy Group vital records indexes are for all ethnicities.


The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society has an excellent guide to requesting vital records in New York City and New York State.

Finding New York Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

Vital records held at the Municipal Archives.

Requesting vital records from the Municipal Archives.

United States

Death Indexes and Records Online 

This website is an extensive directory of links to online death indexes, listed by state and county. Included are death records, death certificate indexes, death notices and registers, obituaries, probate indexes, and cemetery and burial records.

Find a Grave

Find a Grave contains listings, images and some additional burial and biographical information from cemeteries in the United States and other countries. An index to cemeteries and burial information from this website are also available through the Ancestry database. 

Further reading 

Naturalization records

Beginning in 1790, naturalization is the process by which an alien becomes a citizen of the United States. Historically speaking there were two steps to the naturalization process

  • Declaration of Intention (or First Papers)
  • Petition (Second or Final Papers) This is when Oath of Allegiance is taken, and recorded

Declarations became voluntary after 1952, and are usually the most detailed record. 

Early records are less detailed, naturalizations taken after 1906 or so become more detailed. Information included in more detailed naturalization papers might include: 

  • Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Personal description
  • Date and place of birth
  • Citizenship
  • Present and last foreign addresses
  • Ports of embarkation and entry
  • Name of ship 
  • Date of arrival in the U.S.
  • Spouse and children's names and dates of birth
  • Address
  • Photograph (after 1929)

Later naturalization records often include witness affidavits, and a Certificate of Arrival. 

Maria Von Trapp Certificate of Arrival, 1943

Maria Augusta Von Trapp, Certificate of Arrival, 1943

It should be noted that not everyone who immigrated to the United States became a citizen. Many people declared their intention to naturalize, but did not petition. It's worth finding the declaration, because that is often the naturalization record that contains the most information, and, possibly, a photograph.

Maria Augusta Von Trapp, Declaration of Intention  

Maria Augusta Von Trapp, Declaration of Intention to naturalize, 1944.


Ancestry Library Edition

125+ groups of indexes and original naturalization records, national and regional


United States Naturalization and Citizenship Online Genealogy Records includes links to records held at other genealogy databases.


Best known for military records, includes  U.S. District and Circuit Court naturalization records from NARA.

USCIS Genealogy program

Records not online, or at the National Archives? More recent records may be accessible via the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service Genealogy Program