Identifying 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
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.
1940 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Henry Wilson, age 1, with his parents Peter H. Wilson Jnr, 20, and Catherine Wilson, 18.
1930 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Peter Henry Wilson Jnr., 10, with his father Peter Henry Wilson, 47.
1900 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Peter Henry Wilson, 14, with his father Isaiah Wilson, 56.
1850 U.S. Federal Census, New York City: Isaiah Wilson, 6, with his father William Godfrey Wilson, 39.
Solomon Northup in the U.S. Federal Census of 1840
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 email@example.com: more details below.
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:
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:
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 Ancestry.com. The NYPL subscriptions to Ancestry Library Edition and FindMyPast provides free access to those records at the point of service.
100s of different collections of ship passenger lists and other immigration records, including:
Tools for searching passenger lists for the Port of New York (including Ellis Island and Castle Garden) and other ports.
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.
New York City vital records are not available online, but can be requested from a variety of places, depending on the date the record was created.
More easily found are indexes of records. Some indexes contain a lot of information.
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
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
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.
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 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.
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
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:
Later naturalization records often include witness affidavits, and a Certificate of Arrival.
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 to naturalize, 1944.
United States Naturalization and Citizenship Online Genealogy Records includes links to records held at other genealogy databases.
Records not online, or at the National Archives? More recent records may be accessible via the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service Genealogy Program