Skip New York? No! Sources of Births, Marriages, and Deaths–a New York Challenge

You may think I have skipped New York?  At least my New York Blog.  Never!  This episode is an edited version of an entry that appeared on my Genealogy Evidence Blog sometime ago.   It is a very important post, so I decided to edit it and share it with you here.

New York births, marriges, and deaths–hard to find and essential to your genealogy.  Reason:  the state, early on, expected the churches to keep these important vital records.  As was the system in Massachusetts and Connecticut where many of the early New Yorkers originate.  The government structure in New York, however, was different.  Local churches, unless they recorded vital events as a matter of policy, omitted this task.  And since there was no legal provision for other jurisdictions to record vitals, they were often unrecorded–much to the dismay of genealogists seeking ancestors.

Let me quote:

This book contains copies of such of the old records of Baptism & Marriages of the Methodist Episcopal Church of N.Y. City as have been found. For many years there was but one set of books for all the Churches in the City. These were in the care of the Preacher in charge and the other preachers made their entries from time to time at their convenience. This will account for many of the irregularities in dates.

The numbering of the books is peculiar. This is due to two causes. 1. that they were originally numbered for another purpose. & 2. that some of them came into my hands after the first list had been made. The originals will probably be found at the Methodist Book Room, 150 Fifth Avenue or their whereabouts ascertained there. [See below for locations].

The copy is as close as possible–evident errors and all. The pages of the originals are marked in red ink at the top of the page out in the margin. In some cases, errors known to me to be such are corrected in red ink. All that is in black may be depended upon as in the original.

The first book, marked 1.A. is indoubtedly the oldest record of the M.E. Church in N.Y. City. Up to the Christmas Conference in 1784, Methodist preachers were not ordained & could not baptize nor marry. This book began early in 1785.  S.S. Seaman

This is the introduction to the handwritten transcripts of the oldest M.E. Baptisms and Marriages. Rev. Samuel S. Seaman completed these transcripts in 1894–consolidating scattered entries from more than 34 Methodist Episcopal congregations in New York City and the records of two important pastors into one massive, meticulous record.

Methodism grew from humble beginnings of 178 white members and 25 blacks attending John Street Church until the 1865 New York State Census showed that this community-oriented denomination had more members than any other at the end of the War Between the States.

These transcripts are available on six microfilm reels, #0017777, 0017779-0017782, 0017785 through the Family History Library and its branches. The original copy of the Seaman record is located at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. The original church records from which the transcripts were made are still scattered: at the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&BS).

The more than 41,000 marriages (over 82,000 names) have been printed in New York City Methodist Marriages, 1795-1893, 2 vols. edited and compiled by William Scott Fisher. Camden ME: Picton Press, 1994. Copies available from the press, P.O. Box 1111, Camden ME 04843-1111. See also, Harry Macy, Jr., “Methodist Records of New York City in the NYG&BS Library,” NYG&BS Newsletter (Winter, 1993).

Creating the transcripts, Pastor Seaman did the hard work for us–

  1. Went from church to church carefully copying the records. Since he was a local minister, he was familiar with the names of church members already and could give us a more accurate reading.
  2. Read the local ministers’ returns, deciphering the handwriting of various clerks and pastors.
  3. Preserved additional details recorded by each scribe, like place of birth or residence, age, officiating minister, birthdate as well as date of baptism.
  4. Meticulously described what he found–irregularities in format, identifying handwritings where the name of the pastor was not included in the returns, and missing pages.

Many difficult New York City genealogy problems can be solved by a careful search in these important records. I read reel #0017782 entry by entry, baptisms and marriages and 1 page of burials–more than 600 pages–the records of John Street Church and Allen Street congregation. I then compared the marriages I copied with the entries in the printed volumes. And I gained a new appreciation for the gigantic task Rev. Seaman completed in our behalf, with some amazing new insights about the ancestral families I am researching.

There is a new guide to Manhattan’s houses of worship which describes each church and congregation with maps showing locations: David W. Dunlap, From Abyssinian to Zion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). Very useful reference. Churches tend to be territorial. Your ancestors were expected to attend the congregation where they resided, and most of the time they did. Special events might be celebrated in a special church, but regular worship services and sacraments were usually performed in the local church.

Note that Pastor Seaman points out to us that Methodist clergy were not able to perform baptisms and marriages until after the Christmas Conference in 1784. This is important information. Such events took place under Anglican auspices before 1784 and by itinerant ministers who had been ordained to that authority.

Registers of Call Numbers for Births, Deaths, Marriages

New York City is a morass of jurisdictions with frequent name changes and designations–a cataloger’s nightmare. Other researchers before me have tackled the problem of determining just which records are available on microfilm. Remember, in areas where the population is highly concentrated, one record book is insufficient. So dates overlap because multiple clerks keep more than one record. Be prepared to search each record that covers your dates and localities.

The Family History Library has now compiled three volumes listing the call numbers for each record category–births, marriages, deaths. Bringing an orderly access for the first time (Dec 2005). These Registers of Births, Marriages, and Deaths can be found in the public reference area on the second floor at the Library. Or you can request a microfiche copy for use at your local branch Family History Center. Names, addresses, and websites of city archives and record offices are also included for those records you want to order, when indexes have been filmed but the records themselves have not.

Your favorite New York genealogist, Arlene Eakle     http://arleneeakle.com

PS  I have a special New York handout, with details that I have not published elsewhere.  I promised to make copies for the Mesa AZ Family History EXPO attendees in Jan 2010.  If you sendme an email with your postal address, I will ship you a FREE copy of this handout!  It is not available by email and it contains some stuff that I did not write myself.  And maps.  So I will send it by postal mail.  Let me know if you want it.

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