Was the New York State Census created for Genealogists?

The New York State Census, surely was created just for future genealogists, right?

Wrong! I know this is hard to believe, but all of these civil record tools that we use, such as land records, estate records, tax lists, and census returns, were not created for us! It will help you to think about why and when these type of documents were created and to what purpose they would have been used at the time.

The federal census was taken every ten years by law in order to give the government a snapshot of the condition and growth of the nation. There was a 72 year restriction put on the use of the actual names and private information, however the statistical data was usually available within the following year. For instance you can find data all over the web about the year 2000 census, but the names will not be available until 2073. The 1930 census is the newest available at this time and the 1940 will be available in 2013.

Some states took their own census at various time periods, and on various schedules. New York State did enact a state census law and surveys were made also every ten years, however it was created usually on the “5” year in between the federal census. Here is the list of known state census that you might find; 1825, 1835, 1845, 1855, 1865, 1875, “1892,” 1905, 1915, and 1925.

The 1911 fire at the state library in Albany was devastating to a great many original manuscript documents and the copies that the state had of the census were mostly all destroyed, or so I’ve been told. There are still a great many partial census returns that do exist, and all that have been located were microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) microfilming program. Copies of those microfilms were deposited with the NYS Library and may be viewed there but are not available for inter-library loan. They may also be viewed on film at any LDS Family History Center near you.

The original copies of these census returns are held at the county level and if you want to view the original document I would suggest you start with the county clerk. Not all of these returns exist and many are incomplete.

You might get lucky and find your family on some part of the following known returns. 1825, 1835, 1845, (those three are very good for agricultural information and will give you a comparative picture of your target family’s net worth. But they only show names of the heads of household and the rest of the residents are enumerated in age groupings, but no names.) Then 1855 (my personal favorite, gives the name of every person in the household including the relationship to the head of household, and another valuable piece of data is that it asked what county in NYS the person was born, or which other state or country, and it asks how many years resident in this specific town.) Then 1865 (gives information on men who served in the military.) 1875 is also very detailed, no census was taken in 1885, and the next one breaks the “5” year increment pattern, and was taken in 1892.

Some people believe that it was because the 1890 federal census was damaged in a fire, however that fire was many years later. There is a very detailed description of why the 1892 census was taken that was written by Melinda Yates and published in the journal of the Silvio O. Conte Friends of the National Archives, “Archival Anecdotes.” I am attempting to obtain a copy of that article and will describe it in better detail later. Essentially it was a political thing. One group in power did not want the expense of a census and then when a new Governor was elected, a census was ordered immediately. The 1892 census is not as helpful in many ways, because it just shows a running list of names of people and does not delineate the houses. It will give you the name of each person, their age and country of birth.

Then 1905, 1915, and 1925 census were taken and the families are again grouped within houses.

Here is an excellent website provided by Joe Biene that will describe in further detail NYS census information. www.genealogybranches.com/newyorkcensus.html.

Here is a website of the Silvio O. Conte Friends of the National Archives that describes many finding aids for the NYS census. www.rootsweb.com/~mafsocna/ny__state_census.htm

The New York State Library has a webpage that is extremely helpful.

Stephen P. Morse’s “One Step” method of searching also has some very good details on the various NYS census. www.stephenmorse.com.

My own Upstate New York Genealogy website, www.unyg.com has a button on the left hand side marked “NY COUNTIES & CENSUS.” When you click it you will go to a chart of all of the county names, the date the county was formed, the parent county, and a list of known state census that exist. If you click on the county name it will take you directly to that county’s GenWeb site.

Remember not all parts of each census are extant. For instance, the 1865 census for Onondaga county did survive, except for the very first book which included the towns of Camillus, Cicero, Clay and DeWitt. My old friend Dick Wright of the Onondaga Historical Association told me that he remembered doing some research in the county clerk’s office back in the 1950’s and that particular volume was in a suitcase that one of the county workers had been taking home with him at night to transcribe some Civil War information out of. As I have no reason to doubt him, I suspect that is a true story and we can only hope that some day it might be located in someone’s attic or personal library, and returned.

To find out specific dates and towns that exist, the best place to go is the LDS Family History Library’s on-line library catalog at www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp and do a “PLACE” search.

Dick Hillenbrand – Upstate New York Genealogy – www.unyg.com

ps: It was pointed out by a reader that I neglected to mention William Dollarhide’s book “New York State Censuses & Substitutes.” Well it is a ‘must read!’ Se our eview of it at http://www.unyg.com/book_reviews/

2 Responses to “Was the New York State Census created for Genealogists?”

  • Miriam:

    I would like to add to your list of NY State Census resources Bill Dollarhide’s New York State Censuses & Substitutes; it contains a wealth of information of where to obtain copies of the state censuses, some of which are only available to search in person in New York State. The substitute information includes tax, military, voter, and original federal census records (which may differ from those images you see online at Ancestry.com or HeritageQuest Online), as well as deed indexes. This book is available online at the Genealogical Publishing Company.

  • Miriam:

    P.S. Dick, I see on the GPC site that you, too, recommend this book!

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