Upstate New York Church Record Books at Cornell University

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has been actively engaged in microfilming copies of church record books of churches throughout what was described as “Western New York.”

Some of these microfilms are woefully disappointing to one who expects to find carefully laid out columns of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths.

It would appear as though the records were written for the scribe’s own edification, and the format, style and penmanship is extremely erratic. My feeling is that the recorders of these books would have kept these notes for local consumption, for in the days of quill pens, who would have ever imagined that future hoards of humans with cell phones, GPS gadgets, laptop and handheld computers, scanners and digital cameras, would have ever a reason to want to delve into these records for clues about the local citizenry?

Well that being said, these books are still some of the very best primary sources of data on individuals that were recorded in contemporary documents, and that have a higher than usual degree of reliability. Though nothing is sacred, these records must still be analyzed and used with care, as there will be misteakes in every form of record ever made by mankind.

So what might we hope to find in these church record books? First off they are generally concerned with the business aspect of operating a church. Subscriptions, pew rentals, payment of pastors, fixing the roof, supporting the widow, and items of such ilk, generally are prominent. Hopefully, somewhere scattered in the chaff might be a few kernels of wheat that would indicate a baptism, marriage or burial record, or perhaps receiving of an individual by letter, (which will be extremely helpful in putting people in a place in time and might also indicate from whence they came,) and sometimes just having a listing of the members of a certain church might be very helpful for further study.

Many of these early churches in the wild, wild west, were lineally connected to a not too distant past colonial New England town where the local government was the church. The theocratic government of the New England towns might still be in the veins of the now satellite appendages. So you might also discover some legal news in these church record books. Some of these churches held trials for such things as blasphemy, non payment of debts, adultery or fornication, and things that we today would reserve for civil courts. Our ancestors were snapshots of ourselves. They had trials and tribulations, and some of these records are not for the feint of heart.

We need to discover all of the clues that we can from such primary records, and this fantastic collection at Cornell University in the “Study Center for Religious Life in Western New York,” that is held in the Kroch Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Department should be studied and transcribed.

The listing of the church records available is at;
Sixteen counties are represented, some more extensively than others. They are Cayuga, Cortland, Erie, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Onondaga, Ontario, Oswego, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tompkins, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates.

These films may be viewed at the Cornell library and they are also available for longer term study at your local library through Inter-Library-Loan (ILL.)

If you are going to go there I would suggest calling ahead to verify that the film is in. I made the trek to Ithaca a couple of days ago and the film that I needed was out on ILL. The day was not a total loss though. The Kroch Library has a fabulous exhibit of General LaFayette and his association with General Washington.

Just about the sweetest antiquity I have ever seen is a manuscript letter written in almost flawless English, by LaFayette’s six year old daughter to Washington in 1798. She was sad that her Papa was leaving but glad Washington will get to have him for a while.

I was just a couple of nose lengths away from the original document. You can’t do THAT on the Internet!

Dick Hillenbrand
Upstate New York Genealogy

14 Responses to “Upstate New York Church Record Books at Cornell University”

  • Anonymous:

    You’re right about untidy columns lackadaisical entries in church records. Genealogists sometimes forget that census, church, and similar records were not created to serve the needs of future genealogists. They were made to serve the immediate needs of the institution–the administering of sacraments, the demographic needs of the Commerce Bureau, etc.

    It’s great that these records get recycled for uses that their makers never imagined, but that is the fun of genealogy: finding new uses for old, forgotten records. Rescuing records from oblivion and getting them filmed or digitized is as satisfying as rescuing forgotten ancestors from oblivion.


    Dick–Thanks for sharing this.

    All–To Dick’s message, I would add a general comment that some of the best
    resources for researching Steuben County lie outside of the county, probably
    because it is largely rural and has no major academic institutions of its
    own, like Cornell University in Ithaca. It would take a LONG time to review
    all of the records with Steuben County connections in the Olin Library at
    Cornell but here are some examples below of what I found one day several
    years ago. Other libraries that have yielded similar goodies include Rush
    Rhees Library at the University of Rochester and the Central Library of
    Rochester and Monroe County (which includes the Rundel Memorial building).

    By 21 February 1795, Thomas Streeter had established an account with
    Charles Williamson when he began exchange goods and services with him; on
    that date Thomas’ bill amounted to $76.70 (Cash Book 1792-1795 of
    Williamson’s Enterprise, McCall Family Papers, Box 7, Folder 82, Olin
    Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, hereinafter
    Cash Book).

    Richard Moon of “New Providence” was Williamson’s “taylor” (Ledger A,
    folio 214); his wife’s name was Harriet (SCD, 1:92). Prior to his arrival
    in Bath, Richard Moon was living at Mt. Pleasant, Westchester County, New
    York. He and Harriet are named in a lawsuit, Elijah Hunter v. William
    Durrell & Others (Joseph Fellows Papers, Box 81, Olin Library, Cornell

    By the 1807 deed, Thomas Streeter’s dwelling in Bath was previously
    owned by Robert Biggar. Perhaps this lot was Number 3 which had been deeded
    to Biggar on 7 November 1794 (Cash Book). Biggar was in Bath as early as 26
    March 1793 (Ledger A, folio 14); he was Bath’s first tanner (“Bath the
    Beautiful,” The Post Express, 21 February 1895, McCall Family Papers, Box 5,
    Folder 56, Olin Library, Cornell University, hereinafter BTB).

    It appears that the principal responsibility executed by Thomas
    Streeter was the distribution of Addison’s share of 100 free bibles donated
    by the American Bible Society. On 1 November 1817, “5 Bibles Delivered to
    Thomas Streeter for Addison”; on 8 December 1817, “Delivered to Tho-s
    Streeter of Addison for Bibles distribution in that town 5 [Bibles],” and in
    March 1818, “Delivered Elder Streeter for same purpose 4 [Bibles]” (Records
    of the Auxiliary Bible Society of the County of Steuben 1817-1845, Olin
    Library, Cornell University).

    Good luck,


  • Anonymous:

    Mr.Hillenbrand, Thank you for your online work. Are you for private hire? I have a stonewall that 2 big time Salt Lake researchers failed to help.

  • Anonymous:

    Dear Mr. Hillenbrand,

    Thank you for your recent posting. I’m researching my husband’s Wells and related maternal lines in early Ontario & Yates counties and am always looking for further proof of their lives in that part of NY state.

    I hope to be able to see some of this material through inter-library loan, since it’s doubtful we’ll be traveling to
    Ithaca in the winter months.

    Much appreciated tip!

  • William:

    Mr Hillenbrand, I appreciate the genealogy information you periodically enter into the NY Counties websites. Are you aware of a collection of church records from Oneida County 1790-1850 and what is now Hamilton County 1790-1850?
    Thank you, William

  • unyg:

    Finding church records is the luck of the draw, especially in the early periods. I would look in the Family History Library online catalog, WorldCat, Cornell University Library, The New York State Library and any Archives associated with what ever branch of religion of interest. I have been somewhat lucky by going to the specific community church in my area of interest and start asking questions. You just never know.

    There are literally hundreds of diaries and account books of ministers in myriad and sundry places. There was an early set of volumes something like “Ecclesiastical Records…. New York” put out by the State Historian back before World War I. There was another series cataloged in the WPA days.

  • Brandy:

    Hello: I want to say thanking for giving this wonderful and helpful advice on where to look for records. I am trying to find Nathan Wilcox born 1832 and link him to his rightful family and I have came to dead walls every way I turn…until your advice came! I am now going to look for information at the Cornell University library, maybe I will find something? Anyways, I just wanted to thank you for the work you do and I look forward to seeing any further posts. ~Brandy

  • nygenes1:

    Hi Brandy, You are very welcome and I hope you have good luck. why not tell us a little more about your Nathan Wilcox and see if anyone has any ideas that might help?

  • Linda Dabulewicz:

    Brandy, I am a decendent of Powers Wilcox Redfield. He was named after both of his grandmother’s Maiden names. My Redfield’s were from Killingsworth Connecticut but moved to Brattleboro Vermont after the Revolution. Levi Redfield, Powers grandfather, traveled the countryside as a singing school teacher. He hooked up with the Vermont Sufferers at Guilford Vermont and traveled with them when they moved to Bainbridge, New York around 1800. You may want to look in the Delaware County or the Chenango County area for your Nathan if you haven’t already..There were several Wilcox families in Masonville as well as Bainbridge in the early 1800′s. My Redfields all moved either to Tunkhannock, Pa or Michigan around 1840. Linda Dabulewicz ( I am a Market gardener) :)

  • Linda Dabulewicz:

    Another idea. Levi Redfield was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Sidney. In the 1860′s there was a big flood on the Susquehanna and the portion of the Pioneer Cemetery the earliest settlers were in was washed out . Levi’s grandson had by that time moved to Otego, NY. He had Levi’s body moved to Otego. Both cemeteries, the Pioneer Cemetery and the Cemetery in Otego , were affiliated with the Congregationalist Church. Many of the Vermont Sufferers are in the same cemetery. When you go to look up the church records you may want to start with those. Levi Redfield was married to Sybil Wilcox, her father was Jonathan Wilcox born in Killingsworth in 1709. Linda

  • Brandy:

    Hello everyone and thank you for all the helpful advice, I will definitely look into all of them.I wanted to give a little more information on my Nathan Wilcox. My Nathan Wilcox born 1832(according to census records,1829-1833) was born in New York. I do not know the exact town but he was living in Exeter, Otsego County New York for many years. He was also in Winfield,Herkimer County as well as Oneida county New York. In the 1892 New York State Census he was living with his son, William Eugene Wilcox in the town of Exeter, Otsego, New York. I have an article that states the Wlliam Wilcox was going to visit his father, Nathan in 1894. So, I know he was alive until 1894. Nathan Wilcox was married to Jane. Their Children were: Sarah Jane, Franklin C.(Frank),William Eugene born July 18, 1869 in Winfield, Herkimer, New York. On all the census records I have, it states that his mother and father were born in Conneticut! I donot know who his parents were however there is a Wilcox Family that has similarities but I am still not sure. In this family there is a son Nathan Wilcox who his father is Nathan Wilcox born in November 2,1795 in Newville, Herkimer County, New York and his mother was Mariah Smith born June 17, 1797. She died in Herkimer county, New York. The problem is everywhere I look, It has Nathan Wilcox born 1795 but doesnt list the children so I can verify if he belongs to this family or not.This family is linked to back to Edward Wilcox in early American history in the 1600′s. I would like to find out who Nathan Wilcox’ parents are so I can link him to his family as well as his birth and death dates. This has been a brick wall of mine for years and I truly want to find him. My contact email is: I appreciate any help, Brandy

  • Linda Dabulewicz:

    Check out Killingsworth , Connecticut. That is where my Wilcoxson family originated. They later dropped the son ending from their name. My great great grandfathers name was Powers Wilcox Redfield. His Wilcox name came from his grandmother Sybyl Wilcox of Killingsworth. She was born 1738 to Jonathan Wilcox and Experience Hayden Williams. Linda

  • Doris Wheeler:

    Wheelor/Willour brick wall: Thanks to DNA testing, we now know that my late husband’s Wheeler line probably originated as Willour, likely in Pennsylvania. The earliest known ancestor was John Wheelor b. 1820 in Bath, Steuben County, NY. I have a great deal of information about his adult life but no clues as to parents or siblings. I will be VERY grateful for any clues, of course. All the information I have is at Doris

  • nygenes1:

    Hey Doris, Great News about a brickwall that is down! I have just received by full mtDNA report but have no idea what to do next with it. Still reading. I have had my 67 marker Y-DNA for several months and did start a HILLENBRAND (and similar spellings) surname group on FTDNA. I just have to fwet busy and start contacting all of the matches that i have in the Family Finder test. DNA testing, lots of fun!

Leave a Reply

Subscribe via RSS
Follow Me On Twitter
Donations Greatly Appreciated:
Pay on WePay
MyHeritage Top 100 Websites
Top genealogy site awards