Friday, January 25, 2008

Genealogical resources: archived records

For the most part my ancestors came to New York and through the years, stayed in New York. Up until my dad and my maternal grandmother, those lines pretty much stayed in the vicinity of Queens-Brooklyn-Manhattan, which has made the New York Municipal Archives a great resource for me. I first found them online at http://www.nyc.gov/html/records/html/vitalrecords/home.shtml. Among their holdings are microfilmed birth (prior to 1910), death (prior to 1949), and marriage certificates (prior to 1930) for the five boroughs of New York City. The services aren't free, but the fees and wait period are extremely reasonable. I found many valuable records by sending a search request online - I discovered the names of once nameless parents, I found addresses by which to look up the family in a corresponding census record, I found birth dates and maiden names. But I didn't find everything I was looking for. As exciting as it was to receive a new record in the mail, it was equally disappointing to get a nearly empty envelope saying the search had been unsuccessful.

Well, I only live 40 minutes from the city. If I couldn't rely on others to do my search for me, I would do the search myself.

Open weekdays from 9-4:30 (1 on Fridays), the Archives are located in Manhattan right by the Brooklyn Bridge. For $5, you get access to a microfilm machine for the entire day. I went armed with paper, pen, and a list of names, dates, and places I was looking for and spent the whole day there on more than one occasion.

Sometimes I was unsuccessful. But sometimes, I had pay dirt. It's convenient and easy that the Archives have a search request online, especially for those people looking up New York records who don't live in the New York area. But for those who can get into the Archives to continue an unsuccessful online search, it can make all the difference. The search itself can be tedious - I think microfilm machines are hard on the eyes to begin with, and it's not long before your eyes start to cross and every birth certificate blurs into the next.

But doing the search yourself lets you work with variables - when you order a search online, you get to look for one name. In my case, maybe the name was of my ancestor James Gorry. But Gorry is a tricky name - on James' birth certificate, did they spell his last name Gorry, or was it one of the many versions I've seen on census forms and other documents - Gorey, Gory, Gaurry?

As it turns out, it was spelled Garry. And his birth certificate is issued to "male Garry." I never would have found that online.

Another person I couldn't believe I couldn't find was my great-grandfather, Elmer Anthony Gorry. Records that are more recent tend to be easier to find - record keeping in earlier years was spotty at best, but Elmer was born in 1896. That record was practically brand new! Each record type is indexed several different ways, and since I had his birthdate, I think that's the index I used to find him. Turns out he, too, was listed as a Garry, not as "Elmer Garry," but as "Anthony Garry."

There's another fee to print out any records you find and the whole experience is usually very taxing and exhausting, but the point is, birth, death, and marriage certificates can be an invaluable resource, not only to continue your search but to discover an interesting family story (like the marriage certificate I found that proved my great-grandmother was born only seven months after her parents were married), and sometimes you are lucky enough to be able to go that extra step in a search and that the chances of being successful by doing the legwork yourself may be worth it.

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