Vitally speaking

In planning for a genealogy trip to New York State’s Capital District, I’m determined not to burn precious road-trip time on tasks I could accomplish closer to home.

Consider the New York vital records microfiche indexes, which list events, names, places, dates and certificate numbers (not the certificates themselves). They’re at the New York State Archives in Albany, but copies are also at several other locations across the state. For me the closest is the National Archives Northeast Region facility in New York City, a commuter’s ride away. Excellent!

The New York vitals parameters read like a particularly nasty pop quiz.  Indexes begin in 1880 (for deaths) and 1881 (for births and marriages). They cover everyplace except for (a) Albany, Yonkers and Buffalo births and deaths before 1914, and marriages before 1908, and (b) the city of New York, but do include Staten Island, bits of western Queens and assorted townlands of Brooklyn and Westchester prior to annexation. Births are available after 75 years, deaths and marriages after 50 years.

Got that? Me neither. One can re-read the rules at the New York State Archives site. Do so, and carefully. Dick Hillenbrand’s Upstate New York Genealogy website has a guide to obtaining New York State vital records that is as user-friendly as things get in this cruel world.

The microfiches themselves are straightforward. The older ones run by year, alphabetized by last name. Some years (like the 1956 deaths I searched) are indexed by Soundex, however. (Never leave your Soundex cheat sheet at home, class.)

It was a good day overall. I found all the births where I had specific time frames, plus one birth listing that was a total shot in the dark (a “child died young” who was documented only on my Aunt Catherine’s handwritten Genealogy List). I also easily found death listings for both my Haigney great-great-grandparents, plus a great-great aunt. Marriages were a bust,  despite diligent searching.  Maybe my relatives didn’t register, or maybe my information isn’t 100 percent accurate. (I know; unthinkable.)

Confirming the existence, dates and numbers of vital records can speed retrieval (and save money) at the state Department of Health, which holds the certificates. Now I need to decide which certificates are most urgently worth ponying up for. At $22 per genealogy copy, this is a serious matter.

If you’re using the New York State vitals microfiches, I suggest these steps:

1. Make sure you really need them. For pre-1880 vitals, you need to dig elsewhere. For New York City, you need the New York City Municipal Archives. And don’t forget that Albany/Yonkers/Buffalo thing.

2. Save your sanity; narrow your date range. Use censuses, military records, family traditions, Bible notations, whatever you’ve got. Newspapers, too– stories like this one can be gold mines.

3. At the repository, tackle your “sure-thing,” specific searches first. Then do the fuzzier searches.

4. Carefully write everything down, especially if you’re sure it’s not important.


3 Comments on “Vitally speaking”

  1. Nancy Curran says:

    A few more bits of information about vital records in New York State:

    To search the indexes, you will need to register on your first visit every year, presenting a photo id. The locations are considered secure. Also archival rules are enforced regarding such things as carrying in totebags (no) and using Number 2 pencils (provided if you forgot).

    Marriage years can be deduced from a 1930 census listing. One column tells the age at first marriage, which leads to some subtraction and then some addition, and last to a comparison of the couple’s ages at first marriage. If they don’t jibe, either there is a misstatement of current age or, another possibility, that they were not each other’s first spouse.

    Placing an order for a vital record can be done by using the dropbox in the NYS Archives reading room on the 11th floor of the Cultural Education Center or by bringing the order to the NYS Dept of Health building at the end of No. Pearl St. Menands. Personal checks are the form of payment, unlike places that require a money order.

    Sometimes the index listing tells you what you want to do, if it’s the date and place of the event. That barebones information leads you to a newspaper obituary or a probate record.

    Be inclusive: be generous about listing all of the surnames, including their variant spellings. If it’s an impossibly common name, you may recognize given names of siblings or just the name of the village. If your target person is not found, it’s only a few steps in thinking to assume that Samuel had the same parents as his sister Martha. And Sam’s obit or information might tell you Martha’s married name. Of course you’ll need a proof of siblinghood or a clear statement that the relationship is assumed, based on such and such a fact.

    On a handout for doing Archives research, one of the first admonitions is to ask an archivist for help. I’ve found the archives staff members to come up with great ideas. They know their holdings; we don’t.

    • Thanks for the excellent points Nancy. Yes, it’s wise to check the regulations specific to NARA, which are another post in themselves! You can use a locker for personal belongings; they are free but I’m sure they can fill up on busy days.

      Re marriage dates: 1900 and 1910 censuses also asked how many years the person was in their current marriage — another clue to marriage year.

      • Nancy Curran says:

        Yes! with the renovation of the wonderful NYS Archives 11th floor, new lockers were part of the remodel, and there is no fee. You’ll be given a key when you sign in the visitors’ log.
        You may bring in a computer, although not the case, and plug in the cord so you don’t leave depleted (your battery, that is). No wi-fi on that floor yet, but there is on the 7th floor, the genealogy section.
        There are a couple of computers for the public. One is usually ready to give you the soundex form for whatever name you’re searching, although I tape it in my spiral notebook, a last-century tool I still use.


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