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Looking Past Land and Probate Records

by Marian Pierre-Louis

Following my recent blog post Bring Down Those Brick Walls! I received this response from Elizabeth:

"There has been a lot of discussion lately about land and probate use. The conversations make the assumption that everyone either owned land or had a will. This is not the case for most people who lived in non-rural areas. My family members have lived in the New York City area for more than a few generations. They were always tenants. The first real-property on both sides of the family was purchased by my parents in the 1950s and they were the first to have wills. So my brick walls will not benefit from this discussion. Believe me I have looked. How about some suggestions for the rest of us?"

Let's see if we can come up with some suggestions for Elizabeth.


New York State Census, 1865 from

Before we start, I need to point out that I don't have two very important pieces of information: the time period in which Elizabeth is having trouble or the specific county in New York City where her ancestors lived. We also need to mention that New York nearly invented the phrase "Brick Wall!" New York suffers from a dearth of extant records making it one of the hardest states to research in.

New York City is made up of five boroughs in five separate counties: Bronx in Bronx County, Brooklyn in Kings County, Manhattan in New York County, Queens in Queens County and Staten Island in Richmond County. Research strategies may vary depending on where your ancestors lived.

Since we are talking about bringing down brick walls I'm making the assumption that research has already been done on low hanging fruit such as US Federal census records and vital records. One place you might want to start, if you haven't already are the New York State Census records. These are available for free on for the years 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.

The census records list the individual names of family members, place of birth, ages and occupations along with some other details. The 1905, 1915 and 1925 census even list the street address. (Please note that some of the record images are viewable on while others require a subscription to to view the original image.) If your ancestors are New York-born, the 1855, 1865 and 1875 censuses will tell you what county they were born in. That may be critical in guiding you to new locations to focus your research.

When dealing with tenants, non-land owners, I would head straight for city directories. On I found a database called New York City City Directories that starts as early as 1836 and as late as 1947. Unfortunately, Ancestry doesn't list which specific years are covered in the database so don't consider those years as hard and fast. If you can find your ancestor in a city directory then you can locate their neighborhood. Armed with information about their neighborhood you can try to establish which place of worship they frequented. Start by selecting churches or temples within two square miles of your ancestors' homes. If you can't find the records online then contact the churches or temples directly asking for information about your ancestors.

Another wonderful resource for New York City ancestry is the Italian Genealogical Group website. Despite the title's focus on Italian records they actually have transcribed many New York City records, regardless of ethnicity. Be sure to search their databases for information on your ancestors.

If you still haven't found anything new about your ancestors then it is time to seek some research guidance help. Right from within the Legacy Family Tree software you get can specific suggestions about your ancestors. The software will suggest specific record groups as well as county histories and collections to search.

Another resource you should try if you haven't already, is the Family Search Wiki. This resource has extensive information on New York City research. Wherever possible it links directly to the record groups mentioned.

Thomas MacEntee's webinar and Legacy QuickGuide provide many clues and strategies for researching your New York ancestors that you may not have thought of.

And lastly, you should definitely refer to the recently published New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. This 840 page work provides a comprehensive look at New York records and resources.

In terms of specifically bringing down brick walls, an effective strategy is to seek examples by others who have already solved challenging research problems in the same location where you are having trouble. The two main publications I would focus on are the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. Search these publications for example articles that cover the same county where your ancestors lived. Learn how the authors solved their problems and look at the footnotes to see what records they used.

African American research, regardless of location, can be some of the toughest research to unravel. For this reason well-documented narratives can provide a great source of inspiration or information regardless of your race. Check out a book like Black Gotham by Carla Peterson and pay close attention to the records she used to document her ancestors.

Finally, you will likely have to dip into manuscripts and special collections to find information about particularly stubborn ancestors. Luckily you have one of the most incredible resources right in your local area - the New York Public Library. Start online by reviewing the Research section of their website. You will find links to special collections and manuscripts as well as online articles, databases and digital collections. When searching for your ancestors in special collections expand your search beyond their names to include their neighborhood, their churches and their ethnicity. While your ancestors are likely not indexed by name, this broader search will bring you to information about their community.

Hopefully this article has provided you will some new suggestions for researching challenging New York City ancestors. If not, then I would suggest joining a local genealogical or historical society in your county of interest. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society provides and extensive list of organizations on their website.

If anyone else has any suggestions for Elizabeth, please leave them in the comments. Good luck and let us know if you make any progress!

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.


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Just a note on probate - records for those who didn't leave wills are also full of information. I'll admit that disposition of their land is often a big part of it, so there is less to divide for renters, but don't write off intestate records.

Another resource NY State has is the newspaper site, Old Fulton Postcards (! Yes, it even includes some NYC papers.

This post was very helpful to me, Marian, Thank you so much. The suggestions work for any city. My focus is on Chicago in the 1860-80s. My Irish ancestors were very poor and owned no property that I am aware of in this time period. But I have used the Chicago City Directories online through the Newberry Library at Also as you suggested, the federal census (1860, 1870, 1880) documents are very helpful. No street names were given on the early census records, so I cross-referenced the names on a census page with the city directory for that year. Very helpful!

I wanted to suggest another tool that has helped me in my urban research: maps. I especially rely on the S. Augustus Mitchell Chicago map of c. 1876 from the University of Chicago Library, The legend with the street names is a fantastic feature.

Thank you again, Marian, I have learned so much from your presentations and online writings.

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