Trace your New York ancestors like Clare Balding

By Guest, 21 July 2017 - 7:36am

Inspired by Clare Balding's episode? Genealogist Laura Berry reveals how you can trace ancestors who called the Big Apple home

View of Broadway and Vesey, 1900. Credit: Historic Map Works LLC

“It’s a very odd thing knowing a lot of me is American but I’ve never really felt American. And maybe that’s to do with not really knowing much about that side of my family,” admitted Clare Balding before she set off in search of her New York roots.

Little did she know she was about to discover that she descended from the very first Dutch settlers who founded the city in the 1620s.

It wasn’t until 1664 when the British Army captured the colony of New Netherland and the city of New Amsterdam, as it was known then, that the city was renamed New York after the Duke of York.

Tracing ancestors from New York, as with the rest of the United States, can be done using Federal and State census returns taken every 10 years, and birth, marriage and death certificates back to the 19th century.

Ancestry and Findmypast both offer access to US censuses and a good selection of passenger lists for ships arriving at and departing from New York, and Clare even found a digital copy of her great grandfather’s passport application on Ancestry, where there are also New York State and Federal Naturalization Records from 1794 to 1940 and other vital records.

Joseph Hoagland's passport application on Ancestry

Vital records

Some collections from New York State Archives have been digitised on Ancestry, including New York City Marriage Indexes 1907–1995, New York County Marriages, 1847–1849 and 1907–1936, and other New York birth, marriage and death indexes from the 1860s. FamilySearch also has a selection of indexes and a useful guide with links.

The German Genealogy Group website has a fantastic free collection of indexes for New York church and cemetery records and birth and death indexes, although it’s not entirely complete.

New York City Municipal Archives issues copies of historical certificates of births, marriages and deaths for the five Boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island).

Records of births after 1910 and deaths after 1949 are the responsibility of the Department of Health, and marriage records after 1950 are maintained by the Office of the City Clerk. The New York State Department of Health also holds records of births and deaths that occurred in the State outside of NYC and divorce files from 1963 onwards.

New York County Court records, like historic divorce files and business certificates, are still held in the Office of the City Clerk.

You might find it useful to hire a local researcher, in which case the Association of Professional Genealogists has a directory that can be searched by State and County. 

You can search a collection of New York records on Ancestry


Newspapers are an invaluable source for finding out about business news and social affairs, birth, marriage and death notices, and obituaries.

It was through an obituary that Clare Balding first found mention of her New Amsterdam roots. Luckily there are lots of places to search for newspaper articles online.

Subscription site Newspapers has one of the biggest collections, covering papers from all over the US, including 100 published in the State of New York.

If you have a subscription to Findmypast, search their US & World Newspapers collection to access around 15 papers published in New York. Ancestry also has a selection of New York papers.

On the Old Fulton NY Post Cards website you can search over 39 million pages from historical newspapers found in local libraries, and see digital copies for free.

Google has a free collection of newspapers from around the world that includes The New York Age, published in the early 1890s.

For New York-specific websites, try The New York Times archive. First published in 1851, historical issues of the paper can be searched with a free trial or paid subscription.

Brooklyn Public Library has digitised The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Brooklyn Life, along with the journal Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society for the period 1841–1955. This site can be searched for free, as can the NYS Historic Newspapers database. The homepage has a useful map of the counties in New York State, and the newspapers collection spans from 1725 to the present day.

Brooklyn local newspapers are available to search for free on the Brooklyn Public Library website

Library and archive collections

The New York Public Library’s digital collections offer free access to city directories like the book Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish, which has an index to the names of merchants and other residents with photos of the street taken c.1911. The digital collections also include a fantastic set of historical maps.

You may find references to family files for some surnames using the NYPL catalogue, and there are New York Genealogical and Biographical Society bible transcription files in the Library’s Archives & Manuscripts division.

The online catalogue of the New York State Library and New York State Archives can be searched by name to see if it holds any original documents, or if anything relevant is held in other repositories through the Historical Document Inventory that forms part of the database.

New York Heritage Digital Collections can be browsed online for free and comprise correspondence, directories, maps and more from a wide range of archives.

Regional historical societies play a big role in supporting genealogists with American roots. The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) holds genealogical records for people from all over the United States, some of which can be accessed by members through AmericanAncestors

The New York Historical Society holds directories and many other useful genealogical sources, and offers an enquiry service. Although most of its collections need to be accessed in its library, there’s a selection of Digital Collections. Similarly, the Brooklyn Historical Society has a substantial library and useful website.

With all of these institutions, it’s worth bearing in mind that they are likely to hold far more material in original format than is available online.

Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish on the New York Public Library website

Tracing early settlers

If your ancestors arrived in New York from the late 19th century then try searching for them in the Ellis Island Database.

Evidence for the genealogies of early settlers in America from the 17th century onwards often comes in the form of secondary sources, some more reliable than others.

Many, like the Genealogical and Biographical Directory To Persons in New Netherland from 1613 to 1674, prepared by David M. Riker (1999), will be found in the institutions listed in the previous section.

New York State Library, for example, holds information about early settlers deposited by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Some historical societies, like the Central New York Genealogical Society, have published journals containing painstaking research and genealogical information that won’t be found anywhere else online.

The Periodical Source Index (PERSI) on Findmypast can be searched by name and gives citations for these articles. You can also search for names in Worden’s Index, which provides citations to articles in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s journal.

The Holland Society of New York has published many useful early genealogical works relating to families who settled in New Amsterdam.

There’s a list of useful sources at FamilySearch, and copies of some publications may be found in digital libraries like and The Hathi Trust Digital Library, which has a copy of The First Book of Records of the Dutch Reformed Church of Brooklyn.

Sourcing original copies of church records is not always as easy as it is in the UK. However a selection of records, like those of the Dutch Reformed Church from 1639, are available on Ancestry, as are some early probate records. 

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