Not until the mid-nineteenth century was any attempt made by the state of New York to mandate the keeping of vital records. This makes the use of “substitutes,” such as church, cemetery, census, and newspaper records, that much more important.
A few vital records were entered into some early town records on Long Island and later in some towns along the eastern border, the latter evidently by New England settlers bringing with them a long-standing tradition of such practice. The mass migration into New York just after the Revolution, however, took place at a time when vital event recording slacked off greatly, even in New England.
The earliest items that might be classified as civil vital records in New York were marriage licenses, issued from 1639 to 1783. Names of the parties and the date of the license were published in Names of Persons for Whom Marriage Licenses Were Issued by the Secretary of the Province of New York, Previous to 1784 .
This work did not include all the important information in related marriage bonds, which date from 1664, the majority of which were filed after 1700.
Most of the bonds were destroyed or damaged in the 1911 fire at the New York State Library. From those that survived, Kenneth Scott compiled New York Marriage Bonds, 1753–1783. Some records of marriages performed by justices of the peace have survived, of which a few have been published in Tree Talks and The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record.
In 1847 a law was enacted requiring school districts to keep records of births, marriages, and deaths. While the law was not a complete failure, compliance was scattered, and some towns that began to record vital events quickly stopped. Those records that were kept are incomplete, and the latest that records were kept by some registrars was 1852, but the law wasn’t repealed until 1885.
Originals of a few of these records are still with the town and county clerks or have been placed in historical societies. Some records have been published by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in the State of New York.
Also useful for the nineteenth century are the marriages and deaths listed in the 1865 and 1875 New York state censuses for the census period ending 31 May of those years (the 1865 census also included deaths of officers and enlisted men).
Marriages and deaths were also recorded in the 1855 state census but without names. The statistics of births, marriages, and deaths for each household recorded in the 1825, 1835, and 1845 censuses can sometimes be used to advantage).
An attempt by the state to collect death records was begun in 1864 in which the assessor of each town or ward was directed to accumulate the data. This law was repealed in 1865.
Another attempt by the state to require the keeping of vital records was made in 1880, and this law is the basis for the recording of births, marriages, and deaths in New York today.
The record was made in the town, village, or city in which the event took place and, after being recorded there (in ledger volumes), the original certificate was sent to Albany, where alphabetical indexes of names are arranged by event and then by year.
Today, the original certificate is forwarded to the Department of Health, with the local registrar keeping a duplicate copy. Each index entry lists the name, date of event, place, and certificate number; no maiden names or marital status are shown for deaths, and ages at death are given only from 1940.
Marriages are indexed by the name of each party, but there is no cross-referencing except for 1908 to 1914 and since 1944, when the first four letters of the spouse’s surname are included. Since compliance with the 1880 law was slow, many events were not recorded.
Copies of vital record certificates, marked “for genealogical research only,” can be issued at the state or local level for a fee. This applies only to births recorded at least seventy-five years ago and to marriages and deaths recorded fifty years ago and earlier.
Indexes to these records are available at the New York State Archives in Albany, the National Archives—Northeast Region in New York City, the Onondaga County Public Library in Syracuse, the Rochester Public Library, and the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, all of which also have a list of local registrars from which copies of the records may be obtained.
Copies can also be obtained from the New York Department of Health, Vital Records Section, Genealogy Unit, but a long delay for a response is likely because of the large backlog of requests.
Some cities kept vital records earlier than those sent to Albany under the 1880 law. These include Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Yonkers, and New York City. For Albany, Buffalo, and Yonkers, birth and death records before 1914 and marriages before 1908 should be sought from those cities’ registrars of vital statistics, as copies were not sent to the state until those years.
For the period 1908 through about 1935, marriages were also recorded with the county clerk, although some counties do not have these records for all of this time period.
Copies of vital records for New York City are not duplicated in Albany except for those areas annexed to the cities of New York or Brooklyn after 1880, such as Staten Island (Richmond County), the present Queens County, and certain parts of Bronx and Kings counties, and only up until the consolidation of Greater New York City on 1 January 1898.
For early vital records of New York City (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island), contact the New York City Municipal Archives.
Births through 1909, marriages through 1937, and deaths through 1948 can be obtained by mail, or one may visit the archives and search indexes and microfilms of the records for a daily search fee.
Later birth and death records should be obtained from the New York City Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Records. Marriage records for all of New York City after 1937 should be obtained from the Office of the City Clerk.
Indexes to New York City marriage licenses (1908–51), arranged by borough, are available at the Municipal Archives. Printed New York City vital records indexes (from 1888 for Manhattan and from 1898 for the other boroughs) are available at the New York Public Library for births and deaths through 1982 and for marriages through 1937.
Since 1847 divorce actions in New York have been handled in the Supreme Court for the county in which the divorce was heard. New York divorce files, however, are sealed for 100 years. In colonial times, petitions for divorce had to be made to the governor or legislature, and only a few were granted.
The Court of Chancery granted divorces from 1787 to 1847. These older records are in the state archives or for the downstate counties at the New York County Clerk’s Office, Division of Old Records.