Genealogical Sources

[I have edited and addended the above article –Ed.]

Public Records

    All levels of government–city, state, and national –collect information about people and places. These types of records include census, immigration, and naturalization records, title deeds (which help track real estate transactions), pension and military records, trial transcripts, war diaries, military records, and so on. Such documents are mostly used by historians, family genealogists, and other researchers, but many are also available to members of the general public. Records can be found in national archives, libraries, historical societies, collector’s homes, and museums and more recently online. Some records are only available on microfilm, but in many cases you can see the original.


     The federal census, taken decennially (every ten years), allows the U.S. government to  count its people. The goal is to gather and record data about every living person in the country. The first federal census was taken in 1790 for the purpose of determining how many delegates each state would have in the newly created House of Representatives. Censuses can included great deal of information. In addition to counting individuals, census takers ask personal questions of the household head in order to learn how many people are in the household, their ages, marital status, and income and education levels.

     The first nine censuses (1790–1870) were conducted by U.S. Marshals before the Census Bureau was created.  The appointed US Marshals of each judicial district hired assistant marshals to conduct the actual enumeration. The census enumerators were typically from the village or neighborhood and often knew the residents. Before enabling self-identification on the censuses, the US Census Bureau relied on local people to have some knowledge of residents. Racial classification was made by the census enumerator in these decades, rather than by the individual.

     Prior to 1850, census records had recorded only the name of the head of the household and a broad statistical accounting of other household members (three children under age five, one woman between the age of 35 and 40, etc.). The 1850 Census was the first census where there was an attempt to collect information about every member of every household, including women, children, and slaves. It was also the first census to ask about the place of birth.

     The instructions for the Census takers were laid out in this 1850 Statute:

     SEC. 10. And be it further enacted, That each assistant, when duly qualified in manner aforesaid, shall perform the service required of him, by a personal visit to each dwelling-house, and to each family, in the subdivision assigned to him, and shall ascertain, by inquiries made of some member of each family, if any one can be found capable of giving the information. but if not. then of the agent of such family, the name of each member thereof, the age and place of birth of each, and all the other particulars specified

     While the federal census was conducted in the years ending in zero (1800, 1810, etc.), from 1825 to 1875, the New York State census was conducted in years ending in five (1825, 1835, etc.). In 1845, the New York State census added more categories and was considered the most complete census of any state. The 1855 Population Schedule (as it was officially called), collected data on such useful information as voting rights status, literacy, and property ownership, as well as the full names of every member of the household.

     However some of the pitfalls of the census taking process are outlined in this contemporary commentary on the 1855 New York State Census

    “ There are some deficiencies and inaccuracies which cannot be avoided. It is to be regretted, that a census planned on so broad and comprehensive a scale, could not have been kept out of party strife. The marshals have always been appointed by the supervisor and town clerk, who would select men least obnoxious to the inhabitants, and of sufficient intelligence to comprehend their duties. Taking these appointments away from their localities, and bestowing them on the Secretary of State, and for partizan purposes, wrought two evils. In the first place, it rendered it impossible to get as good marshals as could have been obtained in the ordinary way; for however anxious the Secretary may be to perform his duty, it is not to be expected that one man can appoint one thousand seven hundred and forty-four men, (the number actually employed,) in the various towns in the State, and not get some’ very incompetent persons. In the second place, there is always more or less reluctance, among a portion of our population, to answer the minute inquiries required of the marshal. This reluctance and indifference were increased by the animosity created by the passage of the act transferring the appointing power, so that in many cases answers were refused, or given without any regard to their accuracy. “

    In addition, almost all of our Keenan ancestors emigrating from Ireland could neither read nor write, nor “cipher” and, as a consequence, self- reporting of their ages usually resulted in inaccuracies and these could vary wildly from one census to the next. 

     The spelling of names (especially last names) was of course dependent upon the talents of the census taker, and these too could vary. Sometimes modern indexing of the historical information is additionally hampered by the legibility of the cursive handwriting of the original. For instance the 1855 Census records for Patrick Keenan are found indexed under Patrick Kunan, where two narrow ”e”s got converted to a “u”.  

     If a census taker came upon a household that was temporarily unoccupied he might rely on a neighbor to provide information about the occupants. This only increased the inaccuracies. Or he might skip a dwelling altogether – which I believe I have shown to have happened to James N. Keenan in 1855. (See the XL spreadsheet – “Walking with the Census Taker – Underhill Ave 1850-60”)

  Birth and Death Records

     Birth and the death are two events that occur in every person’s life. Wherever the person is when either event occurs, a government organization is there to record it. In New York City, the Bureau of Statistics has recent birth and death records, but the records for the 1800s have been microfilmed and moved to the Municipal Archives. (Department of Records)

     Birth and death records can give much more than details of the birth or death. For instance, birth records might include the names, ages, and occupations of the parents. Death records include place of residence, age, cause of death (an excellent source of information of health and disease), and burial place.

City Directories

     The City Directory was like a telephone book without the telephone numbers. Directories for Brooklyn were published in various forms from 1822 onward. Three publishers, Alden Spooner, William J Hearne, and J. Lain, played a major role in producing them and were three of the best-known publishers. Data collection began each year on May 1 – the traditional “Moving Day” in the city. The directories included a wealth of information on “heads of household,” other individuals, businesses, civic organizations, churches, organized groups, and government officials. Surnames (last names) were listed in alphabetical order, along with address and, in many cases, occupation. Unfortunately in early Brooklyn many properties had no house numbers so addresses were described as being near the next cross street – for instance “Underhill Ave n. Bergen “  or sometimes “Underhill c. Bergen” (corner of). The Directories were by no means complete. Many inhabitants were passed over – even those who lived in the same place for years might be recorded only sporadically. Nevertheless, they offer another key source of information for tracking ancestors.

     Here is an account published in the Brooklyn Eagle, in May of 1885, of the process of gathering data for Lain’s Directory.

               There is one maker of books in this city whose volumes are always in demand and who enjoys a degree of popularity as an author that may well make him the envy of his less fortunate literary friends.   Although his volumes are large and ponderous they are never considered dull, and are so much sought after that there is hardly a man or woman in Brooklyn, who does not consult them in the course of the year. We refer of course to Mr. LAIN, the publisher of the Brooklyn directories.

               During the past week the work of taking names for the directory has been going on all over the city and probably two-thirds of them have already been taken.  But the preparatory proceedings, the organization of the force by which this work was to be done, was all accomplished the week previous.  Many of the readers of the EAGLE must have noticed the advertisements for men to take names for the directory, all answers to be in writing, no notice being taken of personal applications.  This of course was to require good penmanship on the part of those selected for the work, that being the first and most important requisite.  A man who cannot write names plainly is of no use for the directory.  Out of the numerous applicants about two hundred were selected for further test, and for three days a sort of civil service examination was held by Mr. LAIN at his office.  There were morning and afternoon sessions for this purpose, and separate batches of candidates for the comparatively small remuneration offered might be taken as proof of the hardness of the times and the number of intelligent men who are unemployed.  Some, of course were old hands at the business, but the great majority were trying their skill in that way for the first time.  Nearly all had seen better days and some had once been well off.  The points upon which they were particularly examined were their handwriting and their ability to comprehend the instructions given them as to taking the names.  These instructions ware very full and cover all the ground necessary for the perfect doing of the work.  When all this was over one hundred and thirty were selected for the whole as having satisfactorily passed the required tests, and the remainder dismissed.  Each of the chosen men then lost his individuality for the time being and became a number and was assigned a street or part of a street, if very long.  Then, book in hand and pen and ink bottle in pocket each man started for a preliminary afternoon’s work.  This was started on Saturday, but on Monday the real work commenced.

               The directories for which the single taking of names serves are three in number-general, business and elite.  The book which the name taker carries contains fifty loose sheets, each sheet being divided into five equal spaces by red lines and each space or slip, for they afterward become slips, having two lines for writing.  The names are taken precisely as they afterward stand in the directory, if the man is in a business, both his business address and residence being given, and where there is a firm the general business address of the firm and residence of each member of it being detailed.

               When the books are handed to the office, which is done every day at its close, the sheets are taken and placed in a cutting machine and cut into strips.  These strips are then inserted alphabetically, and when all the names are in pasted on sheets, thus forming the copy or manuscript of the directory.  It is estimated by Mr. LAIN that there will be about 120,000 names in the general directory this year.  A man working from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., should get from 200 to 300 names, according to the locality he works in so that 130 men can take many more than 120,000 names in a week, but then it must be remembered that the names of the people both doing business and residing in Brooklyn are all duplicated and have to be afterward corrected.

               One of the name takers who has been working in a street which begins in every poor neighborhood and runs into a wealthy quarter was interviewed in regard to his experience:

               “It is great fun” said he, “I have seen this week every phase of life; I have not come across a corpse yet, but I have been very near it, and have seen a woman on her death bed.  I have been among all the nationalities, Italians, French, Germans, Swedes and Irish, more of the latter, by the way, than of any other.  I go into tenement house and knock boldly at the first door I see. The door opens, and when they see me with a book in my hand, they generally take me for an insurance man and tell me that they are all insured already.  But when I explain my business, which I sometimes have to do with my foot against it to prevent it from being shut in my face they relax.  Most of them take it as a compliment to have their names in the directory.  ‘It’s a great thing,’ said one old lady, ‘ we did not have any directory in Ireland, but when I came out here I found my brother Timothy by it.’  Some think I am the census man and ask if I want to know the names and ages of their children.”

               “Don’t you find some who are unwilling to give their name?” 

“Yes, but not among the working people.  Sometimes I come across a family hidden away, as it were, in a tenement house, some bookkeeper or clerk in reduced circumstances, whose wife refuses to give his name; but I generally get it from the neighbors.  Then there are some well to do families who do not want their head’s names in the directory for fear he may be called upon to do jury duty.  Where a man cannot be got at the time an expert is sent round afterward to obtain it, and he is bound to get it one way or another.  Some men, on the other hand, are so considerate and careful that they leave a slip with their, and all necessary particulars to be handed to the directory man.”

               “Have you much trouble with foreigners?”

“No, except from their imperfect knowledge of English.  They are, however all anxious to give information, and although some of the women hardly speak English at all, I generally manage to get them all right.  Very few of the women know how their husbands’ names are spelled, there are so many ways of spelling different names; but they nearly all have insurance of some kind or another, and I get the correct spelling from them.  Some of my conversations with the old Irish women are very amusing; they go on a long narrative about their family history, and of course I have to listen to them.  For instance, here is a specimen;

               ” ‘O, yes; Patrick, God rest his soul, has been dead this fifteen year, and I sprained my wrist yesterday; do you think it is broke, now?’

“So they go on; but they are good, kind, obliging people and you can’t help liking them.”

        Mr. LAIN states that the directory will be out early in June.

     Gathering information for the earlier Directories was not as highly organized, however. Many residents were skipped over completely, and often names disappeared , then reappeared a few years later at the same address, denoting a less than thorough coverage.

Church Registers

     In any community, houses of worship play an important role in recording history. Churches document many significant events in the lives of people, including baptisms, marriages, and burials (deaths). Like the city’s birth and death records, church registers include a great deal of information about the members of a community. One key element is the Sponsors or Witnesses to baptisms and marriages. These will often bring to light relatives and friends.


     Maps are wonderful tools for reconstructing the past. Maps can help researchers visualize and interpret how an area has changed or has remained the same over a period of time.

      Maps can give a huge range of information, from the height of the hills, to the names of roads, places, bodies of water, buildings, and communities–many of which may no longer exist.

Land Conveyances

     Kings County records of Property transactions (titles, deeds, mortgages, etc.) can now be found online. To find a photostat of the hand-written recording you must first consult an Index. There are two separate alphabetized Indices- one listed by Grantor (seller) and one by Grantee (buyer). Transaction references are listed in chronological order, so it is really helpful to narrow down the time frame for a record you are searching for. This hunt can be complicated if it involves a foreclosure or any Court action where there might be a third party involved in the sequence of land transfer. (This was the case in the sale of #58 Underhill Ave in 1858 after Mary Keenan Ward’s death.)

     Genealogical research is primarily a name game. Gathering, collating and comparing records referencing a certain name inevitably involves a lot of detective work and sharp organizational skills.  It is complicated by the fact that there are usually many individuals with the same name who are not necessarily related. Data is gathered, speculation ensues, suppositions are tendered, some disproved, others proven, still others left resting in limbo due to insufficient evidence. But inevitably relationships are revealed, and piece by piece a human story unfolds. A bare bones story, to be sure, but a story nevertheless. With a bit of empathy and a healthy dose of imagination it is possible knock on the door of relatives long since gone from this world, but somehow not forgotten.