Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Upstate New York Church Record Books at Cornell University

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has been actively engaged in microfilming copies of church record books of churches throughout what was described as “Western New York."

Some of these microfilms are woefully disappointing to one who expects to find carefully laid out columns of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths.

It would appear as though the records were written for the scribe’s own edification, and the format, style and penmanship is extremely erratic. My feeling is that the recorders of these books would have kept these notes for local consumption, for in the days of quill pens, who would have ever imagined that future hoards of humans with cell phones, GPS gadgets, laptop and handheld computers, scanners and digital cameras, would have ever a reason to want to delve into these records for clues about the local citizenry?

Well that being said, these books are still some of the very best primary sources of data on individuals that were recorded in contemporary documents, and that have a higher than usual degree of reliability. Though nothing is sacred, these records must still be analyzed and used with care, as there will be misteakes in every form of record ever made by mankind.

So what might we hope to find in these church record books? First off they are generally concerned with the business aspect of operating a church. Subscriptions, pew rentals, payment of pastors, fixing the roof, supporting the widow, and items of such ilk, generally are prominent. Hopefully, somewhere scattered in the chaff might be a few kernels of wheat that would indicate a baptism, marriage or burial record, or perhaps receiving of an individual by letter, (which will be extremely helpful in putting people in a place in time and might also indicate from whence they came,) and sometimes just having a listing of the members of a certain church might be very helpful for further study.

Many of these early churches in the wild, wild west, were lineally connected to a not too distant past colonial New England town where the local government was the church. The theocratic government of the New England towns might still be in the veins of the now satellite appendages. So you might also discover some legal news in these church record books. Some of these churches held trials for such things as blasphemy, non payment of debts, adultery or fornication, and things that we today would reserve for civil courts. Our ancestors were snapshots of ourselves. They had trials and tribulations, and some of these records are not for the feint of heart.

We need to discover all of the clues that we can from such primary records, and this fantastic collection at Cornell University in the “Study Center for Religious Life in Western New York,” that is held in the Kroch Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Department should be studied and transcribed.

The listing of the church records available is at; http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/eguides/lists/churchlist1.htm
Sixteen counties are represented, some more extensively than others. They are Cayuga, Cortland, Erie, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Onondaga, Ontario, Oswego, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tompkins, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates.

These films may be viewed at the Cornell library and they are also available for longer term study at your local library through Inter-Library-Loan (ILL.)

If you are going to go there I would suggest calling ahead to verify that the film is in. I made the trek to Ithaca a couple of days ago and the film that I needed was out on ILL. The day was not a total loss though. The Kroch Library has a fabulous exhibit of General LaFayette and his association with General Washington.

Just about the sweetest antiquity I have ever seen is a manuscript letter written in almost flawless English, by LaFayette's six year old daughter to Washington in 1798. She was sad that her Papa was leaving but glad Washington will get to have him for a while.

I was just a couple of nose lengths away from the original document. You can't do THAT on the Internet!

Dick Hillenbrand
Upstate New York Genealogy


Anonymous said...

You're right about untidy columns lackadaisical entries in church records. Genealogists sometimes forget that census, church, and similar records were not created to serve the needs of future genealogists. They were made to serve the immediate needs of the institution--the administering of sacraments, the demographic needs of the Commerce Bureau, etc.

It's great that these records get recycled for uses that their makers never imagined, but that is the fun of genealogy: finding new uses for old, forgotten records. Rescuing records from oblivion and getting them filmed or digitized is as satisfying as rescuing forgotten ancestors from oblivion.

unyg.com said...

Dick--Thanks for sharing this.

All--To Dick's message, I would add a general comment that some of the best
resources for researching Steuben County lie outside of the county, probably
because it is largely rural and has no major academic institutions of its
own, like Cornell University in Ithaca. It would take a LONG time to review
all of the records with Steuben County connections in the Olin Library at
Cornell but here are some examples below of what I found one day several
years ago. Other libraries that have yielded similar goodies include Rush
Rhees Library at the University of Rochester and the Central Library of
Rochester and Monroe County (which includes the Rundel Memorial building).

By 21 February 1795, Thomas Streeter had established an account with
Charles Williamson when he began exchange goods and services with him; on
that date Thomas' bill amounted to $76.70 (Cash Book 1792-1795 of
Williamson's Enterprise, McCall Family Papers, Box 7, Folder 82, Olin
Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, hereinafter
Cash Book).

Richard Moon of "New Providence" was Williamson's "taylor" (Ledger A,
folio 214); his wife's name was Harriet (SCD, 1:92). Prior to his arrival
in Bath, Richard Moon was living at Mt. Pleasant, Westchester County, New
York. He and Harriet are named in a lawsuit, Elijah Hunter v. William
Durrell & Others (Joseph Fellows Papers, Box 81, Olin Library, Cornell

By the 1807 deed, Thomas Streeter's dwelling in Bath was previously
owned by Robert Biggar. Perhaps this lot was Number 3 which had been deeded
to Biggar on 7 November 1794 (Cash Book). Biggar was in Bath as early as 26
March 1793 (Ledger A, folio 14); he was Bath's first tanner ("Bath the
Beautiful," The Post Express, 21 February 1895, McCall Family Papers, Box 5,
Folder 56, Olin Library, Cornell University, hereinafter BTB).

It appears that the principal responsibility executed by Thomas
Streeter was the distribution of Addison's share of 100 free bibles donated
by the American Bible Society. On 1 November 1817, "5 Bibles Delivered to
Thomas Streeter for Addison"; on 8 December 1817, "Delivered to Tho-s
Streeter of Addison for Bibles distribution in that town 5 [Bibles]," and in
March 1818, "Delivered Elder Streeter for same purpose 4 [Bibles]" (Records
of the Auxiliary Bible Society of the County of Steuben 1817-1845, Olin
Library, Cornell University).

Good luck,



Anonymous said...

Mr.Hillenbrand, Thank you for your online work. Are you for private hire? I have a stonewall that 2 big time Salt Lake researchers failed to help.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hillenbrand,

Thank you for your recent posting. I'm researching my husband's Wells and related maternal lines in early Ontario & Yates counties and am always looking for further proof of their lives in that part of NY state.

I hope to be able to see some of this material through inter-library loan, since it's doubtful we'll be traveling to
Ithaca in the winter months.

Much appreciated tip!

William said...

Mr Hillenbrand, I appreciate the genealogy information you periodically enter into the NY Counties websites. Are you aware of a collection of church records from Oneida County 1790-1850 and what is now Hamilton County 1790-1850?
Thank you, William

unyg said...

Finding church records is the luck of the draw, especially in the early periods. I would look in the Family History Library online catalog, WorldCat, Cornell University Library, The New York State Library and any Archives associated with what ever branch of religion of interest. I have been somewhat lucky by going to the specific community church in my area of interest and start asking questions. You just never know.

There are literally hundreds of diaries and account books of ministers in myriad and sundry places. There was an early set of volumes something like "Ecclesiastical Records.... New York" put out by the State Historian back before World War I. There was another series cataloged in the WPA days.