Wednesday, September 16, 2015

More on New York County Probate Records on Ancestry and FamilySearch

After I wrote Winner! Will of Jonathan Lewis (1715-1785) of Staten Island, New York last week, I received an email from reader Howard Swain who wondered if the original will was available either online or in a courthouse or archive.  He went looking for it.

Here are Howard's comments to me in email (edited for clarity, with his permission to share them with you):
"Before 1787 (when things changed) you can sometimes find wills recorded in New York County from not only Richmond County, but also western Long Island, Southeast NY (e.g. Orange Co.) and maybe even New Jersey. "The place to search for these is in the 17 volume set of Abstracts of Wills from the Collections of the New York Historical Society.  I have that on a single CD, which may not be available anymore.  But it is online here:
"Searching for Jonathan Lewis in Volume 13 (based on your known date of death) gives:;cc=nys;q1=jonathan%20lewis;rgn=full%20text;idno=nys071;didno=nys071;view=image;seq=269 "Note right before the abstract starts it says 'Page 282'.  Your image from Ancestry also shows that at the left in a column 'Page No. Old Liber'.  These means that your image is from the 19th Century copy of the original Liber.  So, this is another step removed from the original will than you perhaps realized. (Some of the early abstracts used the 19th Century libers, later ones used the original libers and page numbers;  See Remington below.) "The LDS has film of the original and the copy.  The question is, 'Which is online at Family Search?' "Gordon Remington’s handy book:  New York State Probate Records (available from NEHGS) has a table on p. 17 that shows that Liber 38 is on FHL film # 868989 for the 19th Century copy and FHL film #484023 for the original Liber (which also has several other Libers on the same roll), "Going to FamilySearch and using 'search by location' we come to New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971 and then Browse > New York County. Scroll down to   'Wills 1785-1786 vol 38.' If you click on that the first image it tells you it is film no. 868989.  "So, go back to the New York County screen and scroll way down almost to the bottom to: 'Wills and administrations 1782-1787 vol 35-39.'  Clicking on that brings up the filmand image 2 tells you the FHL film # is 484023. Success! "Using my trick of starting at the last image and working back, I fairly quickly found p. 282 of Liber 38:  It is image 748. This should take you there:,234727701 

"So, the answer to 'which does LDS have?' is:  Both.  But you have to know where to look. "One more question:  Several early wills have survived and been filmed by LDS. Is this will one of them? To check there are a series of 3 articles in NGSQFor your time period see the one by Scott and Hershkowitz in Vol. 55 p. 119ff.  And on p 132, we see Lewis, Jonathan – Jan 12, 1786 [date proved]. The File No. is 3935.  [Note:  LDS calls this the 'Box No.'] "The LDS filmed these originals – but only up to 1738. The originals have moved around, but if I understand Mr. Remington, they are now at the New York State Archives. "So, the will survives, but apparently you will have to go to Albany to see it, unless they can film it or scan it and send it to you."
A subsequent email added this information:
"There is also an extremely useful article by Harry Macy, Jr., titled 'New York Probate Records Before 1787'.  This was published in The NYG&B Newsletter Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 1991) pp. 11-15.  It is on the NYG&B website, I believe, but you probably have to be a member to see it.   (It’s in their Research Tools section) "Re. the Abstracts of Wills -- There is an index in the back of each book.  So you just have to know when your person died (assuming probate was soon after) to find the right book; then go to the index. "I should have mentioned that, especially with the early volumes, it is essential to check for corrections printed in Volumes 16 and 17.  And even with the corrections, there are still errors.  But, as Mr. Macy says, these abstracts are the place to start. "The other thing always to emphasize to people is that even thought these abstracts are long and may even look like the complete will, they are still just abstracts.  The complete will (as you can see from your Lewis will) is several times as long."
And in another message, Howard noted:
"Re. the NYHS Abstracts of wills -- If you don’t find a will where you expect it to be,  based on date of death, be sure to look in Volume 11:  Unrecorded wills. These are wills that were not recorded in the will libers. "In some cases the original will may have survived. See:  NGSQ vol 51, pp. 90-99, 174-178, and 185.  Also, NGSQ vol 54, pp. 98-124 plus the one I sent earlier. "In others, this abstract is all that we have now."
As you can see, the issue of New York probate records is fairly complicated, and there are several resources that can be used to help the researcher find probate records for their ancestral families. 

There are several finding aids, such as the NYHS abstracts (they are also on Google Books).   I don't have the Gordon Remington book yet, but serious New York researchers should have it.  I'm not an NYGBS member, so I don't have access to the later issues of the NYGBR (AmericanAncestors has the volumes up until 1923).  

My thanks to Howard for taking the time to sort all of the above out.  I really appreciate the help on this.  We all need to read, listen and learn from the experts like Gordon, Harry and Howard on topics we need more expertise.  

It turns out that I could have used the "FamilySearch New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971" to find the will for Jonathan Lewis in a Derivative source format, but I had not gone that far.

However, for those bemoaning not having an subscription to access these New York probate records, there is good news:  most, if not all, of what is on the Ancestry site is probably in the FamilySearch collection and should be accessed free.  But it is not searchable like the Ancestry collection is.  You have to learn how to use the "digital microfilm" on FamilySearch.

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Geolover said...

Thank you for posting this complex elucidation regarding NY Wills. A nightmare for constructing accurate citations.

There is also a case in Maryland wills. Some wills were originally filed with the County, even before the Prerogative Court was abolished in 1776. However, some Registers of Wills went to the trouble, at an unknown time in probably the 19th century, of hand-transcribing wills from the Prerogative Court records. This means that any wills probated pre-1777 and found in County will books must also be sought in the Prerogative Court Wills and compared . . . . But not all pre-1777 wills found recorded in County records had also been probated in the Prerogative Court, just to keep us on our toes.

Anne Faulkner said...

Brilliant! Thank you for posting this! I was able to find my 5th great grandfather's abstract in a matter of minutes. Lucky for me he was in vol. 37 - so same book as your ancestor. I'd seen the printed abstract before but it always frustrated me - I wanted to see the "original" Now I just have to join the NGS so I can search their Quarterly. Another chink in the wall comes down! Thanks again!

Melissa Barker said...

Great blog post! I hope genealogists read this and realize that they need to do more than just "pluck" documents off these websites. They really do need to do the research into the records themselves as a whole. Knowing how they were produced and what ALL is available is very important.

Melissa Barker