Often genealogists hear stories of relatives whose names or life details have been forgotten. They often died young or moved away and lost contact with the family. The following sources may shed light on family members who have been lost to memory.
Federal and New York State Census Records
Census records are an excellent way to study the evolution of your ancestral families over time. Federal census records, taken every 10 years, are available for genealogy research from 1790-1950. New York State census records are accessible from 1825-1925 and were taken approximately every 10 years. Beginning in 1850 (federal) and 1855 (NYS) census records name every member of a household, their age, state or country of birth, as well as other data.
The 1900 and 1910 censuses record how many children women have given birth to and how many of those children are still living. The 1940 and 1950 census supplementary questions ask how many children married or previously married women have given birth to. Supplementary questions are only asked to some of the population (those whose names fell on certain lines on the census schedule). Similarly, the 1865 New York State census provides how many children adult women have given birth to. The numbers found in in these columns can help confirm a death or the existence of a forgotten child.
Census records available through the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
Learn more about census records with our upcoming class, Climb Generations with Census Records. If you can’t make it to the class, look for it in the future on the library’s YouTube Channel.
Births, Deaths, and Marriages
Many civil and sacramental birth, marriage, and death records list parents’ names. If you are lucky, records for your ancestor’s locale have been digitized and indexed by parents’ names. Search those databases for the parents’ names and you may find previously unknown family members. The following databases are a great place to start for Western New York research:
New York, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1847-1849, 1907-1936 – available in Ancestry Library Edition*, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch. Not all counties are included.
New York Births and Christenings, 1640-1962
New York Deaths and Burials, 1795-1952
If there are no databases for the locale or religious institution that you are looking for, check print, scanned, or microfilmed indexes for individuals bearing the same surname as your family.
Vital records available in the Grosvenor Room
Church records available in the Grosvenor Room
From Birth to Death: New York State Vital Records – A free online genealogy class about New York State vital records and the Grosvenor Room’s vital records holdings.
Many Buffalo church records are digitized and browsable through the FamilySearch library catalog. Perform a “Place” search for Buffalo and restrict the records to “Online.” Your search results will list records by category. Choose the “Church Records” category and then browse the list for the names of the churches which were close to where your ancestor lived.
When looking at civil birth records, check to see if they list how many other children the birth mother has given birth to.
The Grosvenor Room also carries alternate death sources including cemetery records and early Erie County medical examiner records (1878-1902).
Check the obituaries and marriage announcements of the parents and known children for listings of living or deceased children or siblings.
Newspapers available in the Grosvenor Room
Newspapers digitized by the B&ECPL
Search the Social Security Applications and Claims Index
The Social Security Applications and Claims Index covers over 49 million deceased persons for the years 1936-2007. Content is heaviest from the late 1960s forward. Important data included is name, birth and death dates, place of birth, and parents’ names. Search by parents’ names to find previously unknown children. The index is available in Ancestry Library Edition* and Ancestry.com.
Wills and Probate Records
Check probate records of the parents, grandparents, and siblings of the lost relative. These records should list heirs and their places of residence and may mention deceased family members.
New York Probate Records, 1629-1971 – Browsable on FamilySearch. Check out the Grosvenor Room’s class, Finding Western New York Probate Records in FamilySearch.
New York State Unified Court System Online Records – Select records are online.
Erie County Surrogate’s Court – Erie County records not online can be ordered through the surrogate’s court.
Military Pension Files
Military pension files are an immense source of biographical and genealogical data. A soldier, their widow, minor children, or other dependent family members may have applied for a pension. A pension file may list a soldier’s children as well as current and former spouses. In order to receive a pension, a soldier would have to prove military service or a disability occurring during service, and a family member would have to prove their relationship to the soldier. The file may contain affidavits from family members attesting to a disability, military service, or a vital event such as a birth, marriage, or death. An affidavit may reveal a previously unknown family member. Sometimes bible records were used as proof of marriage or parentage.
Revolutionary War Pension Files – Available in Ancestry Library Edition*, Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest Online**, and FamilySearch.
War of 1812 Pension Files – Most War of 1812 pension files are freely available online through Fold3. Indexes are available in Ancestry Library Edition*, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch.
Civil War Pension Files – Can be ordered for a fee through the National Archives. Indexes are available in Ancestry Library Edition*, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch.
Join us in August for The Anatomy of a U.S. Military Pension File: Revolutionary War Through the Civil War. If you can’t make it, look for it in the future on the library’s YouTube Channel.
Freedman’s Bank Records
The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (1865-1874) was established after the Civil War as a bank for African American soldiers and the formerly enslaved. It was meant to help the formerly enslaved succeed as free persons. Researchers may also find their European ancestors in these records, as many immigrants established accounts, particularly in the New York City area. The bank quickly grew to have branches in 17 states, but in the end it failed due to mismanagement and corrupt practices. The bank’s “Registers of Signatures of Depositors” are very useful to genealogists. Detailed information was recorded in these registers which may connect family relationships and the formerly enslaved to their enslaved lives. Family members (including deceased family members) such as parents, siblings, and children are generally provided and well as the bank member’s birthplace, place brought up, current residence, and sometimes the enslaver and plantation were detailed. Freedman’s Bank records are available in HeritageQuest Online**, a database available from home to all B&ECPL card holders, and on FamilySearch.
Adoption, Orphanage, and Poorhouse Records
In times of hardship, family members may have been split apart. Children may have been adopted out, indentured, or placed in institutions. New York miscellaneous county record books are a good place to look for early adoption records and indentures. These records are kept at county clerk’s offices and may be available online. Children’s birth names are generally indexed in these books and adoption records usually list the birth parents’ names and the circumstances of the adoption. Indentures may also list the names of one or more parent, although if the indenture took place when the child was living in an orphanage or poorhouse, the director of those institutions likely facilitated the placement. Miscellaneous record books for several New York counties are available in FamilySearch. The following sources detail how to these records.
New York State County Miscellaneous Records – An online class by the Grosvenor Room.
“County Clerk Miscellaneous Records: They May Be What You’re Looking For” – An article published in the Spring 2023 issue of the New York Researcher, a periodical available in the Grosvenor Room.
Before the 1870s, and sometimes later, the first stopping place for children (and parents) in times of hardship may have been the county poorhouse. Poorhouse records may include registers which documented a family unit, when they entered the poorhouse, and when they left. Entries for children will usually list who the children went with when they left the poorhouse or what institution, such as an orphanage, that they were placed with. The Grosvenor Room carries various Erie County Poorhouse records from 1829-1952.
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library’s Digital Collections – This online demonstration includes more detail about the Erie County Poorhouse records.
The Grosvenor Room’s adoption and orphanage guides – Guides to historical adoptions and orphanage research as well as birth parent searching for living adoptees.
Immigration and Naturalization Records
If your lost ancestor was an immigrant and travelled to the U.S. with their family, look for U.S. passenger lists. Passenger lists from 1820 forward look similar to census records and those traveling together are generally grouped together on the lists.
Finding U.S. Passenger Lists – A Grosvenor Room online class.
Passenger Lists – A guide to immigration resources in the Grosvenor Room.
Naturalization records of immigrant parents may list the names of their living children (minors) along with their birth dates, birth places, and places of residence.
Using Western New York Naturalization Records on FamilySearch – An online Grosvenor Room class.
Miscellaneous Genealogical Records – A guide to select genealogical records in the Grosvenor Room, including naturalizations.
For More Information
For more ideas on how to find lost family members, see the Grosvenor Room’s record selection table under “parents, children, and other family members.”
*Ancestry Library Edition is available for use in-library at every Buffalo & Erie County Public Library location.
**HeritageQuest Online is available for use in-library or from home with a Buffalo & Erie County Library card.