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Courts of Genealogical Value Timeline

Major New York courts that have kept records of genealogical value include the following:

1638–1664: Director General and Council of New Netherland was the highest court and governing body in New Netherland.

There are three published volumes for 1638–1660: Van Laer, Arnold J. F. Register of the Provincial Secretary; Council Minutes. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company,1974. At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.7 H2vL. Each volume is indexed. The records for 1649–1651 have been lost. Remaining records give genealogical information about many early immigrants.

1653–1674: Courts of schouts and schepens were the Dutch courts having criminal and civil jurisdiction. These were replaced by the mayor's court.

Records of these courts are found in Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, translator, and Berthold Fernow, editor, The Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 Anno Domini, Seven Volumes. (1897; reprint, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1976). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.71 P2f 1976 Volumes 1–4; FHL Film 982184; Volumes 5–7 on FHL Film 982187, items 1–3. The index is in volume 7. Immigrants and their occupations are sometimes listed.

1664–1688: Colony of New York records are found in: Christoph, Peter, editor. New York Historical Manuscripts. English. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, Incorporated, 1980. At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.7 H2ny Volumes 2–3. Volume 2: Books of General Entries of the Colony of New York, 1664–1673. At various libraries (WorldCat) Volume 3: Books of General Entries of the Colony of New York, 1674–1688. At various libraries (WorldCat). These books list some marriages, divorces, denizations, passports, and court decisions.

1664–present: Justice's courts are presided over by justices of the peace who perform marriages, issue summons for debts, and rule on minor civil suits.

1665–1683: Court of Assizes was the highest provincial court. It was established in New York City, hearing both civil and criminal cases. Along with the Court of general sessions of the peace, the Court of Assizes had jurisdiction over probates.

The records for 1665–1682 have been published as Christoph, Peter R. and Florence A. Christoph, editors, New York Historical Manuscripts: English. Records of the Court of Assizes for the Colony of New York, 1665–1682 (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1983).At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.7 H2ny, v. 4. The records contain appeals, some probates, and divorce records.

1665–1962: Courts of general sessions of the peace were county courts having jurisdiction over criminal cases such as desertions, vice, apprenticeship disputes, bastardy, and other violations of vice and immorality laws. These courts handled probate matters from 1665 to about 1683. They heard only criminal cases after 1691. Their jurisdiction was transferred to the county court in 1847, except in New York County where the courts of general sessions of the peace continued until 1962.

Some early quarter sessions records have been published in Kenneth Scott, editor, New York City Court Records, 1684–1804, Genealogical Data from the Court of Quarter Sessions, Four Volumes. (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 1982–88). 1684–1760:At various libraries (WorldCat) FHL Book 974.71 P2s; 1760–1797: At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.71 P2sk;1797–1801: At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.71 P2sb, and 1801–1804: At various libraries (WorldCat);FHL Book 974.71 P2sc. Records contain lists of persons involved in cases of stealing, assault, battery, and illegitimacy.

1674–1784: Mayor's court existed in New York City and Albany. It handled civil suits, apprenticeships, and naturalizations. Early records are in Kenneth Scott, editor, New York Historical Manuscripts. Minutes of the Mayor's Court of New York, 1674–1675 (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1983). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.71 P29s. This book lists probates, marriages, lawsuits, licenses, names of freemen, and persons taking allegiance oaths. The Mayor's court of Albany was established in 1686 and continued during the colonial period. The records are at the Albany County Hall of Records.

1683–1847: The Court of Chancery had statewide jurisdiction over civil equity matters, such as mortgage foreclosures, real property proceedings, sale of estates in dower and curtesy, naturalizations, matrimonial disputes, divorces, guardianships, and child custody. It absorbed the court of probate and had appellate jurisdiction over surrogate's courts. After 1847 equity responsibilities were assigned to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of Judicature met in Albany, with courts of Appeal met in New York City, Utica, and Geneva. The records for the Court of Appeal in New York City are maintained by the New York County Clerk's Office, While those of Albany, Utica, and Geneva are at the State Archives in Albany.

The Records of the New York Court of Chancery, 2nd through 8th Circuits, 1823–47, are now at the state archives. The Records of the New York Court of Chancery, 1st Circuit, 1823–47, which sat in New York, are at the New York County Courthouse, Office of the County Clerk. They contain decrees, files, indexes, minutes, and orders. The Family History Library has some of these for the first circuit, including minutes, 1711–1847; indexes, 1700–1848; and records, 1787–1910.

1683–1895: The court of oyer and terminer and general gaol delivery was a county court that had jurisdiction over capital crimes such as treason and murder. The Family History Library has a few of the records.

1686–1877:The Prerogative Court was headed by the governor or his delegate. It had jurisdiction over all estates in the New York City area and over larger estates elsewhere in New York Colony. The court also registered marriage licenses but did not possess jurisdiction over matrimonial proceedings like divorces. The constitution of 1777 replaced this court with the court of probates.

1691–1847: Courts of common pleas were established in each city and county to handle civil cases such as marriages, naturalizations, name changes, probates, exemptions from military duty, lunacy cases, tavern licenses, insolvency cases, old age assistance, manumissions, laying of roads, insolvency, settlement of boundary disputes, and child support and custody. They handled appeals from justices of the peace. The court was replaced by the county court. In New York City, the court of common pleas and the superior court were abolished in 1895 and their activities taken over by the supreme court. The Family History Library has some records of the courts of common pleas.

1691–present: The Supreme Court is a statewide court which holds terms in each county. Since 1847, it has heard appeals from the surrogates court. Only in some counties today, usually the largest ones, does the court handle naturalizations. The county clerk is also clerk of the supreme court. The Family History Library has some supreme court records, including New York County indexes for 1754–1910 and minute books for 1704–1847. The records for the years 1691–1704 have been published in Collections of the New-York Historical Society. New York, New York: the Society, 1957–1959. (Not at Family History Library.)

1778–1823: The Court of Probates handled most probates from 1778–1787. Until 1783 in British-occupied New York City, Long Island, and Staten Island, the Prerogative Court (see above) handled probates also. See New York Probate Records for more information.

1787–present: Surrogates Courts are county-wide courts with jurisdiction over probates, some adoptions, and guardianships. Before 1787 surrogates were appointed to act in place of the prerogative.

1821–present: Circuit courts were the trial terms of the supreme court. The term "circuit court" was not used after 1895. Since 1896, the supreme court has held trial terms periodically in each county.

1847–present: County courts are the major trial courts for each county with jurisdiction over criminal matters, minor equity cases, and some appeals. They assumed the duties of the court of common pleas. The Family History Library has some records.

Records at County Courthouses

The Family History Library has microfilmed only a small portion of the available New York court records. The library has some records of courts of common pleas, courts of general sessions, county courts, courts of oyer and terminer, chancery court, supreme court, lis pendens, divisions of estates, and surrogate's court probates and guardianships.

“Lis pendens” is a recorded notice that title to property, both real and personal, is subject to litigation and serves as a warning to a prospective buyer. This type of court record exists in most states after 1800, but the FHL collection for New York State catalogs it separately. For further information on lis pendens in general, see Kip Sperry, “Lis Pendens as a U.S. Genealogical Source,” Genealogical Journal, 2(June 1973):51-53. At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 973 D25gj. Explains a record that the Family History Library has for many New York Counties.

Most county and district court records are at local courthouses. Surrogate's court records are kept in separate offices. The New York State Archives has many pre-1847 supreme court and chancery court records, described in New York State Archives, List of Pre-1847 Court Records in the State Archives (Albany, New York: Office of Cultural Education, 1984.) At various libraries (WorldCat);FHL Book 974.7 A1 no. 316. These records are now being microfilmed by the archives. For recent court records, contact the clerk of the specific court of interest.

Federal Courts

In addition to state and county courts, there are several federal circuit courts and United States district courts that have jurisdictions within New York. These include:

  • Eastern District: Brooklyn Division (Brooklyn, Kings, Queens, Richmond), Hauppauge Division (Suffolk County), and Uniondale Division (office is in Brooklyn but no specific counties are assigned)
  • Southern District: New York City Division (Bronx, New York County, and nearby counties)
  • Northern District: Albany Division (Albany and surrounding counties), Binghamton Division (Broome County and surrounding counties), Syracuse Division (Onondaga County and surrounding counties), and Utica Division (Oneida County)
  • Western District: Buffalo Division (Erie County and surrounding counties), and Rochester Division (Monroe County and surrounding counties)

To determine the correct district court for the area where your ancestor lived, call the District Court office in one of the counties of that region. A helpful reference book which has detailed information is:

Sourcebook of Federal Courts, U. S. District and Bankruptcy. Tempe, Arizona: BRB Publications, Incorporated, 1993. At various libraries (WorldCat);{FHL|693434|item|disp=FHL Book 973 P2fc}}.

Records at the National Archives—Northeast Region include:

  • U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York,
  • M886, minutes and rolls of attorneys (1789–1841),
  • admiralty case files (1790–1966),
  • prize and related records for the war of 1812 (1812–1816),
  • bankruptcy records: Act of 1800 (1801–1803), Act of 1841 (1842–1843), Act of 1867 (1867–1878), and Act of 1898 (1898–1929),
  • judgment records (1795–1911),
  • law case files (1795–1938),
  • criminal case files (1846–1868, 1913–1966)

U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York,

  • M854, minutes (1790–1875),
  • trial notes (ca. 1834–1853),
  • appellate case files (1793–1911),
  • judgment records (1794–1911),
  • law case files (1790–1912),
  • equity case files (1791–1911),
  • criminal case files (1790–1912)

U.S. Court of Appeals (known as U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals from 1891–1948) records are at the National Archives—Northeast Region but are not available on microfilm.

These District and Circuit Court records are not available at the Family History Library. For more information about New York court procedures, see Alden Chester, Courts and Lawyers of New York, a History, 1609–1925 (New York, New York: American Historical Society, 1925). At various libraries (WorldCat);FHL Book 974.7 P2c v. 1–3 and FHL Film 6100435–37.

Kronman, Barbara. The Guide to New York City Public Records, Fourth Edition. (New York, New York: Public Interest Clearinghouse, 1992). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.71 A3k. Includes chapters on city government, courts, libraries, and personal information. Shows how to obtain vital records, name change records, and naturalizations.

For Further Reading

Folts, James D. Duely Constantly Kept: a History of the New York Supreme Court, 1691-1847 and an Inventory of its Records. (Albany, Utica, and Geneva Offices), 1797-1847(Albany, New York: New York State Court of Appeals and New York State Archives and Records, 1991). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 974.7 P2d. The guide to New York Court records before 1847, but also contains an explanation of the organization of the courts after 1847.

Joslyn, Roger D. “Court Records,” in Alice Eichholz. Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Pub., 2004). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 973 D27rb 2004. Gives a brief overview of court records in New York State.

Remington, Gordon L. “Divorce Records, New York Style.” Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, 12(September 1997): 90-91. At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 929.025 Am35q v. 12 1997. Explains where divorce records can be found and rules of access.

Sperry, Kip. “Lis Pendens as a U.S. Genealogical Source.” Genealogical Journal. 2(June 1973):51-53. At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 973 D25gj.Explains a record that the Family History Library has for many New York Counties.



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