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The New York City Geographic Birth Index

Posted by Sean Daly on Oct 30, 2022
Index card and street scene in 1900

Did your immigrant ancestors have children in New York City? City clerks maintained a geographic card index of birth certificate numbers for every residential address in the city starting in 1880. There are over half a million cards and Geneanet volunteers have already begun indexing them — please help if you can!

Mother with children in a NYC tenement around 1900
A New York City tenement around 1900. It is estimated a third of all NYC-born babies from 1865-1915 had immigrant parents.

EDIT: Our Finding Aid for the New York City Geographic Birth Index is online here!

In the century between 1820 and 1920, New York City became the premier port in the United States for immigration from Europe. Tens of millions of people — English, Germans, Irish, Italians, Dutch, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans — arrived in NYC. Census Bureau statistics show the population of New York rose from 124,000 in 1820 to 5.6 million in 1920; an estimated 85% of immigrants to the United States arrived in NYC. While many immigrants headed west, many others settled in the city, married — often to someone from the old country — and started families. A child’s birth certificate may have the information to break your brick wall for the connection to the old country, but to obtain it, you need the certificate number which you usually find in one of several databases by searching names. But what if the names were misspelled on the original certificate, or mistranscribed in the databases? The New York City Geographic Birth Index may help you find a birth cert number you can’t find elsewhere!

A card from the index
Over half a million of these cards are now at Geneanet. Immigrants often settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. If you have some free time, please help us index them!
Screenshot of the collaborative indexing page at Geneanet
Select “New York City Geographic Birth Index”

A little-known resource for breaking brick walls

We are excited to tell you about our new — but currently unindexed! — collection: the scanned 3″x5″ index cards of the New York City Geographic Birth Index. You can browse the reels at Geneanet here. Until four years ago, this was a little-known resource, not even digitized. Professional genealogist Jordan Auslander mentioned at a seminar a few years back that New York’s Department of Records & Information Services (DORIS) which manages the Municipal Archives (NYCMA or “MUNI”) had dozens of microfilm reels of these card indexes (see this page). In 2018, the founder of the fabulous nonprofit association Reclaim the Records went about obtaining fresh copies of the 96 (!) reels for the period 1880-1912. (There may be still more reels, perhaps up to the 1950s, at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.) The copies were brought to FamilySearch at a RootsTech conference, for digitization and publication; Reclaim the Records subsequently uploaded them to the Internet Archive. There may be 2.8 million names in the index, perhaps more. Knowledgeable NYC genealogists now supplement their searches with this resource, which is time-consuming as it is unindexed and has a rather byzantine organization on the reels of four-year “chunks” by borough (county), with street addresses alphabetized. Although these reels are online at FamilySearch, to our knowledge, there have been no plans to index this collection yet; so we have decided to add them to our Collaborative Indexing project for the Geneanet volunteer community. Before getting started, let’s dig deep into the particularities of NYC birth certificates and online resources for researching them. Be sure to read MUNI’s page about researching NYC vital records! An excellent overview about NYC vital records can also be found at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. And, if your ancestors were European immigrants, you may be interested in our two-part article Finding Your European Immigrant Ancestor’s Ship.

Composite image with the same certificate microfilmed in the 1940s and scanned in the 2010s
At left, a FamilySearch microfilm image from the 1940s; at right, a New York Municipal Archives image from the 2010s

About NYC birth certificates

New York City began registering civil birth certificates at different times in the five boroughs: Manhattan (New York County) and Brooklyn (Kings County) in 1866, Queens County in 1888, the Bronx in 1895, and Staten Island (Richmond County) in 1898 — the year the counties were renamed “boroughs” and consolidated into today’s New York City. Prior to these dates, births were recorded in ledgers called libers, with minimal information (that said, there may be certificates in the statewide archives at Albany, with long waits to receive them). Civil birth certificates after these dates are bursting with clues for genealogists: parents’ names (including mother’s maiden name) and birthplaces (sometimes a European town of origin), father’s occupation, number of children previously born to the mother and number still living, and the family’s address in New York City.

Newspaper clipping about birth certificate issues from 1904
It’s not uncommon to discover that a birthday celebrated by an elderly family member wasn’t the actual birth date! New York Herald, Sept. 13, 1904, page 5

Finding a birth certificate number may or may not be easy

Locating a NYC birth certificate is not as easy as you might think. In an indexed database (as opposed to an unindexed source where you must visually inspect pages), genealogists usually locate database records through name searches, associated with a place and a year or date range; a certificate or registry number is usually part of the record, and that’s what enables you to obtain the certificate. In 19th century New York where babies were born at home, immigrants’ family names were often misspelled on certificates or sloppily written by registrars — or both! Some immigrants were illiterate; family names could be spelled differently with each birth of a child. Some parents reused the name of a recently deceased infant in an era of infectious diseases and poor sanitation. And well over a century later, names have sometimes been poorly transcribed into databases by indexers despite their best efforts. First names sometimes appear as diminutives: “Katie” for “Catherine” for example. Twins often appeared on a single certificate bearing two consecutive numbers, or two consecutive certs. It’s even possible that there is no certificate at all: in particular, for many years following the start of civil registration the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York instructed priests to tell parishioners not to register births and marriages with the city, believing this infringed on the church’s prerogative to register baptisms and weddings. This placed parents in an impossible situation, as there were fines for noncompliance with civil registration. So for Catholics, there may be both a baptism registry and civil certificate, or only one or the other, or even neither! MUNI estimates that about one quarter of births in NYC were unreported before 1910. Although compliance progressively became the norm in the decade after 1900, many parents did not routinely keep copies of certificates at home with family papers. In short, you may be lucky and get a search hit right away — or you might not be able to find any trace at all of an ancestor’s NYC birth.

This is a D (delayed) certificate
Here is an example of a delayed (D) birth certificate. This one was correctly filed in the year of birth and not the year it was reported. Some delayed certificates created after 1909 for births before that date were misfiled in the year of report and are unavailable from the NYC DOHMH except to close family members.

Special (S) and Delayed (D) certificates

NYC issued many corrected (“Special” or S) or replacement (“Delayed” or D) birth certificates, with one of these letters usually appended to the cert number; many of these were created during World War I when men were drafted or after 1935 with the introduction of the Social Security Act when proof of birth became important. In some cases, a delayed birth certificate was issued simply because the city couldn’t locate the original; if found later, the new one was expunged (cancelled). And if a S or D certificate created many years after the birth was misfiled in the year of creation and not the year of birth, it may still be held by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and therefore unavailable except to close relatives and descendants. Genealogists are concerned that S and D certs may be misfiled or missing, that some are at MUNI while others are at the DOH, and that there is no complete index of them available.

The Historical Vital Records portal launched earlier this year
The Historical Vital Records portal is a new resource from the Municipal Archives, launched earlier this year, is a gold mine for crisp color scans of historical certificates!

FamilySearch’s 1940s microfilm scans and MUNI’s new color scans online

In the early 1940s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS church, or the Mormons) microfilmed New York City’s BMD certificates (except for S and D certs), recognizing their importance to genealogy; some years ago, the microfilms were digitized and indexed on the FamilySearch site. However, MUNI has never permitted FamilySearch to display the actual certificate images, except at Family History Centers.

Of course, obtaining copies of NYC birth certificates up to 1909 directly from the Municipal Archives has always been possible in person near City Hall, or more recently through an online order form. But both methods are costly, slow, inconvenient, and often frustrating. (Note: certs after 1910 are elsewhere: offline at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and only available to certain family members.) This state of affairs suddenly changed in March, when MUNI released 9.3 million color scans of birth, marriage, and death certificates, a project begun in 2013 and now available online at NYC’s Historical Vital Records portal. (Read our guide!) Not all of the 13.3 million vital records are online; notably, Manhattan deaths are missing. But MUNI is currently scanning and publishing the missing documents, with updates to their site every few months. At this writing, 10.1 million records are online.

But there’s a catch

MUNI’s new online database offers reliable search only by certificate number — the search by name is called a “beta” feature. In fact, MUNI’s index for name searches is an old one, the work of dedicated volunteers twenty years ago, and is not being corrected. Better indexes are available elsewhere, but where exactly?

MUNI recommends turning to other online resources to look up an all-important certificate number: FamilySearch (a Geneanet partner), (Geneanet’s parent company), the German Genealogy Group (GGG — check out their new global search feature), or the Italian Genealogical Group (IGG). It’s worth noting that the GGG and IGG share indexing data; both of these associations index all NYC births, not just Germans or Italians. And, the IGG/GGG indexes continue to be updated and corrected, which is not the case at MUNI!

What these resources have in common is to help you determine the certificate number through a name search. Assuming the certificate does in fact exist, a negative search likely means that the family name was mangled — misspelled or unreadable on the cert — or transcribed incorrectly later. So, what to do if your name searches still don’t turn up the cert you’re looking for — should you give up?

Crowded street of tenements
Living conditions were crowded and unsanitary in tenements teeming with immigrants.

Don’t give up, find your ancestor’s New York address with city directories and censuses!

City directories are a vital resource to find addresses a family may have lived at. The New York Public Library has an extensive collection of unindexed city directories, although they can be cumbersome to navigate (be sure to choose Book Mode so you can skip pages in 100-page increments). and Hathitrust have some indexed NYC directories. A directory lists the head of household at an address, which gives you something to work with: a hypothesis which can be checked against the geographic birth index, which may lead to the birth cert with its rich information. We all know that breaking down a brick wall can be a challenge!

No doubt you have made efforts to find your NYC people in the US federal censuses or the New York State censuses. The 1900 federal census is very useful, as it will reveal children’s ages and whether they were born in the US or abroad (their parents too). The 1905 New York State census and 1910 federal census are also quite useful, as that decade was the summit of the Ellis Island immigration period. Although the federal 1890 census is missing (burned in a fire), on occasion the NYC 1892 police census (offline at MUNI, indexed by FamilySearch) can reveal information. Census schedules are great sources of a family’s address in NYC! With that knowledge, you can locate the geographic birth index card in this collection for that address and if a child from the family was born there, you will find the name, date and certificate number. And if the family lived in one place for a number of years — often the case of store owners who lived above their shops with their families — you may even find births of siblings! Of course, your people may have been among the many thousands who moved house on May 1, New York’s chaotic annual “Moving Day” until World War II. The FamilySearch census wikis and Steve Morse’s site are always useful resources for preparing your censuse searches (Steve also has shortcuts to the Reclaim the Records and FamilySearch geo birth index repositories). The federal censuses are available from several sources including FamilySearch; has indexed both federal and the New York State censuses.

A Byzantine layout

The original card index, reflected in the microfilm reels, was organized by borough, in a four-year period we’ll call a chunk. There was a sixth virtual “borough” — for institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, and jails; this was dropped around 1900, when the addresses of institutions were listed as any other street address (see this PDF document for information about closed hospitals in New York State including New York City). Most reels couldn’t hold an entire borough’s cards for a four-year chunk, so a span of reels were labeled “a”, “b”, “c”, and so on. Within each chunk’s set of reels, streets were alphabetized — including descriptive words in a street name like Avenue, East, West, North, and South. The cards were not uniform: a card could be for a street, with street numbers of buildings listed for each birth. Or (the usual case) a card could be for a address; in crowded Lower East Side tenement buildings, it’s not uncommon to find two or three cards for the same building. Some cards have just one birth listed; others have six or eight. Immigrants are everywhere; perhaps a third of NYC births at that time were to immigrant parents. Some cards are typed, clearly as replacements for original handwritten cards. Unfortunately, some cards are out of order, out of focus, damaged, very crooked, or even upside down due to poor microfilming, which is unfortunate as the original cards were destroyed. Many poorly photographed cards were rephotographed as “retakes” and are at the beginning of each reel.

Screenshot of Geneanet collection catalog
It’s possible, but tiresome, to locate a card by navigating the four-year “chunks”. But as the collection is more and more indexed, name searches will work! We are working on a finding aid for this collection with starting and ending street names for each reel, which will help you access the appropriate reel.

Here is an example of how alphabetization was applied with a sampling of street names, from “Manhattan 1895-1899 reel b”, a reel with 6,733 cards:

Bank St
Chrystie St
Avenue C
Barrow St
Cannon St
City Hall Pl
Columbus Ave
Crosby St
Denman Pl
East Broadway
East End Ave

Some cards are out of order; some are typewritten; some have abbreviations such as “Bway” for Broadway. If ever a collection needed name indexing, this is it!

An example research scenario using the NYC Geographic Birth Index

Let’s imagine a scenario which demonstrates the usefulness of this collection. Young Walter J. Quigley died young, at age 6, on October 24, 1895, in Manhattan, death cert number 36576, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. His parents, Dennis and Kate Quigley, were Irish. This information is indexed at FamilySearch — so far, so good. We want to know if he had brothers or sisters; let’s look up his birth and death certificates for more information. As the family was living in Manhattan, we can speculate Walter was born there too, although we can’t be sure — he could have immigrated with his parents from Ireland for example. Unfortunately, we can’t easily look at this Manhattan death cert as it is not yet online at MUNI and is restricted to Family History Centers at FamilySearch. We could contact Calvary, since we have the burial date; they will give us the plot location over the phone and we could go visit the cemetery, hoping for more information on a tombstone if there is one. And, Calvary is able to supply an interment list which might have the siblings or parents listed, but they charge for that and it is quite expensive. For now, let’s just stay online and look for Walter’s birth certificate. Name searches at MUNI, FamilySearch, Ancestry, the IGG, and the GGG for 1889 don’t locate a birth certificate for Walter Quigley in 1889. Could he have been born in 1888, or 1890? Censuses can’t help us; there is no 1890 federal census to find the family, and New York County (Manhattan) is missing from the 1892 New York State census, although they may be in the offline 1892 New York City Police census. Let’s do some sleuthing to find him, and his siblings too if any!

Birth certificate of a son to Dennis Quigley and Kate Burke, Irish immigrants
Walter wasn’t named at birth, which has made indexing him in databases problematic. The IGG/GGG has indexed him as “Male Quigley”. We did not find him on FamilySearch. And has him indexed as “Nil Quigby” (!)

The first step is to search these databases without a first name. Let’s start with MUNI, as the certificates are online and accessible. That database shows 3 Quigleys born in Manhattan in 1889 with male names, a John and two Michaels. But there is also a “Male Quigley”. Walter? It is often the case that the words “Male” and “Female” are indexed in databases as first names. The IGG and GGG return the same certificate number, cn 25140, for a Male Quigley in that county and year. The lad is on FamilySearch (under “Document Information” we see the same cert number), but is not easy to find. Ancestry doesn’t turn up anything at all. The birth certificate at MUNI confirms: the parents are Dennis Quigley and Kate Burke from Ireland; Dennis is a longshoreman; the family lives at 27 Desbrosses St near the Hudson River docks in today’s Tribeca neighborhood; mother Kate gave birth to two siblings before this baby. To be sure this Male Quigley is indeed Walter, we need to learn about his siblings.

index card for 27 Desbrosses St
index card for 27 Desbrosses St
index card for 27 Desbrosses St

It’s at this point that the NYC Geographic Birth Index can help. With a bit of manual browsing from the list of reels, we can identify the scanned microfilm reel with Desbrosses St for Manhattan from 1885-1889. There are three index cards for 27 Desbrosses St. and each one has a Quigley! With the cert numbers, we now have the birth certs of the three brothers: William, Alexander, and (we still assume) Walter. Alexander’s cert reveals that little William died in infancy (2 children born to Kate, 1 living), confirming the 1889 cert which indicates one of the children didn’t survive. Knowing this limited date range in a place, a quick search locates 1-year-old William Quigley who died on May 7, 1887. We now have a second question for Calvary Cemetery; if the plot number is the same as Walter’s, you can make a note to be sure to visit the gravesite — it may well be the family plot. Were there other siblings born after Walter? It’s possible, just not at this address. We have a clue, Walter’s address at death which is further uptown. We are on our way to reconstructing the history of this family!

Contemporary photo of 27 Desbrosses St
27 Desbrosses St, New York, NY. In this corner building, only two blocks from the docks, the Quigley family would have enjoyed more light and air than families in many Lower East Side tenements. Photo:

Of course, in this example we could have searched MUNI or FamilySearch for every Quigley born in Manhattan in previous years — assuming the family name was transcribed correctly! If not, our name search would fail. In this specific case, FamilySearch would have helped, as the family name and parents are correctly indexed. But the NYC geo birth index does more: it tells you a bit about who the neighbors were, interesting information in this 1885-1895 period where there are no NYC censuses available except the offline and partial 1892 New York Police census.

Help us index these cards!

To index a page of the muster rolls, go to the “Projects” menu and select “Collaborative Indexing”. Under “Collection”, select “New York City Geographic Birth Index”. Indicate how much time you have available: a quarter of an hour, 1 hour, or several hours. Click the “Start Indexing” button. The system will assign you a card, so as to avoid people working on the same card at the same time — it’s more efficient for everybody! You can pause your work and return to it later. At this writing, over 7,000 names have already been indexed. Many thanks to our volunteers!

The Geneanet collaborative indexing data input screen
Geneanet’s collaborative indexing system assigns a card or cards to you for indexing; other volunteers will work on other cards. To see the text clearly, use the tools to the left: zoom, contrast, orientation… If a card is completely unreadable, click on “Skip this document” and move on to the next one. If you are not sure about a few names, you can even tick a box to have someone check your work! Click on Help if this is your first time indexing at Geneanet. Thank you to all our volunteers!


Has Geneanet considered enlisting FamilSearch Volunteers to aid in this indexing project?

Answer from Geneanet: Indexing the images of this collection is not a priority for FamilySearch, although they digitized the 96 microfilm reels provided by Reclaim the Records five years ago. Geneanet’s collaborative indexing is open to all and member-indexed documents will always be free to access, so if you know anyone who may be interested, tell them to help out!


I would like to speak to an admin of this project , need help locating my Maternal grandfather in the Civil service employees records

Answer from Geneanet: Please post your question in our forum, we will alert the project manager about it!

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