The New York City Geographic Birth Index for approximately 1880-1912 (sometimes through 1917) is now online for free public use at the Internet Archive. Some years are hard to read. The later years of this index, which exist through the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, will be the subject of an upcoming New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.
Introducing the New York City GEOGRAPHIC Birth Index! This record set is an index to all births in New York City from roughly 1880-1912 (or 1917-ish in some cases outside of Manhattan). But unlike a typical birth index arranged by surname or by date, this one is arranged by the child’s place of birth, the actual exact street address! Hence the term Geographic.
We think there’s about 2.8 million names in here, maybe more.
Want to skip right to the records? HERE YOU GO, ENJOY! We always post our stuff to the Internet Archive for free, so you don’t have to worry about a paywall or a login or any of that stuff. You can even download all the records and republish them, no copyrights here. (Just please give us a shout-out and a link to our website in the credits or on your “about this database” page, thanks!)
Want to learn a little more about these records first, before you aimlessly scroll through half a million not-yet-text-indexed images? Great idea! Read on…
As you can see, these records are 3×5″ index cards, which were microfilmed and then digitized. They have an exact street address listed at the top of the card, or sometimes a small range of addresses all on the same street like “251-300 Clifton Pl.” The information on the cards includes the child’s date of birth, the child’s name, and the birth certificate number — after all, this is an index. But armed with this data, you can then go order a copy of the actual birth certificate from the city.
The cards were originally split into six separate groups: one for each borough (county) and a special sixth group that listed every birth that took place in New York City area hospitals, workhouses, prisons, and other public institutions — even the Ellis Island Hospital and the New York Lunatic Asylum. In later years in this record set, meaning into the early twentieth century, the city stopped separating out the hospitals and jails and other institutions out into the sixth group, and started listing them by their street address within their borough, just as if they were any other sort of building.
The names on each card are usually in roughly chronological order, but only within a four-year time period. There were separate cards and microfilm reels for each new four-year chunk. So for example, here’s Manhattan 1885-1889 part A, which is followed by Manhattan 1885-1889 part B, and so on, through part I. After that, they start again with the records for 1890-1894, and then 1895-1899, and so on.
And within each of those rolls of microfilms, representing each four-year timeframe, the cards are arranged alphabetically by street address. So, for example, births on Creston Avenue come just before births on Crimmins Avenue. However, note that directional markers are considered to be a part of the street name. So, for example, the cards for East Broadway are followed by the cards for East Houston Street, and so on.
And let’s give fair warning: some of the handwriting on these cards is unfortunately difficult to read, and some of the original microfilm quality is blurry. We were able to get brand new microfilm copies made from the city’s master copies in their vault, but it looks like the original microfilming of the cards all those years ago just wasn’t great. So we now have pristine copies of a not-great master version. *sigh*
Where did these records come from?
As far as we can tell, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene created the original index cards, working off of the information on the original birth certificates. It seems as though they may have kept this geographic indexing going through at least the 1940’s or 1950’s, maybe longer; however, only the microfilms of these older cards, covering roughly 1880-1912 (or 1917-ish) were sent by the DOH to the New York City Municipal Archives. The more recent ones are probably in a city vault somewhere.
But we didn’t even know these records existed until we went to a genealogy conference and heard noted New York genealogist Jordan Auslander talk about them. (Thanks, Jordan!) See, the NYC Municipal Archives has this weird habit of not publishing any kind of finding aid or listing of all the great stuff they have in their archive, nor do they like to share the copies of their records with others, even though they’re required to do so by the New York State Freedom of Information Law.
In this particular case, the Archives did “allow” us to request and receive freshly made copies of these Geographic Birth Index microfilms without any kind of legal fight needed, for which we of course paid for all costs associated, just as the law requires. But more recently we’ve had to take the Archives to court to get simple copies of other just-as-legal records and OMG YOU GUYS they’re so ridiculous.
Anyway, we eventually got the ninety-six microfilm copies, and then our founder dragged the big heavy box of films on the plane with her to the annual RootsTech conference in Utah and she delivered them in person to, who else, our awesome friends at FamilySearch, who generously donated all the time and labor and equipment to digitize all of these microfilms for us. Thank you, FamilySearch!
And that means that these records are also available online at FamilySearch right now, in case if you prefer to use their website rather than the Internet Archive. We share!
By the way, we do plan to make a Freedom of Information request to the NYC DOH for the rest of the post-1912 Geographic Birth Index, too, the ones that didn’t make it over to the NYC Municipal Archives yet. That’s hundreds of more microfilms covering millions of more names! But at the moment we’re a little busy suing that same DOH, and suing that same Municipal Archives, and suing Missouri, and a bunch of other government agencies, so we’re just holding off for now until things calm down a bit.
Why would you need a geographic birth index?
Okay, so New York City already has a “regular” birth index for this same time period, and it’s publicly available at numerous genealogy websites, and covers varying years. But if you’ve ever worked with it, you know that it can be incomplete, or have wildly incorrect spelling variants making it hard to find a person you’re researching. That’s partly due to the fact that the original birth certificates in this time period sometimes had horrible handwriting and the index didn’t register the name correctly. Or quite often the original birth certificate showed a misspelling or an odd spelling variant of the first or last name, even varying from child to child within the same family. This was especially true for immigrant families, some of whom were illiterate or didn’t speak English, and about one third of New York City births were to recent immigrant families in this late nineteenth and early twentieth century time period.
When those first generation American kids grew up and suddenly needed a copy of their birth certificate, whether it was to register for Social Security or for entry into the Armed Services or for other reasons, this caused some problems, and led to the creation of numerous “Special” or delayed birth certificates in New York City, issued many years later. Yet many of those people really did have an original New York City birth certificate issued at the time of their birth — but it was just too hard for anyone to find them listed in the “regular” New York City birth index under an alternate or mangled version of their name.
Well, maybe if they had used this Geographic Birth index, things would have been easier. Let’s take a look at an example:
See those two kids listed at the bottom of the card: ‘Susie Neisman‘ born in 1882, and ‘Lucie Neiswand‘ born in 1884? Yeah, they’re sisters. They just had not-great spelling variants on their respective birth certificates, ones that would not have been picked up by Soundex codes or even through a phonetic search. And the “regular” New York City birth index would not have helped you figure this out, neither the database version created by ItalianGen that was created from the city’s own alphabetical microfilm index and later posted online at Ancestry, nor the index version on FamilySearch that was created from transcribing the actual birth certificates. (Go on, take a look online and see for yourself.)
But using this new Geographic Birth Index would help you figure this out, or at least give you a hint, showing two kids with similar surnames both born at the same address. Having an option to do look-ups by a location, which you might already know from a census or a directory, can really help. And this is just one example, from 574,243 cards in this records set.
And the total number of names in this records set: ….uh, we’re not sure. Some cards have a lot of names on them and some only have a few, depending on how many people lived at that address. But if we assume there are, on average, about five names per card, then this would be about 2.87 million records. This includes all those “special” delayed birth certificates that were issued later on, especially in the early 1940’s.
Sometimes you will even see cards in this record set with a stamp across the front saying “Expunged” — meaning that a person had applied for and received a delayed birth certificate, but then the city finally located the original birth certificate, and then they had to go back and invalidate (expunge) the later-created certificate.
We’ll close with this record from the set, which shows a girl who, based on the reported geographic location of her birth, may have been destined to grow up to become a genealogist:
Documents related to this request are coming soon.
State or Vital Records Jurisdiction: New York City
Government Agency: New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS)
Record Type: Birth Records
Record Years: Approximately 1880-1912, or 1917 for some boroughs.
Record Format: Index arranged by street address, usually broken up into five-year groupings, with a separate index for all New York City hospitals and jails (including Ellis Island)
Record Physical Format: 96 microfilms
Number of Records (Estimated): About 2.87 million records