Exploring the 1855 New York State Census

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FamilySearch.org added the New York State 1855 Census on February 1st. When I saw the wealth of information inside, I went on a marathon dig for every ancestor living in the area at the time. Yes, it’s really that good. Even if you don’t think you have any New York roots, I recommend checking this database for any ancestors who may have emigrated through New York prior to enumeration elsewhere in 1860. You may just find them. Today I’m discussing the major details NYS 1855 provides and how you can use them to target additional records.

1. Relation to the head of the family

Under Question 9, this state census gives the benefit of listing the relationships, eliminating the guesswork of relying on the 1850 and 1860 Federal censuses. Usually the passel of kids under one roof all belong to the man and wife living there, but if there’s only one family in town with “issues,” then of course it will be the one you’re researching. NYS 1855 gives you a checkpoint for ambiguous relationships.

Where to go next: If you discover a relationship that isn’t what it appeared to be, focus on who and why. Who are that person’s first degree relatives, and why isn’t he/she living with them? Think about how a nephew or niece, in-law, servant, or boarder changes the household’s dynamic. Even if there is no blood/marriage relationship between parties, try checking witness names on marriage, naturalization, probate and other legal records to discover how deeply they or their families may have been associated with one another.

2. In what county of this State, or in what other State or Foreign Country born.

Prior to 1850, the Federal census listed only heads of household by name. We all have lines where the trail goes cold at that point. Question 10 on NYS 1855 provides a vital clue to resume the hunt: the New York county of birth. This offers at least three insights. First, it gives you a place to search in 1840, especially helpful if your ancestors relocated between 1840 and 1850. Second, it can help group adult siblings or neighbors who may have migrated together. Third, in a large family, the ages and birth counties of the children may allow you to track their movement over a period of time.

Where to go next: Discovering your ancestor’s birth county may send you to brand new hunting grounds. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the territory and the records available. Start by searching for evidence that your ancestor lived there and a birth record, then branch out. The parents’ marriage record? Land transfers and probate records? Newspaper mentions? The county is your oyster.

3. Years resident in this city or town.

While most census data provides a snapshot of life as of a particular date, Question 13 on NYS 1855 supplies a rare timeline detail: how long your ancestor had lived in that location. Depending on how frequently the family moved from place to place, this could be a critical piece of information. How deep were their ties to the community? Did they follow (or buck) mobility trends? If their 1855 location surprises you, can you find a reason they might have moved on?

Where to go next: If your ancestor was not a lifelong resident of their 1855 home, look for a land purchase in their new stomping grounds, and if you know the location they left behind, see if they sold property there. If you find land transfers, pay attention to the dollar amounts involved, to see if they align with the value listed on Question 3 of NYS 1855. You may be able to observe a possible change, for good or ill, in your ancestor’s fortunes.

Question for You

What’s your latest and greatest find? It doesn’t have to be from NYS 1855 (although I’ll be thrilled if it is!)

4 Replies to “Exploring the 1855 New York State Census”

  1. I definitely have New York roots, so THANK YOU for this post!!!! My family history research has been on the back burner lately, so this info was exactly what I needed, right now! Time to get busy….thanks again!

    1. You’re welcome! Fun tidbit: a long while back, I found an 1854 land record for one of my main branches, when they settled in the town where they stayed. In the 1855 NY census, they are listed as residents of the town for a whopping 4 months!

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