In Genealogy 101, you were left sitting in your own home digging for the main branch of your family tree. In Genealogy 201, you were left in the local library (among all the young good-looking Librarians) adding branches to your family tree. That really should have moved you to dig deep on your own, but if it didn't and you are waiting for Genealogy 301, here we go.
What is at the County Clerk's office that might help? Only touching on the main records and primarily referring to New York State, here's what you will find:
Real Estate Records: The earliest records maintained from the county's beginning are all the land transactions. Did great-grandfather really live and own property in the county and where was it located? When did he first buy land and when did he leave here for "the West"?
Marriage Records: Most NYS County Clerk's have them from 1906 - 1936. Not a great span of time but a wealth of information that is many times overlooked as a prime source. Maiden names of the bride and her mother are two items that are extremely difficult to find anywhere else. The answers to who, where, when, by whom, and who witnessed this rite is all there. The records for the years prior to 1908 and after 1936 are usually found at a Town Clerk's office or central Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Naturalization Records: Though far from complete, what records that are available can be of great aid in locating an immigrant ancestor. The three main documents are the Declaration of Intent, the Petition, and the Court Order and Certificate. In the latter 1800s one of these records will usually include the country and town of origin, the debarkation port, the ship and it's USA port—enough data to really pursue the family.
N. Y. State census records: NYS took censuses in 1825, 1835, 1845, 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915 and 1925, in between the every 10 years of the Federal Census. Most County Clerk's only have their own county's census so it may require some scouting around outside your county.
Miscellaneous Records: Civil and criminal court cases, usually indexed, are available. If you really want to know why Uncle Joe was in Attica, you probably can find out. Tax and Assessment rolls are usually available, at least in the same building. Divorce dates, which are really the only genealogical info of interest, can usually be found. Adoption records are not open to the public, normally requiring an order from a judge to obtain any data.
Next door to the County Clerk, or perhaps in the same building, is the Surrogate Court. Outside New York State, the name can change but there will be an office that handles estate and inheritance matters somewhere in the county offices complex.
Estate Records: If a deceased person's estate goes through probate, this is where the files will be. The Petition to Probate carries a wealth of data, whether the person had a will or not. It is a prime source of Date of Death. (This will allow you to go back to the library for the obituary without having to search 365 newspapers.) The Petition also lists all the heirs and in the case of no will, all relatives who might have an interest in the estate with their addresses—a great help in tracking down locations for a scattered family. The file sometimes contains asset inventories, bills paid by the estate, and many miscellaneous records.
Guardianship Records: Not so prevalent today but very common prior to the early 1900s. Many guardianships ended in unofficial adoptions so perhaps a lost cousin can be found with Aunt Sally's married name.
Miscellaneous Records: Some of the more important genealogical sources are Dower Books, Will Books, and Small Estate records though tidbits of data can be found in almost all the records at Surrogate Court.
Though it may seem maudlin to leave you in Surrogate Court, between it and the County Clerk's office there is enough record-searching to last until next year. Your ancestors all left footprints somewhere, so keep on diggin'.
© 1993, Elwyn R. Van Etten