Colonial New York
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In the early 1620s, the Dutch West India Company built settlements at Manhattan and Albany and claimed for New Amsterdam all the territory from the Connecticut River to the Delaware River. In an attempt to enforce this claim, the Dutch built trading posts on both those rivers. In addition to towns along the Hudson River, they also established settlements on the western most end of Long Island. Most of the early settlements on Long Island, however, were made by New Englanders and were initially part of Connecticut or New Haven colonies.
In 1664 the English conquered the Dutch and took over New Amsterdam. The Dutch briefly conquered the territory again in 1673, but, within a year, New York was back in English hands, where it would stay for the remainder of the colonial period.
In 1683, New York was divided into twelve counties: Albany, Cornwall, Dukes, Dutchess, Kings, New York, Orange, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk, Ulster, and Westchester. Two of these counties, Cornwall and Dukes, were part of the possessions of the Duke of York outside the usual territory of New York. Cornwall covered a part of what would become the state of Maine and was given over to Massachusetts in 1686. Dukes County comprised Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, which were, in turn, incorporated in Massachusetts in 1692. The remaining ten original New York counties gave rise to the rest of the later New York counties.
The arrangement of probate records in New York is perhaps more complicated than in any other colony. First, during the Dutch period, probate matters might have been handled in a variety of ways. Some were recorded by notaries, such as those preserved by Salomon Lachaire as “New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch,” in The Register of Solomon Lachaire, Notary Public of New Amsterdam, 1661–1662.18 Other probate records are found in the Minutes of the Orphanmasters of New Amsterdam.19 Yet other papers were recorded in the town records of the English towns within New Netherland. (For an overview of records created during the Dutch period, see Charles T. Gehring’s “Documentary Sources Relating to New Netherland,” in Colonial Dutch Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach.)20
Second, in the English period, from 1664 to 1787, and especially after the formation of the original twelve counties, many probate documents were filed centrally, at the province level, as well as at the county level.
Third, abstracts of the wills and administrations in the central, province-wide collection have been published in seventeen volumes of the Collections of the New-York Historical Society, issued from 1892 to 1908. The last two volumes in this series contain corrections to the abstracts in the previous volumes; therefore, researchers should always consult the last two volumes in conjunction with the abstracts themselves. These will abstracts should then lead the researcher to the full record in the will registers, or will libers, and in some cases to the original will itself.
Fourth, at the same time, many of these probate cases also were recorded at the county level, with various degrees of survival. Abstracts of many of these have been published as well, on a county-by-county basis.
In 1991, Harry Macy Jr. published a detailed description of the pre-1787 New York probate records. His description includes a table showing the location of originals and copies of the province collection of probate papers, a listing of the records held by the early counties, and a number of recommendations for researching in these records.21
Aline L. Garretson, “The Gerritsen-Willemsen Family Record, and The Williamson Family of Gravesend,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 133 (2002): 163–76. The jumping-off point for this article is an extensive family record, covering several generations of the family in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and providing information on the migration of the family from the Low Countries to Bermuda to New Amsterdam. The author then uses a wide range of records for New Amsterdam, New York, and New Jersey. These records include town records, deeds and wills, church records, and the published records of the colony government. In particular, in using the printed version of the early wills, Garretson also takes note of later corrections of the earlier printed abstract.
Gale Ion Harris, “The Supposed Children of Thomas Harris of Dutchess County, New York,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 133 (2002): 3–18. Harris examines several Harris families of Dutchess County and neighboring Ulster County, making excellent use of the wills and deeds. Given the recognized difficulty of research in these jurisdictions, Harris also relies on tax lists and Dutch Reformed church records.