Serendipity in New York State: Census Sunday

Anna (Sprague) Bergen (1866-1951) was raised by a couple named William H. and Nancy E. Clapper in Queens, New York.  Anna was very close to her adoptive mother, Nancy, as was Anna’s daughter Edith (Bergen) Hottinger.  Nancy and Edith were even buried together in Genola Cemetery in East Northport, Long Island, where they share a headstone.

Clapper and Hottinger head stone.scan0001(1)

It was believed that Anna and Nancy were somehow related, but no one in the family knew Nancy Clapper’s maiden name.  Searches for Nancy’s death certificate and marriage record were unsuccessful, and Nancy’s will contained no clues to a biological relationship to Anna.

In the course of researching Anna’s husband, Frank Bergen, it was discovered that Frank’s mother’s maiden name was Harriett Vandusen.  A 1916 photograph that had been handed down within the family showed Nancy Clapper with two women who our research showed were sisters, Priscilla Vandusen (who never married) and Julia (Vandusen) Pickard.

Three Vandusen sisters, upstate New York, circa 1905.

Julia, Priscilla and Nancy. Long Island, 1916.

Three Vandusen sisters – Priscilla, Julia and Harriett – are listed with their parents in Brooklyn in the 1860 federal census.  Harriet does not appear in the 1916 photo – she died in 1905.  But why was Nancy Clapper in the photo?

Was Nancy also a Vandusen?  It was just a hunch.  A hypothesis, based on circumstantial evidence.  Pure speculation.  But we had run out of better ideas, so this hunch seemed worth investigating.

Although Nancy, born in 1832, was the right age to be a Vandusen sister, we couldn’t place Nancy in an early census with the Vandusen family.  Nancy married William Clapper in 1856 (according to the 1900 census), and the Vandusen family could not be found anywhere in the 1850 federal census.

At a temporary dead end researching Nancy, we turned to her husband William H. Clapper (1834-1900).  His probate file mentioned his siblings’ names and gave their street addresses, which we used to find them in the 1900 census and discover their years of birth.  This information made it possible to place William with his family of origin and trace the Clapper family a generation further back in the census.  In 1855, a year before William married Nancy, the Clapper family was found in the New York state census living in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.

I used screen capture software to copy the 1855 New York census page showing the Clapper family from  In the process of attaching the image to my database, I glanced across the page.  I still cannot believe I almost missed it.  There, two families up from the Clappers, was the family of John and Louvina Vandusen, with their six children: Eliza N., Priscilla, Geo. W., Julia, Harriett J., and Annetta.  Eliza N. Vandusen, age 22, was the correct age to be the woman we were looking for, Nancy E. Clapper.

VANDUSEN John 1855 NY Brooklyn Ward 17

So, it turned out that Eliza N. “Nancy” (Vandusen) Clapper was not (as far as we know) related by blood to her adopted daughter Anna.  But Frank Bergen, the son of Harriett (Vandusen) Bergen, was Nancy’s nephew.  He married Anna in 1887.

The lesson: Always look beyond the index.  Pull up the image of the actual census page.  The information recorded by the census taker may not be the same as what is found in the index. Plus, you can see who was living close by.  You may experience the serendipity of finding a missing person, and overcoming a brick wall, just by taking the time to look.

When entering names into search boxes doesn’t produce the expected results, you may not have exhausted your resources.  For some reason, John Vandusen’s family didn’t come up in the 1855 New York census when I searched for him by name on FamilySearch.  But since Nancy married William Clapper in 1856, it isn’t too surprising that their families would have been neighbors in 1855.

Consider looking at the actual census page images in the location where you would expect your family to be residing.  After all, this is how census research was done in the days before online databases and before printed indexes.  The “old school” method required scanning the census on microfilm, one page at a time.

A New York State of Search – Beyond

A older relative of mine (a very, very distant relative, indeed!) needed some help researching her family history. Both her parents were born in New York City in the 1910s (her father in Manhattan, her mother in Brooklyn), and although she’d been using and had a lot of information, there were still many “blanks” where her New York ancestry was concerned.

VanDusen Three Graces

None of my people are from New York. With no experience in New York genealogical resources, I started with Google and Cyndislist to get an idea of what online resources might be out there, to see what she might have overlooked. Using free, online web sites, we were able to find an astonishing amount of information about her family – information that was not available on!

I mean, we hit the jackpot. It turned out she is descended from two very, very old New York families, the Bergen family and the Vandusen family, who each have been traced back to the 1600s and beyond. Not only that, but we were able to identify the parents and grandparents of my relative’s maternal grandmother – who had been adopted at the age of six!

This was a discovery we never even anticipated we’d be able to make. And it was all done using online sources and databases that are totally FREE to use.

  • FREE online New York state census records, organized by county

Most people doing genealogy research are familiar with the U.S. Census. Taken every decade, the federal census began in 1790 and started reporting the full names of all family members (not just the head of household) in 1850. So, going backward in time, starting with the 1940 census which was released in February, 2012, you can find a kind of snapshot of your family every ten years. Using the federal census, you can usually trace your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on, back to (at least) 1850 if they were living in the United States.

When you first started researching your family tree, the U.S. Census was probably one of the first sources you learned to search.

But what a lot of people don’t know is that the state of New York took its own separate census, and that some of these state census records are available for free online – but only a handful of these New York state censuses are available on If you know where to look, and if you know the techniques to use to find the names you’re looking for, these state census records can be the key to breaking through brick walls in your research.

The New York State Census was taken in different years from the U.S. (federal) Census, so the state census can supplement the information from the federal census records, filling in gaps and answering key questions such as a person’s age and occupation, his or her place of birth, and where a family was living on a given date. The 1892 New York state census is incredibly crucial if you’re researching this time period, since the 1890 federal census was almost entirely destroyed.

  • FREE index to New York City birth, death and marriage records

Another essential source of family history information comes from vital records, such as birth certificates, death certificates and marriage records. Most states, including New York, did not begin recording birth and death records officially on a statewide basis until 1910. But New York City records were (and still are) maintained by a separate agency from the rest of the state. So, for life events (births, marriages and deaths) that occurred in one of the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island), the city’s Municipal Archives may have a record.

Searching through these records personally sounds like a daunting task. If you don’t live in New York City, or you’re not sure if you want hire a researcher to search at the Municipal Archives for you, there are ways to identify the records you need without leaving your computer.

There is a free, searchable database index of New York City vital records going back as early as 1862. The index was created by volunteers who had to read the handwritten original records and manually enter the names and dates, so some specialized searching may be necessary to find names with unusual spellings, or names that might have been misread by the person entering the data.

Using these specialized search techniques, we found death certificates that took our research back a further generation, and a marriage record that provided the missing maiden name for my relative’s second great-grandmother.

  • Two FREE searchable databases of full-text New York newspapers

Newspapers can be an incredible means to not only extract names, dates and facts, but to flesh out the details in your family history and bring your ancestors to life. From birth and marriage announcements, to real estate and probate notices, and, of course death notices and obituaries, newspapers can give you vital clues and information you might not be able to find anywhere else.

While researching my relative’s great-grandfather, Frank Bergen, a house painter from Brooklyn, I uncovered newspaper articles from the 1860s discussing a rather scandalous court case that involved Bergen’s mother and father. As the courtroom drama unfolded in the press, incredible details about their lives were reported.

It’s the kind of story that would never have been discussed among the younger family members in those days, and so these facts were never handed down as part of the family saga. But it’s a story that enlivens and enriches my relative’s family history today.

In my illustrated eBook, I’ll take you step-by-step through the process of finding New York state census records, vital records and newspaper articles, and I’ll show how these free online resources answered nagging questions, opened up new avenues of research, and filled in missing chapters in my relative’s family tree.

I am hopeful that when you see these examples, and you understand the methods I used to locate the information we were looking for, you’ll be able to apply the same techniques to researching your own New York ancestors – and you won’t have to pay a penny to join a subscription site. These are all free resources available online, to anyone who knows where to find them and how to use them.

For information about the release date of my eBook, please send an email to me at:  I’ll also send you the list of the free online sources we used to complete this research project.