This past December, I had the pleasure of traveling to Washington County, New York to do additional research on my family tree. I rarely plan trips this time of year, but we couldn’t have asked for better weather. This particular trip has been on my bucket list for years, so I asked my sister to come with me. I like to use these kinds of trips as an opportunity to look for comparison on how others handle their records. The trip reinforced just what a great job Cayuga County does in making research as easy as possible.
One of the first things that we wanted to view were the wills and surrogate records. They often contain their lists and other interesting facts that enable you to learn more about that person or family unit. We were instructed to report to the opposite end of the complex, only to discover that the bound books contained transcriptions (same as what is on file with Washington County). When reading simple wills, it didn’t take long to realize that portions of the records were missing. Where were the inventory lists and the next-of-kin lists? We asked a lot of questions and were relieved to hear that a separate department had those kinds of records stored with the county archivist. That sent us back to the same side of the complex from where we started.
We were shocked to learn very few files with the archivist have been digitized. Each portion of a file has to be pulled and viewed, each being stored on its own microfilm reel. That means to look at the inventory of an estate, the heir lists, guardianship of minor children (if that applies) they each are on a separate reel! No wonder they have an entire department of transcribed wills, to reduce the burden on the poor archivist. On our first day, the archivist had other things to do. He loaded the films we desired but did not offer the chair so we could read the films at our leisure. He had us standing behind him reading over his shoulder, and read to us what he thought we would be interested in. That made our first day very ineffective, so my sister went ahead and browsed their books and their state census while I stayed with the archivist.
That night at the motel, we were very discouraged but decided to change our approach and head back to the archivist first thing in the morning. We arrived shortly after they opened and were well-received. I asked the archivist if the second reader was in working order, which would allow us to cover more ground and reduce the burden on him with all that running back and forth.
He liked the idea and said we could use the second reader but it did not print. So we came up with a plan that my sister would view and anything found could then be loaded on the reader that I was using. That allowed us to maximize our time, as our time was running short. The archivist did have a nice computerized index of the records, but with each part on its own disk, it chewed up a lot of our time. None of their records have been merged together.
If you research records here, you will have just the opposite experience. Recently, the wills, surrogate and guardianship records are all contained in a single file on a standalone computer. Once you use the index, you can then open the corresponding file on that computer and everything is right at your fingertips for printing. This is just one example of how Cayuga County has become a leader in record retention services.
Before our trip ended, we went upstairs to visit the land deeds. The room was spacious, and once we found someone to give us the rundown on the indexes, I was very impressed with their approach. There are about five books for buyers and the same for the sellers, all in order by last name. I found this to be a slight improvement compared to how our land deed indexes are here. Our deeds are in various books by year, and some of the indexes use an unusual format, based on the first few characters of the last and first name, so it can be confusing. We also have numerous index books that are arranged by a date range. Therefore, the way they had their indexes, it was a snap to find deeds. However, their department runs heavily on a volunteer system. Patrons are allowed to open the bound deed books and can photocopy them on a self-service machine. Therefore, if a user isn’t careful to place them back in the book, the next person could have some difficulty.
As a local historian, while we are not allowed to assemble family histories for the public, I do honor a limited scope question as I often learn more about the members of our community and their contributions to it.
Any inquiry beyond that scope, I refer to the local historical societies, whose objective is to serve their members and non-members, usually for a fee, but given unique collections, they may have just what you are seeking.
In addition, I also refer many to the county level. For those that can make the trip to Auburn, you won’t be disappointed.
Anyone that needs to do research by mail, our Cayuga County historian’s office has a dedicated staff available to assist with these types of records, many of which are not available on a local level.
All it takes is a small trip to appreciate what is available right at home. I hope to visit Albany County later this year.