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Untapped Genealogical Treasures

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Before her death in 1852, Nancy Nicol carefully cut a lock of hair from each of her three young children, her husband and herself, and sat down to make a memento for the family she would be leaving behind. Nancy had drawn out a family register, covered with curlicues and other inky flourishes, listing the milestone dates of births and marriages – there had been no deaths to record, yet. Next to each name, her husband David, her own and the children, George, Catherine and Martha, she fastened the curls of hair to the paper with ribbon and wax.

After Nancy Nicol’s death, the register was handed down through the generations until, at some point, there were no more immediate family members to pass it onto and it came into the holdings of the Genealogy collection of our library. The register, tucked away in series of folders, has sat in a file cabinet along with over 3,000 other genealogical gems, uncatalogued and out of reach of most family historians. This summer, the staff in the Milstein Division began to create records in our online catalog – providing signposts for researchers signifying that is always more material for them to look at before throwing up their arms in exasperation, faced with that looming brick wall.

The Nicol’s family register resides in our Family Files vertical file collection. These files are comprised of collections of miscellaneous genealogical material donated to or acquired by the library over the better part of the last 40 or so years. Arranged by family name, from Abbott to Zollver, each surname has a designated folder containing material ranging from family correspondence to hefty unpublished family history manuscripts, from photographs to intricate family trees. There is the odd treasure here and there, a group of wedding photos, a mean spirited eugenics inspired family history from 1916, the family history of the Doctor that set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, and of course, the lovingly made register of the Nicols family.

The records in the catalog (all beginning with the call number APT-F) for the family files are not detailed records. These files and similar collections, such as our heavily used New York City clipping collection, are open collections, meaning that we add new material to them as we go along. Our next project is to add the research files of the now defunct Academy of Genealogy to our Family File collection, increasing the collection by 100 plus surnames. It would be nearly impossible in one post to fully explore and plumb the depths and the wealth of the genealogical material in these vertical files; and I hope to expand upon those files I consider the most interesting in upcoming posts. In the meantime, all you family historians out there should check to see if we have a file on one of your ancestor’s surnames. If you hit upon a surname of interest, send us an e-mail at histref@nypl.org and our staff will gladly check the contents of the folder for you.

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