History of the NYG&B

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The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society is the oldest genealogical society in New York State and the second oldest in the nation. 


Founding in 1869

Seven men meeting on the evening of February 27, 1869, at the home of Dr. David Parsons Holton in New York City, organized The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. On March 26 they filed a certificate of incorporation in the office of the Secretary of State of New York, stating that "the particular business and objects of the Society are to discover, procure, preserve and perpetuate whatever may relate to Genealogy and Biography, and more particularly to the genealogies and biographies of families, persons and citizens associated and identified with the State of New York." In April they adopted the first By-Laws and elected officers, the first president being the historian Dr. Henry R. Stiles. The officers adopted the seal of the Society on May 8, 1869.

In establishing the Society the founders were inspired by the example of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, founded in 1845. In at least one respect, however, they differed from the New England model. While women would not be admitted to membership in the Boston society until 1898, the New York society on May 1, 1869 elected to membership Frances K. Forward Holton, who was the wife of Dr. Holton. She was followed by many others.  More information on Mrs. Holton appears in Appendix A below.

The Society immediately established a library, and in December 1869 published an eight-page Bulletin. The reception of this publication encouraged the Trustees to launch a quarterly journal, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, the first issue of which was dated January 1870. Thus were established two of the oldest institutions in American genealogy. Today the Society is the second oldest genealogical society in the United States, and The Record the second-oldest genealogical periodical in continuous publication in the English-speaking world.


Headquarters Facilities

The Society's first permanent home was at Mott Memorial Hall, a house at 64 Madison Avenue. In 1888 the Society obtained space in the Berkeley Lyceum Building at 19 West 41st Street, and two years later moved to the new Berkeley Lyceum building at 23 West 44th Street, just a few steps away from where the NYG&B is today.

In 1891 Mrs. Elizabeth Underhill Coles died, leaving the Society a bequest of $20,000.  With this money the Society was able to purchase in 1896 a four-story brownstone at 226 West 58th Street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. This became "Genealogical Hall," the home of the Society for the next 33 years.

One of the Society's most ambitious early projects was the placement of a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Mall in New York's Central Park to mark the quadricentennial of Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492. The bronze statue, a replica of a work by Spanish sculptor Jeronimo Sunol (1849-1902), arrived in New York on June 8, 1893. Adlai E. Stevenson, Vice-President of the United States, unveiled the statue in 1894 on the spot where it stands today.

By 1912 Genealogical Hall was inadequate to hold the library, and the Trustees decided to raise $65,000 to acquire the adjacent building lot for expansion. J. Pierpont Morgan contributed $10,000 on the condition that the Society raise the remainder, and this was accomplished by the end of 1913, mainly through the efforts of president Clarence Winthrop Bowen. Various factors intervened to prevent the proposed expansion, and Mr. Bowen was still president 16 years later when the Society moved across town into its next location at 122-124-126 East 58th Street.

The new facility, erected at a cost of $300,000, replaced three brownstone houses on the site. The noted New York architectural firm of La Farge, Warren and Clark designed the building. An impressive list of dignitaries, headed by former President of the United States Calvin Coolidge and former Governor of New York and Secretary of State (and future Chief Justice of the United States) Charles Evans Hughes attended the formal dedication on December 11, 1929.

The new building provided impressive and ample space for the growth of the library.


Early Publications

Over the years the Society had also expanded its publications program. By 1929 each issue of The Record ran over 100 pages, and it had become recognized as one of the leading scholarly journals of genealogy. Since 1890 the Society had also published several volumes of its collections, starting with the marriage and baptismal registers of New York State's oldest church, the Reformed Dutch Church of New Amsterdam and New York City.


The NYG&B in the Twentieth Century

The Great Depression and World War II slowed the Society's progress — The Record, for example, became greatly reduced in size. In this period, and the years after the war, interest in genealogy had declined and some may have questioned whether the Society could survive.

But amazing changes were in the offing.

When the Society was founded in 1869, the only New Yorkers who had an interest in tracing their roots, or the time to do so, were those whose lineages stretched back to the colonial period, and the Society for its first hundred years catered almost exclusively to that part of the population. Even among those with colonial ancestry, however, there were relatively few who had more than a passing interest in their family history. Genealogy remained a rather obscure hobby and its status as a profession was even more tenuous.


Genealogical Renaissance

In the 1970s there were signs of change.

The 19th century was now more distant than the 18th had been in 1869, and there was increasing interest in its records, which were also now becoming more accessible. Descendants of 19th century immigrants, and Americans of African descent, discovered that they too could delve into genealogy. The telecast based on Alex Haley's book Roots and the 1976 Bicentennial were catalysts that precipitated this new wave of interest.

The increased mobility of the population, leaving so many Americans far removed from their roots, and an increase in leisure time, especially among older Americans, were other factors in the expansion.

All over the country new genealogical societies, publications, and activities developed, and the older institutions began to experience unprecedented growth as well. The Society was similarly affected by this growth.

In the late 1980s computers began to be used in administration, publishing, and the library. The library began to significantly expand its microform holdings to facilitate research in late 19th century and early 20th century sources, while also expanding its colonial collection. In 1990, the NYG&B launched The NYG&B Newsletter; in 2004 it became The New York Researcher. In 2003 the Society began publication of all past issues of The Record on CD-ROM. 

The Society's formal education programs began in 1977 with a fall lecture series. The educational program expanded in the 1990s to include programs at such locations as Albany, Saratoga Springs, Buffalo, Tarrytown, and Elizabeth, NJ, often in cooperation with other genealogical societies. The Society began to establish a presence at national, regional and local genealogical conferences sponsored by other organizations.

In the mid-1990s genealogy began to undergo a sea change with the advent of the internet. The number of Americans (and people in many other countries) pursuing genealogy skyrocketed as a result. The Society joined this new world in December 1998 when it launched its own website.  Its Members' Area included the NYG&B eLibrary, a growing database of the Society’s unique manuscript holdings.  

By the late 1990s the Society's record growth  motivated it to make changes in the building and develop a master plan for its future. To implement the changes, the Society conducted a capital campaign drive for the first time in many decades. In 1999 it was possible to begin the first stage of the plan. In 2001 the NYG&B created the Technology Center for microform and computer media. This served members for several years, but the internet continued to reduce member visits to the research library.

More and more members spent less and less time at the library, preferring instead to make use of the online offerings from home. As a result foot traffic slowed down, and it was again time to reassess the mission of the Society and the role of its building and traditional library.


The New NYG&B

The board of trustees analyzed the state of the NYG&B and studied the field of endeavor in which it operated. The board ultimately decided that the business model, in place for decades, had become unsustainable.

 As a consequence NYG&B gave its library collections over to the New York Public Library, one of the largest and most important research libraries in the world. Its genealogical and family history collections were already local, national, and international in scope but the addition of the NYG&B collections added significant new depth and breadth. The gift of books and manuscripts was accompanied by sufficient funds to underwrite the cataloging of the collection.

Part of the transfer of the library included a formal agreement to work together to advance genealogical and family history research and education in New York. 

In September, 2008 the published books moved sixteen blocks south to the Public Library's Irma & Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History, and Genealogy, and the manuscripts went to the Manuscripts Division of the NYPL.  The NYPL then set about cataloging the books and manuscripts and adding them to the online catalog. This resulted in a vastly broader awareness of the collections to the public, since the catalog became available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and the books and manuscripts became available not just to NYG&B members and guests, but to anyone at all who could get to the NYPL research library.

The NYG&B found a buyer for the building on 58th Street in November, 2007. With the sale of that headquarters came the necessity of finding another. In November 2008 the Society purchased a commercial condominium at 36 West 44th Street in the landmark Bar Building and created entirely new offices on the 7th floor. The well-known New York architect Peter Pennoyer and designer John Claflin are responsible for the design of the new NYG&B offices.

The NYG&B furnished the new space with items from the 58th Street building, including two of the splendid walnut library tables and all of the walnut chairs, together with selections from the NYG&B portrait collection. The staff completed the move in January of 2010.

The NYG&B’s move to West 44th Street was more than just a physical relocation.  Accompanying it was a change in leadership and a significant realignment of strategic direction and purpose.

Without the burden of maintaining a large building and library, the NYG&B refocused itself on three priorities: education, publications, and digital communication.

  • Education. the staff significantly increased the volume of public programs and began the process of integrating the programs of other important, like-minded institutions under the umbrella of The New York Family History School. Early partner organizations in developing this idea included the New York Public Library and the National Archives and Records Administration in Manhattan. The NYG&B created a website for the New York Family History School and began to promote its own programs and those of the participating organizations.

  • Publications. The Record continued publication without interruption or change in its purpose and scholarly standards. The New York Researcher, however, underwent a total redesign and began its evolution to being more of a magazine rather than an NYG&B newsletter.

  • Digital communication. The NYG&B improved its capability to implement digital media solutions, began participating in social media marketing, and created this new website.  Increasing the size and functionality of the eLibrary became a priority and a team of unusually capable volunteers continue to lead that effort.

The NYG&B moves forward today into the 21st century as an educational institution committed to helping people of all backgrounds connect with their families and their communities and to find their connections with the people, places, and events pivotal in American history.  Achieving those benefits is more possible than ever today with improved training in research, analytical, and writing skills and access to ever increasing volumes of quality data.


Appendix A: Note About Women in the Early Years of the NYG&B

Members of NYG&BS may be interested to know that women were welcome as members of our Society from the time of its founding in 1869.  The first woman member was Frances K. Forward Holton (Mrs. David P.), who was elected to membership on May 1, 1869. She was followed over the next twenty-five years by:

Miss Elizabeth Clarkson Jay
Mrs. Leroy Newcomb Shear
Miss Annie Elizabeth Boutecon Shepard
Caroline Gallup Reed (Mrs. Sylvanus)
Martha Joanna Reade Nash Lamb (Mrs. Charles A.)
Martha Bayard Dodd Stevens (Mrs. Edwin A.)
Margaret Herbert Mather (Mrs. DeWitt C.)
Katharine Newton Youmans (Mrs. Edward L.)
Emilie Ketchum Platt Owen (Mrs. Thomas J.)
Mary Macrae Stuart (Mrs. Robert L.)
Janet Van Rensselaer Townsend (Mrs. Howard)
Aurelia Davis Schoonmaker (Mrs. Lucas E.)
Catharine Romana Marsiglia Baetjer (Mrs. Herman)
Ester Van Ysen Herrman (Mrs. Henry)
Eba Anderson Lawton (Mrs. James M.)
Miss Ann Hasbrouck
Mary Ann Hart (Mrs. Coleridge)
Miss Carrie Allen Middlebrook
Katharine Berry di Zerega (Mrs. John A.)
Lilly Jones Earle (Mrs. Ferdinand P.)
Miss Bessie Thayer Sypher (later Mrs. Charles C. Marsh)
Miss Margaret Morris Norwood
Elizabeth Ward Doremus (Mrs. Charles A.)
Miss Mary Mildred Williams
Georgie Harrington Boyden St. John (Mrs. Gamaliel C.)
Ellen Hardin Walworth (Mrs. Mansfield T.)
Miss Lucy Dubois Akerly
Mrs. Mary Wright Wootton
Margaret Innis Young (Mrs. William H.)
Mrs. Cornelia Catharine Jay Dyer
Miss Mary Close Purple
Elizabeth Romaine McMillan-Stanton (Mrs. John)
Miss Reba Bird Whitfield

After 1894 there was a noticeable increase in the number of women on the lists of new members. Today, of course, women make up at least half of the membership of the Society.

It should surprise no one that women were not given positions of responsibility during the Society’s early years. At the twenty-fifth anniversary in 1894 twenty-two women members (all named above) did form the committee for an afternoon reception, but some years would pass before women began to serve on special committees and in other responsible capacities.

It was 1941 when Bertha King Benkard (Mrs. Harry Horton Benkard) became the first woman Trustee, followed in 1943 by Mrs. Myron C. Taylor and Mrs. John M. Dickinson, in 1945 by Mrs. Ethelbert Ide Low, and in 1946 by Mrs. Wyllys Terry. Since then the Board has always had women members, and women have served as officers as well. In 1983 Mrs. William R. White became the Society’s first woman President.

Women have served the Society in many staff positions, including Executive Director (formerly Executive Secretary) and Director of the Library (formerly Associate Librarian). The roll of honors given by the Society contains the names of many women, among them outstanding genealogists who have been made Fellows or Corresponding Members.

A long list of women have written articles for The NYG&B Record and The New York Researcher. Many others have volunteered their time, especially in the Library. And last but by no means least, some of the most generous donors to the Society have been women, beginning in 1891 with Mrs. Elizabeth Underhill Coles whose bequest permitted the purchase of our first permanent home.


Appendix B: A Note About Elizabeth Underhill Coles

Elizabeth Underhill Coles’ bequest of $20,000 made it possible for the Society to purchase in 1896 the building at 226 West 58th Street which was our home (called Genealogical Hall) until the the Society moved to East 58th Street in 1929.

Genealogists familiar with early Long Island family names will immediately suspect that Elizabeth Underhill Coles’ roots may have been in Oyster Bay. She was indeed born in that town, in the section known as Musketa Cove (now the City of Glen Cove). She was descended from a long list of early Long Island families, and many of her distant cousins are undoubtedly present day NYG&BS members. 

Elizabeth Underhill Coles, who was born ca.1813, kept her name by marrying a first cousin, William F. Coles, in 1833. Her parents were Oliver and Margaret (Underhill) Coles, and her grandparents were Gen. Nathaniel and Hannah (Butler) Coles and Amos and Mary (Woodhull) Underhill. Her great-grandparents were Wright and Sarah (Birdsall) Coles, John and Martha (—) Butler, Amos and Elizabeth (Seaman) Underhill, and Richard and Margaret (Smith) Woodhull. Further details may be found beginning in the Underhill Genealogy (1932) 3:557.

Mrs. Coles’ father, and her father-in-law John Butler Coles, were both prominent New York City merchants, who created fortunes that made it possible for her and her husband to lead very comfortable lives. William F. Coles died in 1865. Their only son, William Franklin Coles, was one of the first members of The NYG&B Society. Elected to membership October 30, 1869, he became a Life Member in 1871, and died unmarried in 1881, at age 43.

Elizabeth Underhill Coles died December 29, 1891, at her residence, 677 Fifth Avenue, and was buried in the Coles vault at Trinity Church. She left an estate valued at between two and three million dollars. In her will written June 4, 1885, in addition to the bequest to the NYG&BS she gave a like amount to the Metropolitan Museum, along with a collection of paintings, sculpture and other works of art. She left her property at Newport to establish “Coles College” in memory of her son. The remainder of the estate was to be divided, half to go to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in memory of her husband, and from the other half, $50,000 to the children of her brother Edward Coles, $100,000 in trust for Coles College, and the rest to her brother Alexander Coles and his family.

Edward Coles, who had been executor of the estate of Mrs. Coles’ husband, had expected to be treated more generously by his sister, and tried to have her will invalidated on the grounds that she was not of sound mind at the time she made it. At a hearing in the New York County Surrogate’s Court he persuaded some of Mrs. Coles’ servants and his own wife to give testimony in support of his case, and the matter achieved some notoriety in the press. The Surrogate, however, was not impressed; he ruled that the will was valid and admitted it to probate. (For further details see The New York Times, Oct. 27-Nov. 4, 1892.)

The NYG&B Record of April 1892 (23:95) had reported Mrs. Coles’ death, noting that “by her will Mrs. Coles left a legacy of twenty thousand dollars to this Society. If the intentions of our generous benefactor are not frustrated, by relatives who are endeavoring to break her will, it is believed that the Society will soon be in the possession of a firepoof building where our valuable collections will be safe from possible destruction by fire.” In the April 1894 issue (25:95) Henry R. Stiles noted in an obituary of Charles B. Moore that “his last work of love to us seems to have been the securing for our Society the valuable bequest received from the late Mrs. Coles. His influence, so unobtrusively yet effectually exercised in this matter . . . must ever be a pleasant remembrance to us. . . .”

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society received the bequest which provided it with Genealogical Hall, its first permanent home. In 1898 Mrs. Coles was made a “perpetual member” of the Society. The sale of Genealogical Hall in 1929 helped to finance the Society’s next home on East 58th Street. And the proceeds from the sale of that building helps to finance the current operations of the NYG&B. And so Mrs. Coles’ legacy lives on.